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Replacing Russian uranium in case of ban might cost over $1 billion: DOE

Highlights

Legislators introduce bill banning Russian uranium, enriched uranium imports

US utilities rely on Russia for 20% of uranium enrichment

Incentives would be needed to increase conversion, enrichment capacity

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  • William Freebairn
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  • Richard Rubin
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  • War in Ukraine

Replacing Russian uranium and related nuclear fuel services if they are banned over that country's invasion of Ukraine would require government spending of $1 billion or more, the US Department of Energy's top nuclear energy official said March 17.

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Kathryn Huff, the Biden administration's nominee to be assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said during a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that she believed the US supply chain for uranium mining, conversion and enrichment could be bolstered in case Russian nuclear fuel components are banned. However, this would carry a cost in federal appropriations that would be measured in hundreds of millions and could reach more than a billion dollars.

Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and the ranking member of the committee, led a group of Republican senators introducing a bill March 17 to ban import of uranium ores and concentrates, as well as uranium compounds, either natural, enriched or depleted.

"Banning Russian uranium imports will further defund Russia's war machine, help revive American uranium production, and increase our national security," Barrasso said in a statement that day.

Russia is a significant supplier of uranium and enrichment services to US utilities, with up to 20% of reactor requirements met by uranium enriched in Russia. Sanctions against Russian companies have not affected those involved in nuclear fuel supply and an executive order barring oil, natural gas and coal imports did not include uranium.

The US nuclear industry has sought to protect utilities from disruption that could be brought by sanctions or import bans.

"I do believe that a solution to not only the current fleet's needs for uranium as well as high-assay low-enriched uranium for our advanced reactor fleet can be solved with sufficient support from appropriations and direction from the Department of Energy," Huff said in answer to a question. High-assay low-enriched uranium, known as HALEU, is enriched above normal commercial levels of 5% in the uranium-235 isotope but below the 20% threshold for high-enriched uranium, which raises non-proliferation concerns.

Uranium production will be needed, since the US no longer produces significant quantities of the material, but key needs are to be found in the conversion of uranium and subsequent enrichment to make it suitable for use in nuclear fuel, Huff said.

Incentives for new capacity

There is only one US uranium conversion facility, Honeywell's Metropolis plant in Illinois, and it has been shut since the end of 2017 because of low uranium conversion prices. In February 2021, Honeywell decided to restart the plant in 2023 because of rising conversion prices and an expected supply shortage, company officials said.

Huff said restarting Metropolis would not be sufficient to fill the supply gap should Russian conversion not be available to US utilities. Metropolis owners "and other entities could be incentivized to restart our conversion capability rapidly as long as there is a signal from the federal government and from the industry," she said.

DOE has been working with enriched uranium supplier Centrus to begin a supply of small quantities of HALEU at a facility in Piketon, Ohio, and the department has the ability to supply such material through downblending of defense nuclear material, but this would not be sufficient to supply enrichment needs of the existing fleet in case of a ban on Russian imports, Huff said.

"We need an aggressive forward-moving appropriation targeted toward a plan for availability of both low-enriched uranium and high-assay low-enriched uranium in order to support our existing and our future fleets," she said.

Huff, who has served as principal deputy assistant secretary of energy since May 2021, was nominated by Biden to the assistant secretary position in January.