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Congress banned Russian oil and gas imports. Will uranium be next?

Momentum grows for banning Russian imports of uranium used in nuclear fuel

Legislation to ban Russian uranium imports is gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers look to further punish Moscow for invading Ukraine.

Yet the United States remains heavily reliant on Russia for uranium, the main fuel used by nuclear power plants – yet another conundrum facing lawmakers as they seek to combat climate change while curbing U.S. dependence on foreign adversaries.

Congress took swift action to ban Russian oil and gas imports a month after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But blocking uranium imports has taken much longer, in part because Russia supplies more than 20 percent of U.S. nuclear fuel. Similar challenges are bedeviling the U.S. solar industry as it works to scale up domestic manufacturing while reducing its reliance on China, which dominates the global supply chain for solar cells and panels.

The details

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security will mark up three bills, including the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act.

  • The legislation would “prohibit the importation into the United States of unirradiated low-enriched uranium that is produced in the Russian Federation.”
  • The measure also would authorize the Energy Department to issue waivers for utilities that would have to shut down nuclear reactors if Russian supplies were immediately cut off. The waivers would allow these utilities to continue importing limited quantities of Russian uranium up until 2028.
  • The bill was introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who chairs the full committee, and Rep. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio), chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

McMorris Rodgers told The Climate 202 yesterday that she is “hopeful” the bill will eventually pass the House, adding that she is “working to build support” among committee members.

“We voted to ban [Russian] oil and natural gas last year, and I believe it’s important that we do this,” McMorris Rodgers said. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is using energy as a weapon, and we have a lot of infrastructure and supply here. And this is an important signal to investors that America wants to lead in nuclear energy.”

How we got here

America’s reliance on Russian uranium can be traced back to a 1993 nuclear disarmament program soon after the Cold War ended.

  • Under the program, dubbed Megatons to Megawatts, the United States bought 500 metric tons of uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads and converted it to nuclear reactor fuel.
  • In exchange for giving U.S. utilities cheap fuel and placating arms-control advocates, Moscow got desperately needed cash.

At the time, policymakers in Washington hailed the deal as a win-win. But today, some experts say it had the unintended consequence of delivering such inexpensive Russian fuel that U.S. and European companies struggled to compete.

Now, Russia ranks as the world’s biggest supplier of enriched uranium, accounting for nearly half of global capacity. And Moscow’s state-owned nuclear power conglomerate, Rosatomhas earned billions from U.S. and European customers.

Yet documents show Rosatom has been working to supply the Russian arms industry with components, technology and raw materials for missile fuel, heightening calls for sanctions on Capitol Hill.

In the Senate

Unlike the House version of the bill, which has only Republican co-sponsors, the Senate version has garnered strong bipartisan backing.

  • Original co-sponsors include Sens. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
  • Manchin’s support bodes well for the bill’s potential passage out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, although the panel has not yet scheduled a markup of the measure.

“To be as dependent as we are on both Kazakhstan and Russia for our uranium is indefensible,” Lummis told The Climate 202 yesterday. “We get over 90 percent of our uranium from overseas, those countries being principal among them. We should be producing our own uranium, enriching it here and using it here.”

Lummis was referring to the fact that landlocked Kazakhstan ships much of its uranium through Russia to the United States and Europe.

View from the industry

Uranium mining companies, nuclear energy trade groups and nuclear-reliant utilities have largely said they support the bill, as long as policymakers help boost Western capacity for uranium mining and enrichment.

  • Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in an email that the trade group “commends” the co-sponsors of the legislation.
  • Joseph Dominguez, president and chief executive of Constellation, the largest U.S. nuclear utility, testified at a recent hearing that the utility has purchased enough nuclear fuel “to meet our needs through 2028″ even if sanctions were imposed.
  • And Scott Melbye, executive vice president of uranium miner Uranium Energy and president of the Uranium Producers of America, told The Climate 202 that he thinks existing uranium mines could quickly ramp up Western production, while lawmakers could help speed up the licensing process for new mines in the coming years.

“After the Soviet Union broke up and Russia was joining the civilized world, we dialed back a lot of our activities to make room for Russia in the global nuclear fuel market,” Melbye said. “Obviously, with the events in Ukraine, everyone is really rethinking that.”

Source: The Washington Post