NIRS has joined our counterparts in Ukraine, calling for sanctions on Russia’s nuclear industry, including a ban on imports of uranium from Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear conglomerate. Doing so should not depend on there being no impact on the U.S. economy–we should have the courage of our convictions, and bringing an end to the wanton destruction and incredible suffering in Ukraine has to be worth some degree of burden.
But in the case of sanctioning Russia’s nuclear industry, that is not even an issue. People in the U.S. will never even notice, while another arm of Russia’s political and economic capital to sustain this war would be compromised. And as we have said before, we must directly sanction Rosatom (Russia’s state-owned nuclear conglomerate) for its direct involvement in the attacks on and occupation of Ukrainian nuclear power facilities in order to ensure that this war does not establish a precedent “normalizing” attacks on nuclear reactors and radioactive waste sites as legitimate military targets. Doing that in a way that will not even affect the lives of ordinary people in our country should be a no-brainer.
Yet, the U.S. nuclear industry has tried to confuse the public and policymakers about this since the first calls for economic sanctions to stop Russia’s invasion. Initially, nuclear corporations and their trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, lobbied the White House to be exempted from sanctions on Russia. They argued, falsely, that it was in the interest of protecting U.S. consumers from increases in electricity costs and keeping the lights on.
This was bogus, for a number of reasons:
- Nuclear fuel makes up the smallest share (~16%) of nuclear generation costs, after operations and maintenance (O&M, at ~60%) and capital costs (~25%).
- The cost of mined uranium is only half of total fuel costs (8%).
- Nuclear power plants only buy fuel every 18 or 24 months, and then only to replace one-third of the fuel in the reactor. Any increases in fuel costs only affect one-third of the total cost of fuel.
Even if uranium costs doubled as a result of the sanctions, it would increase nuclear generation costs by less than 3%. That is less than the rate of inflation, and far less than the 200% increases people are paying to fuel up their cars.
What’s more, any near-term increases in uranium costs would likely be short-term, and have even less impact after the first year. Reactors in the U.S. refuel during two periods of the year, when electricity demand is lowest: late-winter to mid-spring, and late-summer to mid-fall. Typically, about one-third of reactors refuel in the former, and about one-quarter in the latter. So about one-third of U.S. reactors will have refueled before sanctions go into effect. Another quarter of them will be refueling in the fall. Much of that uranium has already been purchased because it must be ordered months in advance. That unfortunately means some of our electricity dollars have already been sent to Russia since it started the war, but it means the industry has very little scrambling to do to get uranium in time to refuel reactors six months from now.
The rest of the US industry has 12-24 months to arrange for alternative suppliers, which should be quite feasible since there is a lot of idle and under-producing mining capacity globally that could ramp back up fairly quickly. For instance, Australian and Canadian mines have reduced production recently because Russia has been dumping uranium on the world market. Factor in that nuclear power makes up less than 20% of electricity nationwide, and that electricity prices are actually driven by the volatile cost of fracked gas, banning Russian uranium would have no meaningful impact on U.S. consumers or keeping the lights on.
So why did the nuclear industry make the bad PR move of lobbying for an exemption from the Russia sanctions–even as Russian forces attacked and occupied Ukrainian nuclear sites? The usual answer: greed and opportunism.
The U.S. nuclear industry is trying to take advantage of the war to promote its own agenda–an expansion of domestic uranium mining and other nuclear fuel infrastructure. This would involve billions of taxpayer and consumer dollars, through measures like a domestic uranium reserve and building or expanding uranium enrichment plants. It would also steer energy and climate policy down the wrong road: diverting planning and investments to technology that may never be ready for prime time, when we need to act now and affordable, efficient, safe renewable energy technologies are already here.
Expanding uranium mining and fuel infrastructure would waste money on an unnecessary trade-off between stopping the war on Ukraine and protecting the environment: uranium mining entails very serious, unjust environmental impacts wherever it occurs, including the US. There are over 15,000 abandoned uranium mines around the country, mostly on Indigenous lands. There are no meaningful plans or funding to reclaim them and clean them up. Yet the impacts are as harmful and far-reaching as the effects of a nuclear disaster. People suffer environmental health burdens and contamination of their drinking water, homes, crops, and livestock. The health burdens of uranium mining on Indigenous nations also make people more vulnerable to other diseases, such as COVID-19.
The situation is the same everywhere uranium is mined, and opening up new mines would only create more sacrifice areas. One of the sites already named as a likely place for new uranium mining is Pinyon Plain Mine (formerly called “Canyon Mine”) just south of the Grand Canyon. The mine is on traditional lands of the Havasupai people, and could contaminate drinking water aquifers that they and other communities rely upon, and which feed the Colorado River.
Right now, there is very little domestic uranium mining in the US, in large part because high-grade deposits were exhausted decades ago by mining for the nuclear weapons program, and the cost of mining uranium here is too high. That is despite the fact that environmental regulations on all forms of uranium mining are terrible, and effectively guarantee contamination of the environment and groundwater and no cleanup. In 2016, the EPA drafted new regulations on what has become the most common form of uranium mining—–in-situ leach mining, or ISL—–but they were never finalized and are still sitting on the shelf. So while we must sanction Rosatom and cease purchases of its uranium, that does not mean we should start promoting an expansion of uranium mining in the US or other countries.
The nuclear industry’s other big demand is for the federal government to build new uranium enrichment capacity for a “next generation” of nuclear power plants that require higher-grade uranium. All currently-operating reactors use uranium fuel that is conventional low-enriched uranium. That means it is “enriched” to 4-5% of the fissile isotope, uranium-235 (U-235). Since new large, light-water reactors using conventional LEU fuel have proven too expensive, time-consuming, and complicated to build, the industry has turned for its last hope to types of reactors that require different types of fuel and coolant. Some require higher-enriched uranium, with up to 20% U-235. The so-called HA-LEU fuel the industry is pushing for is short for “high-assay, low-enriched uranium.” It is far lower than weapons-grade uranium (90% or more U-235), but it requires significantly less “work” to enrich uranium from HA-LEU grade to that level.
This makes commercialization of the technology both a weapons proliferation risk and blatantly hypocritical. The U.S. has pressured Iran for years over its use of uranium centrifuge technology, accusing the country of using its nuclear energy program as cover for producing weapons-grade uranium for atomic warheads. If the U.S. now pursues commercial HA-LEU production, it will completely undermine the U.S.’s credibility and potentially undermine nonproliferation policy globally.
President Carter banned commercial reprocessing of irradiated fuel in the U.S. as an important example for the world after India produced and tested nuclear warheads from reprocessed commercial nuclear fuel. We should prevent commercial HA-LEU enrichment now. It would be an especially important example now, with the active threat of nuclear weapons looming over the war in Ukraine.
Just as with banning import of Russia’s fossil fuels, it would be better for sustainability, health, and security to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and commit to environmental cleanup. That will be the subject of our next blog. Until then, please keep up the pressure on the White House to expand U.S. sanctions to include Rosatom.