More than a thousand sanctions against Russian companies and individuals, a new list of 500 people is on the way – Washington has already paid for all this with accelerating inflation and soaring gasoline prices. But only now the US Treasury has realized that much more serious consequences are ahead: if Russia stops the supply of enriched uranium in response, some of the nuclear reactors will have to be shut down. And then electricity for Americans will become golden.
Inflation and golden gasoline
Inflation in May is 8.6 percent, the highest since December 1981. Gasoline prices rose above $5 a gallon for the first time in history. Food prices have also skyrocketed. The population is extremely dissatisfied. Ahead of the midterm congressional elections, most voters are against anti-Russian sanctions, according to the Democracy Institute. And Joe Biden’s rating has fallen to 36 percent – the lowest for the entire time of his presidency.
Now more serious problems are coming. Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy researchers Matt Bowen and Paul Dabbar warn in an article for The Hill that if Russia stops supplying enriched uranium to US energy companies, the nuclear industry will be in big trouble.
“Reactors will stop, and since nuclear power is more than 20 percent of generating capacity in some parts of the country, electricity prices will jump even higher than today’s inflation,” they state.
Dependence on Russia
It is unrealistic to quickly establish our own production of uranium in the required quantity: the industry has long been in decline, since for many years it was almost completely dependent on Russia.
To solve the problem, you first need to restart the conversion plant. However, he will not be able to reach full capacity on his own.
“Uranium still needs to be enriched, which requires private companies to explore strategies to expand production and technology to replace Russian supplies,” the authors of the publication point out.
Nearly 30 years ago, Moscow and Washington signed an agreement to process Russian high-enriched weapons-grade uranium into low-enriched uranium for power plants. Russia exported about 15,000 tons of nuclear fuel to the US.
This uranium was both cheap and of high quality – local utilities (on whose balance sheet the nuclear power plants are located) appreciated it very much. American power plants are private enterprises, the state, in fact, buys electricity from them. Nuclear fuel, which was produced in the United States, is inferior to Russian in all respects. Therefore, the country abandoned its own uranium enrichment capacities.
In 2010, the United States produced about two thousand tons of uranium oxide, in 2020 – only 90 tons. Today, almost the only uranium enrichment enterprise is the Urenco USA plant in New Mexico.
The conflict in Ukraine has exposed the dependence of US nuclear energy on Russia and created new problems for the industry, writes the New York Times.
A number of EU countries are also 100% dependent on Russian supplies.
According to the World Nuclear Association, 85 percent of the world’s uranium is produced in six countries: Russia, Kazak-hstan, Canada, Australia, Namibia and Niger.
However, it’s not just about the fuel: many reactors in the US and the EU are Russian-made. So the West runs the risk of losing components.
In 2021, 439 nuclear reactors were operated in the world, 38 of them in Russia, 42 were built and another 15 are being built using Russian technologies. In 2020, Moscow owned 40 percent of the world’s uranium conversion infrastructure and 46 percent of its enrichment capacity, accor-ding to a report from Colu-mbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy.
In accordance with an agreement signed with Minatom in 1992, the US tried to limit purchases to 20 percent of the total requirement. And after the amendment to the agreement in 2020, it was planned to reduce imports to 15 percent by 2028.
However, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy, in 2020, America received about 16 percent of uranium from Russia, and another 30 percent from Russian allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, the agreement itself, with amendments already in force, made it possible to purchase 24 percent of nuclear fuel from Moscow next year.
In March, President Biden banned the import of oil, coal and gas from Russia. But uranium was not on the list.
Lawmakers are urging it to continue: The United States must reduce dependence on imported uranium and invest in next-generation nuclear power plants.
According to Republican Senator John Barrasso, the rejection of Russian hydrocarbons is an important step that “should not be the last.” “A ban on uranium will further bring the Russian war machine to a halt, help revive US uranium production, and enhance our national security.” In March, he submitted a bill to the Senate.
But not everything is so simple. Back in 2020, the US Department of Energy announced plans to invest up to $3.2 billion in advanced next-generation reactor projects that run on a more enriched version of uranium.
However, local suppliers are in no hurry to finance the production of such fuel: the completion of the construction of advanced nuclear power plants is still too far away. In addition, the Center for Global Energy Policy notes that this will require huge costs. And investors are not at all sure that the announced projects will eventually be implemented.