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New Atlanticist May 16, 2024

The US is banning the import of Russian nuclear fuel. Here’s why that matters.

By Jennifer T. Gordon

On May 13, US President Joe Biden signed into law a ban on imports of uranium from Russia. This news has flown under the radar amid a barrage of other news about Russia, but the new law has big implications for US nuclear power.

The legislation had been a long time coming. It was first introduced in the US House of Representatives in February 2023, with US lawmakers caught between the need to cut off a significant source of revenue for Russia on the one hand, and demand for enriched nuclear fuel to keep the US reactor fleet running on the other.

The United States can import the uranium that is required for nuclear fuel from several countries other than Russia. The top two exporters of uranium to the United States, for instance, are Canada and Kazakhstan, with the United States importing 27 percent of its uranium purchases from Canada and 25 percent from Kazakstan. However, Russia, which was in third place at 12 percent of US purchases in 2022, plays a crucial role in the nuclear fuel supply chain, both through conversion and enrichment of uranium. Russia supplies about 20 percent of the US reactor fleet’s nuclear fuel, at a cost of about one billion dollars each year. This is why the new legislation allows for waivers to import from Russia through 2027 if the Department of Energy determines that no alternative source of fuel for a US reactor is available.

One of the big questions that the US nuclear energy industry has grappled with is whether it can enrich enough uranium (or procure enough enriched uranium from other sources) on its own to compensate for the loss of Russian-enriched uranium. Earlier this year, three uranium mines began production in the United States, the first domestic uranium mines to operate in eight years. But uranium extraction and uranium enrichment are two separate issues, and—until recently—the only enrichment capability in the United States had existed at a facility in New Mexico owned by Urenco, a multinational company owned in equal parts by the British government, the Dutch government, and German utilities. Outside of Russia, the commercially relevant sources of enrichment are European facilities owned by Urenco and Orano, a French company. China also operates enrichment capacity, which has historically been used to fuel Chinese reactors. Together, the Urenco and Orano capacity is not sufficient to fuel all the reactors outside Russia and China.

Last October, Centrus—a US-owned nuclear fuel company—began enrichment operations in Piketon, Ohio. However, production at this facility is small and is geared toward the high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel required by new advanced reactors expected to become operational in the next several years. That means the fuel cannot be used in many of the older reactors currently operating.

Crucially, the new legislation unlocks $2.7 billion to support domestic enrichment. That money had been included in previous legislation, but it was contingent on passing sanctions against Russia’s state-owned nuclear company Rosatom. These funds will be required as the US nuclear energy industry moves away from dependence on Russian fuel supply. The money will be available through competitive processes to support fuel production for both existing and future advanced reactor designs. These steps are part of the United States’ commitments as part of the Sapporo 5, a partnership with Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom founded in April 2023 to secure a reliable nuclear fuel supply chain.

The US Congress has taken what many see as a crucial step in sanctioning Russia and moving away from dependence on Russian nuclear fuel. However, a strong commitment—on the part of the US government and industry—to domestic enrichment is necessary in order to ensure that the US domestic fleet continues to operate and to ensure that the next generation of nuclear reactors can be demonstrated and deployed.

Jennifer T. Gordon is the director for the Nuclear Energy Policy Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.

Further reading

Image: A general view of the Kalininskaya nuclear power plant, some 285 km (175 miles) northwest of Moscow, May 25, 2011. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plans to use a Group of Eight summit that starts on Thursday to amplify his call for binding rules the Kremlin says are needed to avert a repeat of the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin