Russian control of US uranium supply is a huge national security problem

The Trump administration is to be commended for its “energy dominance” policy with respect to oil and natural gas production, but on domestic uranium mining, used for nuclear power generation and national defense purposes, it is the United States that is being dominated.  Fortunately, the administration is considering new corrective measures to address this vulnerability to ensure America’s energy and national security.

The U.S. has become overdependent on foreign uranium. Today, we have the world’s largest commercial nuclear reactor fleet, but our domestic mining industry supplies less than 2 percent of its uranium needs. Instead, foreign uranium accounts for the vast majority of our uranium supply with imports from Russia and countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) amounting to over 40 percent of the uranium loaded into U.S. nuclear power reactors.

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In 2019, the U.S. uranium mining industry forecasts production here at home will be less than is required for even one of the nation’s 98 operating reactors, and they will not be supplying any uranium for defense purposes.

The U.S. nuclear fuel cycle industry has been subjected to years of excessive imports and other price insensitive supply sources that are not part of a normal free market system.  The result is near domination of the market from regions with elevated geopolitical risks, often with agendas contrary to U.S. interests.

The precarious nature of the industry has not gone unnoticed, and the U.S. Department of Commerce is in the process of investigating the effects of uranium imports on national security. One of the prominent issues is a flood of price insensitive supply from State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s).

SOE cost structures are heavily subsidized by their governments. Their operations have less stringent safety requirements, regulatory frameworks and their operating processes are not near the standards required for U.S. companies.  Moreover, capital access from their governments is not comparable to traditional financing.

The Russian Duma has passed legislation empowering Mr. Putin to cut off nuclear fuel supply to the U.S. and its allies any time he sees fit.  

Russia and other FSU countries have increased their global supply by over 110 million pounds of uranium since 2010. The increase alone is more than enough to supply the entire U.S. reactor fleet for more than two years. Along with this increased supply, market prices dropped more than 60 percent over the same period.  Meanwhile, the weakening prices forced U.S. uranium miners to reduce operations and curtail production by over 70 percent.

America’s overreliance on imported uranium exposes serious vulnerability.  Russian cyberwarfare against the U.S. has been reported by our intelligence agencies, the FBI and Homeland Security. These attacks from the Russian military include embedding malware designed for subversive and remote control of the U.S. electrical grid and our nuclear plants.  The Russian Duma has passed legislation empowering Mr. Putin to cut off nuclear fuel supply to the U.S. and its allies any time he sees fit.  Yet, we rely on Russia and FSU state-owned companies for over 40 percent of our reactor fuel that powers 20 percent of the country’s electricity? This is a serious national security issue.

While some believe we can rely on our allies, like Canada, to fill any void, that notion deserves a closer look.  In Canada, the world’s largest uranium mine with very low cost, has been put on indefinite care and maintenance because uranium prices are not sufficient to justify production.  So FSU supplies are impacting our allies as well.

Some argue that this country does not have abundant uranium resources. But this is not the case.  A U.S. Geological Survey report shows that U.S. uranium deposits are extensive with over a billion pounds of reasonably assured resources and over 3 billion pounds of potential resources. In total, that amounts to well over 300 years of supply under a 25 percent quota remedy. And, if the industry can get back on its feet and resume normal exploration activities, these resources will likely expand further.

Claims have also been made that the imposition of a remedy with a quota requiring American utilities to purchase 25 percent of their uranium from the U.S. uranium miners would cause nuclear plants to become uneconomic.  This, they argue, would cause nuclear plant shutdowns and the loss of thousands of jobs.

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However, the facts do not support these dire predictions.  Estimates put the cost of a 25 percent quota at no higher than 11 cents on an average $110 electric bill.

America is already achieving “energy dominance” with record oil and gas production, reversing years of overdependence on foreign oil. It’s time Washington also recognized the nation’s current overdependence on foreign uranium and take action to strengthen America’s energy and national security.