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Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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The West Desperately Needs To Invest In Uranium Mining

  • The west is pushing for greater nuclear power capacity to help wean itself off Russian fossil fuels.
  • Russia, however, is also a global leader in uranium production.
  • "More investment in mining, conversion, and enrichment facilities may be necessary to fully extricate Western nuclear fuel chains from Russian involvement.” 

The European Union, the United States, and their Asia-Pacific allies have been on a sanction crusade against Russian for three months now. Energy was not the first target of sanction action, but it has risen to the top of the agenda now. And nuclear is no exception.

While sanctions on Russian oil and gas have taken up the most headline space, Russia is a big player in nuclear power as well, which has raised concern about the security of uranium supply—specifically enriched uranium supply.

The World Nuclear Association says Russia supplies over a third of the world's enriched uranium and has the biggest enrichment capacity globally. China comes second in terms of capacity.

According to a fresh report from the Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, however, Russia's share of global uranium enrichment capacity is greater, at 46 percent as of 2018. And that, according to the authors, might become a problem unless countries that have Russian-technology nuclear reactors start preparing now.

The preparations would basically come down to boosting uranium enrichment elsewhere—France, China, the U.S., and Canada have substantial enrichment capacity that they are under-utilizing—and fuel replacement, where possible.

According to the authors of the report, Russian VVER reactors can work with non-Russian fuel, the closest analog being produced by U.S. Westinghouse. A Bulgarian nuclear energy government consultant recently said Russian nuclear fuel is being successfully replaced at the Czech power plant Temelin and Bulgaria's Kozloduy.

Power plant maintenance could be a problem in case sanctions target Russia's nuclear power industry because Russia-made VVER reactors can only be serviced by Rosatom staff. Equipment replacement during repairs has alternatives due to other countries with well-developed nuclear industries, including France and the Czech Republic in Europe.

Yet, according to some, sanctions on Russian nuclear power may not come anytime soon. And this is because although Russia is not among the largest producers of uranium, it is one of the biggest exporters of enriched uranium.

According to a report published recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Russia exported $13 billion worth of mineral fuels in 2019, including uranium and enriched nuclear fuel. In 2020, Russian uranium represented 16 percent of the uranium that U.S. power plants purchased. In Europe, this percentage was even higher, at 20 percent. The problem is that alternative suppliers are few and far between.

On the other hand, these few suppliers—of uranium—are large enough, it seems, to step in and replace Russian uranium. Swedish Vattenfall, for instance, stopped its purchases of Russian nuclear fuel on February 24. The power company buys its uranium from places like Kazakhstan, Namibia, Canada, and Australia—all major producers, and would only need to process and enrich it somewhere, which could be, for example, China.

In the U.S., some are calling for the buildout of local processing and enrichment capacity in order to reduce the country's dependence on Russian fuel, but it will come at a cost—some $1 billion.

"We need to build out capacity for a Western alternative for the Russian component of the uranium market, including conversion and enrichment capacity," Kathryn Huff, a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March, as quoted by Bloomberg. "There is no question in my mind that we will continue to focus on uranium as an incredibly important fuel."

And then there is the time issue because the buildout of processing and enrichment capacity is not something you can do in a week, rather like the construction of liquefied natural gas import terminals. These things take years.

"More investment in mining, conversion, and enrichment facilities may be necessary to fully extricate Western nuclear fuel chains from Russian involvement," wrote Paul Dabbar and Matt Bowen, the authors of the Columbia University report. "However, adding sufficient new conversion capacity and enrichment capacity will take years to accomplish."

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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