By: U.S. Senator John Barrasso
April 12, 2022
In 2018 I asked on these pages, “Why is the U.S. relying on adversaries to supply it with uranium?” Since then, a large U.S. supplier—Russia—has gone from adversary to aggressor to having its leaders accused of war crimes.
Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion exposed the foolishness of relying on despotic regimes for resources, particularly energy. Under pressure from Congress, President Biden belatedly banned Russian oil, natural-gas and coal imports. But he continues to ignore the fuel powering 20% of U.S. electricity generation—uranium. More than 90% of the uranium that fuels U.S. power plants is imported, and Russia is the third-largest supplier. In 2021 Russian imports cost almost $1 billion, money that helped underwrite Mr. Putin’s war machine.
A robust domestic nuclear-fuel supply chain would make the U.S. more energy secure. We can tap large uranium reserves in my home state, Wyoming, and elsewhere. Russia’s state-owned nuclear-energy corporation, Rosatom, however, has flooded the market with subsidized fuel since 1991, the U.S. government says. That has driven America’s only uranium conversion facility to shut down and its only enrichment facility to reduce output.
Mr. Putin has a personal interest in the success of Rosatom, a company he founded in 2007. Rosatom is a global full-service nuclear company. It builds and fuels reactors and removes spent fuel. It is an important source of Russian revenue. Rosatom has become a significant lever of Russian foreign policy. Mr. Putin personally pitched Rosatom’s services to India, Egypt and Turkey. The company also has a $10 billion contract to expand Iran’s Bushehr plant. Worryingly, Mr. Biden seems so eager for an Iran nuclear deal that he appears willing to waive sanctions on both countries so this contract can proceed.
The U.S. cannot develop a commercial capability to compete against Rosatom while we depend on foreign uranium. In 2020 Congress capped Russian uranium imports. Now we need to end them.
We must also establish a strategic uranium reserve to spur domestic production. Congress appropriated $75 million to the Energy Department to establish one in 2020, yet the department hasn’t purchased a single ounce of U.S. uranium.
Complementing efforts to produce more ore, we need an enrichment capability to produce high-assay, low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, for advanced reactors like TerraPower’s Natrium being built in Wyoming.
Today, only Rosatom and the Energy Department are capable of producing HALEU. It’s bad enough that we rely on Russian fuel for existing reactors. The same dependence for advanced reactors is unacceptable. The department should form partnerships with the private sector to establish a commercial HALEU-enrichment capability and in the meantime make its stockpile of enriched uranium available.
Europe has been rightly criticized for getting hooked on Russian energy. Now America must free itself from Russian uranium. I have introduced legislation to do this. Our nuclear supply chain should begin with American-mined uranium and end with American fuel. It is time to put Mr. Putin’s nuclear cash cow out to pasture.
Mr. Barrasso, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Wyoming.