Is U.S. Nuclear Energy or Isn’t It Dependent on Russian Enriched Uranium? (Part 2)

Uranium Enrichment

Read Part 1 of the series, too.

There is little danger that U.S. energy security could be affected by a cut-off of Russian enriched uranium, and thus little reason to be concerned about a potential retaliatory action if the U.S. imposed sanctions against the Russian energy sector.

In recent years, the U.S. nuclear power fleet has indeed relied on an influx of Russian uranium, through a program called Megatons to Megawatts in which highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons has been downblended – - mostly in Tennessee — to low-enriched uranium suitable for use in nuclear reactors. In 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (August 28, 2013), this program accounted for 13% of the enriched uranium purchased by U.S. reactor operators. Because of contracts signed in prior years, the amount of Russian uranium actually used in U.S. reactors was higher.

But the Megatons to Megawatts program has ended, and the world remains awash in enriched uranium. One indication: the French nuclear giant Areva applied for — and received approval for — a $2 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a new uranium enrichment plant in Idaho. But Areva turned down the loan and abandoned the project. Why? Areva couldn’t see any way to sell the enriched uranium at a rational cost – -the market just isn’t there.

And the market in the U.S. is shrinking, not growing. Four nuclear reactors permanently closed last year, and a fifth, Vermont Yankee, is scheduled to close permanently in 2014. Several other reactors, especially in New England and the Midwest, are teetering on the edge of shutdown, unable to economically compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables. While five reactors are currently under construction in the U.S. (four new ones and a reclamation project of a 1970s-era reactor from the Tennessee Valley Authority), these are unlikely to even represent replacement capacity by the time they are finished later this decade.

Globally, the nuclear industry is also in retrenchment, with all Japanese reactors remaining shut down since Fukushima (although the government is hoping to restart a few in the relatively near future, it is highly unlikely more than 1/3 of Japan’s nuclear capacity will ever resume generation), Germany pursuing phase-out of its reactors, and other countries like Belgium taking similar steps. Even heavily nuclear France has announced plans to reduce its current 75+% reliance on nuclear energy.

While some reactor construction is taking place, especially in China, these new reactors also are unlikely to even reach replacement capacity for the reactors elsewhere that shutter.

The uranium enrichment market is global, with production centered primarily in Europe. One major facility in New Mexico, owned by the European firm Urenco, is expanding to take advantage of the failure of the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which has declared bankruptcy and shuttered operations at both its Paducah, KY and Portsmouth, OH facilities. However, a recent announcement by Energy Secretary Moniz indicates that some effort may be made, through DOE facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to resurrect USEC’s plans to build a centrifuge plant at Portsmouth. In addition, General Electric is moving ahead, albeit slowly, with plans to build the world’s first laser isotope separation enrichment plant, which, if completed, would add to domestic enriched uranium supply.

In terms of Russia, it is worth noting that the supply of enriched uranium from that country has not come from mined uranium, except in the sense that the uranium is “mined” from nuclear warheads. Thus, that supply is extremely limited; even if a replacement for the Megatons to Megawatts program were to be negotiated — highly unlikely in the current political climate — it would represent a declining portion of U.S. enriched uranium needs in any case.

In short, with a glut of enriched uranium in the world, and a declining market domestically, the U.S. need not worry about the availability, or lack thereof, of Russian uranium. There are ample substitutes and eager sellers.

Michael Mariotte is the President of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.