Boost uranium mining in the US? Why turning away from Russia is difficult
Things can’t go fast enough for John Barrasso. The Republican Senator from Wyoming called for an immediate halt to all uranium imports in mid-March Russia. In a draft law, Barrasso has worked out that instead the degradation and accumulation in the United States are to be expanded.
The senator from the mining-oriented state was initially ridiculed for his claim. But the longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the more the spotlight is shifting to the sore spot in America’s energy supply: its dependence on uranium Russia.
Although US President Joe Biden announced plans to stop imports of oil, gas and coal from Russia. But that was the easy part, because the United States have large deposits of these raw materials themselves. With uranium things are different. 14 percent of American uranium imports come from Russia. According to data from the cross-party Energy Information Administration, the former vassal states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provide another 43 percent.
Top jobs of the day
Find the best jobs now and
be notified by email.
Particularly piquant: The new generation of nuclear reactors, so-called Advanced Small Modular Reactors, needs a more efficient type of uranium rods – these are currently manufactured exclusively in Russia. “That was unacceptable even before Russia attacked Ukraine,” says Scott Melbye, chief executive of Texas-based uranium mining company Uranium Energy Corp., who also heads the industry association Uranium Producers of America. America is “in a dangerous dependency on the Kremlin and its allies” and must secure access to radioactive raw materials in view of the rapidly growing demand in China.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is currently having a “uranium strategy” drawn up in her agency. “We should not send money to Russia for American energy or for any other reason,” she said at a Senate Energy Committee hearing in May. But she also emphasized that “in the event of a quick departure from Russia, operations must be kept running.”
American uranium producers are now sensing their chance for a major comeback in domestic mining. “Today, virtually no fuel for our nuclear energy comes from domestic producers,” points out Manager Melbye. It is also conceivable that the USA will one day export uranium to Germany and other European countries that are also heavily dependent on supplies from Russia.
18 nuclear power plants in Europe only run on Russian uranium
According to data from the EU Commission, Europe obtains around 20 percent of its uranium from Russia and another 20 percent from Kazakhstan. According to Euratom, 18 nuclear power plants across Europe can be operated exclusively with uranium from Russian production, for example in the Czech Republic and Hungary.
What further exacerbates the dependency: Russia further processes part of the uranium ore mined in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. The Russian state-owned company Rosatom is a power in the uranium market: Putin controls about half of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity.
“If European governments are trying to reduce a nation’s influence over its energy sector, they must also reduce their purchases of uranium from Russia and Kazakhstan,” warn experts at analyst firm S&P Global Platts. Until a few years ago, Europe would have obtained its uranium mainly from Canada. But since 2020, imports from Kazakhstan and Russia have risen sharply.
With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, uranium prices have risen significantly. Market data that the uranium producer cameco published show that the price of reactor fuel has risen from just under $30 a pound to $48 a pound since the beginning of the year. The long-term prices that producers agree with buyers are at the highest level in the data series going back to 2017 at $51.
>> Read also: Economists advocate longer atomic lifetimes
In addition, nuclear energy is currently undergoing a change in image. It is attractive for both the USA and many European countries to achieve climate goals because hardly any greenhouse gases are released during production.
the European Union classified nuclear power as sustainable under certain conditions earlier this year. And also in the US President’s climate package Joe Biden there are tax breaks worth billions for operators of nuclear power plants. In the USA, about 20 percent of the energy demand is covered by nuclear power.
Increasing domestic uranium production will be a tour de force
In the US, politicians from both parties are now promoting a series of legislative proposals for domestic uranium production. Scott Melbye of Uranium Energy Corp. is preparing to restart an abandoned uranium mine in Wyoming. “I am confident that the US uranium industry can wake up from sleep mode and become a major supplier to energy producers,” he says. The chances haven’t been as good as they are now for a long time.
But scientists warn that the USA has the potential to revive uranium production. But that will take years. And that will force politicians “to make uncomfortable decisions,” says Ian Lange, an economics professor at the Colorado School of Mines.
“The Biden administration wants to promote mining. But it is very complicated when it comes to issuing permits.” This applies to the mining of uranium as well as to rare earths that are needed for batteries and wind turbines. Concerns about accidents and damage to health and the environment from radioactive uranium are similarly sensitive issues in the USA as they are in Europe. “It divides the party.
Politicians want clean energy and they want to become more independent from countries like Russia and China. But they don’t want to bear the associated risks,” the professor analyses. In any case, the USA should also increase imports from Canada and Australia.
It would be a tour de force to restart uranium production in the USA. Currently there is only one enrichment plant. It belongs to Urenco, a British-Dutch and German consortium. And the production of uranium fuel rods is complicated: After mining, uranium is further processed into yellowcake, a powder that serves as the basis for further processing. The powder is then converted to gas and enriched. The fuel rods that are used in the power plants are then produced from this. The US would have to make significant improvements to all parts of the supply chain, says Robert Gregory, a researcher at the University of Wyoming.
The structures for building a uranium reserve worth ten billion dollars were already in place under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. Now the project is slowly taking shape. The first $75 million was allocated for this. US companies now have to bid on the prices at which they could sell uranium to the government. “A strategic uranium reserve would boost production,” Gregory believes. It would give the industry the long-term incentives it needs to make it worthwhile to re-enter.
More: Commodities are once again a geopolitical bargaining chip