Despite Washington’s near-total economic blockade on Moscow, American companies still purchase around $1 billion worth of Russian uranium every year, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. Efforts to reduce this reliance have thus far failed.
Nuclear fuels have been conspicuously absent from the dozens of sanctions packages announced by the US and EU since Russia’s military operation in Ukraine began last year. Washington and Brussels have sanctioned Russian oil, gas, and coal, but have continued to allow the purchase of enriched uranium from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation.
For the US, continued reliance on Russia is a matter of necessity. American enrichment plants were shut down after the Cold War, as it was significantly cheaper for US importers to buy Russian uranium. Now, only two US facilities – one in Ohio and another in New Mexico – are licensed to produce high-grade nuclear fuel.
Despite President Joe Biden allocating $700 million to boost production at these plants, the facility in Ohio is unfinished, and the one in New Mexico is operating at half capacity, according to a paper by GHS Climate, a clean-energy consulting company. The firm that operates the Ohio plant told the New York Times that it could take more than a decade to match Rosatom’s output.
As a result, the newspaper estimated that roughly a third of enriched uranium used in the US is imported from Russia, while GHS Climate states that one out of every 20 American homes and businesses were powered by Russian uranium last year. Nearly half of the world’s enriched uranium is produced in Russia.
The US, UK, Canada, Japan, and France announced in April they will develop nuclear fuel supply chains that exclude Russia, which has proven to be easier said than done. American efforts to launch next-generation Small Modular Reactors (SMR) have been stymied by the fact that Rosatom is the only company in the world producing the high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) that these reactors require. Meanwhile, France tripled its uranium imports from Russia last year and announced last month that it would continue to buy nuclear fuel from Moscow in the near future.
With the US thus far unable to step up its own enrichment, Russia is the preferred supplier for much of the world. Rosatom accounted for 20 out of 53 nuclear reactors under construction in mid-2022, of which 17 were abroad. The state nuclear energy company recently finished building Türkiye’s first atomic power plant in Akkuyu. Russia is also providing fuel to several reactors in India and China, expanding a nuclear power plant in Hungary, and building the first-ever nuclear power plant in Bangladesh.