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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Will Big Plans For Nuclear Power Work Without Russian Uranium?

  • Many world powers have sped-up plans to introduce new nuclear power plants.
  • Experts worry that the global reliance on Russian uranium could become a bottleneck in the push for more nuclear energy.
  • At present, U.S. nuclear firms buy around half of the uranium they use from state-owned companies in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Many world powers have sped-up plans to introduce new nuclear power plants in a bid to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decarbonise. Due to the high energy demand, many countries around the globe view renewable energy as insufficient in the mid-term to provide enough energy to meet the needs of the growing world population. However, nuclear power could provide a low-carbon alternative, offering abundant energy and low emissions. However, experts now worry that the global reliance on Russian uranium to power many of these projects could put many world leaders in a quandary, having already introduced sanctions on Russian energy and attempted to reduce their reliance on Russia.  Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a $6 billion bailout for its existing nuclear plants. The government and the Department of Energy (DoE) partnered on a scheme to help nuclear plants across the country facing severe economic challenges to support the longevity of U.S. nuclear power, as part of the country’s green transition. Despite being controversial, nuclear power is considered carbon neutral, and therefore key to transitioning away from fossil fuels. Since then, the launch of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has encouraged greater investment in the nuclear energy sector. It offers a variety of subsidies, including a production tax credit to help preserve the existing fleet of nuclear plants and tax incentives for the development of new nuclear reactors.  

While developing its nuclear assets demonstrates a step forward in the movement to carbon neutrality, the U.S. has one very big challenge to overcome for its nuclear power plants to be a success – its reliance on Russian uranium. The type of uranium that U.S. nuclear reactors require to run is only sold commercially by one company in the world, a subsidiary of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM). At present, U.S. nuclear firms buy around half of the uranium they use from state-owned companies in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Scott Melbye, Executive Vice President at Uranium Energy Corp., stated “We estimate that there is more than $1 billion in annual U.S. dollar purchases of nuclear fuel flowing to ROSATOM.”  Related: Gazprom Eyes Fast-Growing Chinese Market As Its Exports Plunge By 50%

To date, no sanctions have been imposed on ROSATOM due to the ongoing global reliance on the group to run nuclear power operations worldwide. This seems somewhat counterintuitive seeing as the U.S. and Europe have led global efforts to decrease reliance on Russian energy in favour of alternative sources, imposing strict sanctions on Russian oil and gas.  

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The U.S. is attempting to improve its uranium market, with an IRA investment of $700 million in support of the development of a national supply chain for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU). The DoE believes this move will help decrease the country’s dependence on Russia for 20 percent of the enrichment and conversion services required for its nuclear fuel supply. But this is a long way off providing countries worldwide with the alternative needed to wean themselves off Russian uranium, as several world powers make plans for new nuclear projects over the next decade.  

In December, reports suggested that Bill Gates’ company, TerraPower, will face major delays in the development of its advanced reactor demonstration due to its ongoing reliance on Russian uranium. TerraPower expects two years of delays or more on its nuclear development in Wyoming, which was expected to be completed by 2028. Chris Levesque, the CEO of the firm, explained “In February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the only commercial source of HALEU fuel to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain for TerraPower, as well as for others in our industry.” He added, “Given the lack of fuel availability now, and that there has been no construction started on new fuel enrichment facilities, TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation.”  

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The plant, like many others, relies on HALEU, which is enriched between 5 percent and 20 percent, compared to the uranium-235 fuel enriched up to 5 percent, which some older plants run on. TerraPower, the DoE, and other stakeholders are currently exploring alternatives to HALEU fuel. The firm is also lobbying to encourage lawmakers to approach $2.1 billion in funding for HALEU production. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso stated, “America must re-establish itself as the global leader in nuclear energy,” Barrasso said in a written statement. “Instead of relying on our adversaries like Russia for uranium, the United States must produce its own supply of advanced nuclear fuel.” 

While the U.S. and other countries worldwide have big plans for the future of nuclear power, as part of a green energy transition, the industry is unlikely to progress much so long as its reliance on Russian uranium continues. Unless an alternative uranium production source emerges, many nuclear projects could well be delayed until alternative sources are found, or an agreement is reached with Russia – meaning long-term energy dependence on an unpredictable power. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • L S on January 03 2023 said:
    You claim that The type of uranium that U.S. nuclear reactors require to run is only sold commercially by one company in the world, a subsidiary of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM)". This is not true, all current U.S. reactors utilise Low-Enriched Uranium, for which there are other commercial vendors (i.e. Urenco, Orano, CNNC).
    What Rosatom are currently the only commercial vendors for is HALEU, which you've discussed later on in the article. While this is an issue, and the IRA is an important development to potentially help develop HALEU capacity, it is also worth mentioning the work underway by Centrus and GLE to create HALEU capacity within the U.S.. Incumbent vendors have also made statements about their plans/requirements in order to build out their own capacity for HALEU.
    I would also argue that including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan under the banner of Russian obfuscates how much uranium actually comes from Russia. Kazatomprom, the dominant Uranium miner and supplier, are not under Russian control or influence, but do have joint ventures in certain mines with Russian companies. Kazatomprom also have joint ventures such as the Inkai JV with Cameco, a Canadian uranium miner. What's more, there have been efforts made by the Kazakh miner to provide a transportation route for Kazakh-mined uranium that does not pass through Russian territory. While Kazakhstan are geopolitically very closely tied to Russia, it seems unlikely that even if there were sanctions on Rosatom, they would extend as far as directly impacting exports from Kazakhstan.
    The dominance of Rosatom in nuclear fuel cycle should, of course, not be understated... The difficulties that many Eastern European nations face is that their reactors are directly dependent on fuel that currently can only be fabricated by Rosatom. Rosatom provide a significant share of the world's current capacity for enrichment and conversion, and so we do need to secure better investment into the fuel cycle long-term to ensure that Western nuclear power can diversify away from reliance on Russian fuel.

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