The United States has enough uranium to power the country for 100 years but lacks the nuclear fuel enrichment capacity to become self-reliant. As a result, the nation is dangerously reliant on Russian nuclear energy supply chains to keep the lights on. This is problematic on several levels. Not only does it undercut and water down the West’s energy sanctions on Russia to condemn the ongoing war in Ukraine, it also severely compromises the United States’ energy security.
The United States is reliant on nuclear energy for nearly a fifth of the national energy mix (18.2%, according to the Energy Information Agency). In fact, the U.S. is the largest nuclear energy producer in the world, accounting for a whopping 30% of global production. But while the United States is first in the world in terms of nuclear energy production, it’s far from first place in terms of uranium enrichment capacity to produce nuclear fuel. That distinction belongs to Russia. Indeed, almost 50% of the world’s uranium enrichment is conducted by Russian state-operated nuclear energy firm Rosatom.
Companies in the United States sent nearly $1 billion to Russian state-operated nuclear energy firm Rosatom in 2022 alone, according to the Royal United Services Institute in London. That’s a serious chunk of change for an economy that the West is supposedly trying to choke off. “That’s money that’s going right into the defense complex in Russia,” Scott Melbye, executive vice president of uranium miner Uranium Energy and president of the Uranium Producers of America, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “We’re funding both sides of the war.”
In fact, throughout the entire energy sanctions timeline following the illegal invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, the Russian nuclear sector has never stopped raking in export revenue. While sanctions from the United States, the European Union, and their political allies have cost the Kremlin tens of billions of dollars in lost revenues, their ongoing reliance on Russian nuclear energy supply chains represents a critical weak spot in the offensive.
And that weak spot may not be patched up all that quickly, as Rosatom's services will be extremely difficult to replace. Other suppliers are extremely limited and have much smaller enrichment capacities. What’s more, Russia is well positioned to make itself even more essential to the sector as Rosatom subsidiary Tenex is the only company on planet Earth providing commercial sales of Haleu – a high-assay low-enriched uranium that could be a key fuel source for small modular reactors, a new technology which many think will soon be the new industry standard.
Russia doesn’t only control global enriched uranium supply chains, it’s also a key source of funding for new nuclear facilities. Nearly one in five nuclear power plants in the world are either in Russia or are built by Russia. And Rosatom’s influence is still growing around the world, especially as Russia continues to push into emerging economies that could not otherwise afford to build up their own nuclear sectors – a massively expensive pursuit.
Reducing reliance on Russia for nuclear fuel has become an increasingly important political priority in the United States. Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy for the Biden administration, told the Financial Times it was “gravely concerning” that Russia for a fifth of its nuclear fuel. The Biden administration has reportedly appealed to Congress for $2.16 billion to fund incentives for domestic companies to ramp up their uranium enrichment and conversion capacities.
“It’s really critical that we get off of our dependence, especially from Russia,” Huff went on to say. “Without action Russia will continue to hold on to this market . . . this is really important for national security, for climate, for our energy independence.”
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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