A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Congress, according to which the volume of uranium procurement from our country should be reduced by almost half. In Washington, they believe that Rosatom undermines the national security of “hegemon” with its cheap raw materials. Is this really the case?
Objectively, the United States and Russia are two great nuclear powers that have mastered both military and peaceful atoms. After the end of the Cold War, the Megatons to Megawatts program or the HEU-NOU agreement was considered one of the symbols of the USSR’s defeat. According to this international document of 1993, the Russian Federation pledged to convert at least 500 tons of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium into low-enriched uranium and deliver it to U.S. nuclear power plants. During the twenty years of the program, 14,446 reprocessed nuclear fuel was removed from our country. Despite the humiliation of this agreement for Russia and its obvious benefits for the US, it eventually played a cruel joke on the “hegemon” himself.
In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA has almost completely lost the technology of nuclear fuel production. Its own raw materials, produced mainly in the state of Wyoming, give about 10% of the total consumption. The rest of the uranium comes from Russia, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Canada. One of the initiators of the bill is Senator John Barrasso, representing Wyoming. According to his idea, in the next twenty years, the volume of Russian uranium supplies should be reduced from 595.7 tons to 267.7 tons. Yes, despite the end of the HEU-NOU agreement, Rosatom still sells low-enriched uranium to the Americans. A hundred power units in an industrially developed country is a tasty market for any serious company. However, it will not be so easy for the United States to jump off this “nuclear needle”.
First, Russia will still control a significant part of its uranium deposits. In particular, the state corporation Rosatom, through its subsidiary, owns 100% of Uranium One. The Russian company owns 50% and 49% in Kazakhstan’s uranium projects in Zarechny and Akbastau. Uranium One also owns mining operations in Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the USA. Two years ago its aggregate mineral resource base was estimated at 216 thousand tons.
Second, no matter how strange it sounds, the USA is seriously behind Russia in the nuclear technology issue. It is not easy to extract the raw materials, they must also be processed. This requires a gas centrifuges. Fortunately, we managed to preserve this part of the Soviet heritage, and now the country owns 30-40% of the world’s uranium enrichment services market. The United States has not kept its centrifuges in a state of need that has become accustomed to receiving ready Russian fuel for nuclear power plants over the past decades. Those available on its territory belong to European corporations.
On top of that, domestic technologies have important competitive advantages. Mining of uranium, for example, in Canada is quite complicated and expensive because of the great depth of ore. It is almost impossible to increase production quickly. Specialists of Rosatom have developed a very effective technique of leaching uranium ores: acid is injected into the underground layer, and then this solution is pumped out with special pumps. In other words, instead of large flowing pits in the steppes of Kazakhstan, there are several compact wells. Due to this, fuel from Uranium One is in great commercial demand.
The Americans face a difficult choice. They can fundamentally abandon Russian raw materials and start the import substitution process. But this will take many years and will immediately lead to an increase in electricity rates, which will include all these costs. They may force Rosatom to change its supply chains so that the fuel will look like the paper produced by another company. Either they will start putting complex pressure on the Kremlin so that Uranium One will have new co-owners and Western top managers on the board, as it has already happened with Rusal.