The United States imports uranium from Russia. What if the sanctions end that?
The US reliance on Russian nuclear fuel is substantial, but American companies have some options if Rosatom is sanctioned.
How did the United States and Russia become intertwined in the civilian nuclear business?
After the end of the Cold War, American and Russian leaders agreed that Russia would dismantle some of its nuclear weapons and send them to the United States for reuse and use in civilian nuclear reactors: the megaton to megawatt program. That ended in 2013. Over the course of the 20-year program, up to 10 percent of US electricity came from fuel made from Russian warheads.
How much uranium is the United States buying from Russia now?
In 2021, the United States bought 14 percent of its uranium from Russia.
However, Russia has the largest uranium enrichment capacity in the world, representing almost half world capacity. Therefore, most of its exports originate in other countries. Most of Russia’s uranium exports are purchased from Kazakhstan, a landlocked country and ships its uranium to Europe and the United States via Russia.
Will prices rise as oil and natural gas prices did?
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Center for Nonproliferation Policy Education, said that “in the worst case, some long-term Russian supply contracts could not be performed, and that would perhaps raise the price of electricity by one or two.” percent”.
But, he added, “since we’re spending more than $100 billion to help Ukraine, that would be a rounding error.”
Can that source of supply be quickly replaced?
This is not a case of an unplanned Ukrainian winter. American utility companies made long-range plans even before the war broke out. Paul Adams, a spokesman for Constellation, the largest US nuclear company with 21 reactors, said he has made purchases “years in advance” to secure enough fuel for “several years, regardless of potential sanctions.” To do so, it is necessary to extract, enrich and install uranium in fuel rods.
But the fight for more supplies of natural uranium is already underway and prices, which had fallen, have recovered. The United States has looked to Canada, where Cameco, the world’s second-biggest uranium supplier, has agreed to reopen two of its major mines. In addition, another Canadian mining company, Global Atomic, has said it will develop a uranium mine in Niger that could start operations in 2025.
Are there other options for US companies?
More difficult than mining uranium is Russia’s dominance of the enrichment process, said Frank N. von Hippel, co-founder of Princeton University’s Global Security and Science Program and the International Panel on Fissile Materials. He said one way to deal with that would be to “supercharge” the reactors so that more natural uranium and more uranium 235 goes into the reactor’s depleted uranium waste product.
Von Hippel believes that some of Kazakhstan’s uranium could be exported via China. Jessica Reyes Sondgeroth, deputy editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, said it was “perfectly legal” but difficult given trade tensions. And Zhang Hui of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government said in an email that China’s enrichment capacity “can only meet (or match) the needs of its own domestic reactors.”
How much would sanctions hurt Russia’s economy?
American and European customers for Russian uranium and enrichment number around $1 billion, according to von Hippel. That’s small compared to the impact of sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas, but von Hippel said it would be a setback for Rosatom, which has estimated its foreign earnings at around $8 billion.
Can Rosatom evade US sanctions through an intermediary?
Earlier this year, Europe and the United States were able to target Russian oil and gas shipments despite traders and shipping companies being in the middle of those deals. Those intermediaries were also vulnerable.
Russian nuclear fuel material is generally purchased through Tenex, a subsidiary of Rosatom, and Centrus Energy, the US entity, according to a US company.
Will the United States impose sanctions alone or with its European allies?
There are a couple of obstacles for the Europeans. A handful of reactors with Russian designs are located in the European Union. They will need Russian refueling.
US companies are more likely to support the administration’s position. “Constellation stands with Ukraine against this unprovoked invasion, and we support US and international efforts to end the war,” Adams said in an email.