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Uranium and Energy Security: China’s and Russia’s Nuclear Power Leaves the US Behind

Nuclear fuel conversion is where the U.S. and allied countries still rely on Russia, according to a new paper from Columbia University.


According to a new paper from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, nuclear fuel conversion is where the U.S. and allied countries are at the mercy of Russian supply chains.

Uranium does not directly leave a mine and go into a nuclear reactor. It has to go through a conversion and enrichment process before it can be used as fuel. 

According to the World Nuclear Association, it takes about 27 tonnes of uranium to start up a reactor which is around 18 million fuel pellets in over 50,000 fuel rods to produce 1000 MW equivalent of electrical power.

The United States is the world's largest producer of nuclear power but it relies heavily on imports of uranium to fuel this production.

In 2020, Russia owned 40% of the total uranium conversion industry in the world, and 46% of the total uranium enrichment capacity in the world in 2018, but it only mined 6% of the world’s uranium. 

In the United States, there is only one uranium conversion facility in Metropolis, Illinois that has been on standby since November 2017, and it would not be able to get back online until 2023.

At the same time, China’s ambitious carbon emissions reduction program is spurring construction of nuclear power plants and placing pressure on demand for the radioactive rock.  

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the United States placed bans on Russian energy sources from oil to coal.  But one critical Russian energy import was left alone: uranium, which the United States relies on to fuel more than 90 nuclear reactors around the country.

The Rise of China’s Nuclear Power Production

In April, China announced the construction of two new reactors at each of the Sanmen, Haiyang and Lufeng nuclear power plant sites in China, that have been approved by the country's State Council. 

These projects are part of a longer term strategy to add an additional 20 gigawatts of nuclear power generation capacity by 2025, in an effort to reduce China’s carbon emissions. 

Currently, China has 50 reactors in operation, producing ~47.52 GW. It would need to build 20 new reactors to meet its 20-GW goal by 2025. 

China is already the second largest producer of nuclear energy but its plans place it on a trajectory to become the world’s largest producer of nuclear power by 2030, surpassing the United States, the current leader in nuclear production.

The current top producer is heading in the opposite direction, the U.S. projects its net electricity generation from nuclear power will fall by 17% by 2025.

China's capacity could reach as high as 130 gigawatts by 2030, according to Chinese Government researchers

To power this potential demand, China intends to become self-sufficient in the production of nuclear fuel. It currently relies on foreign suppliers for all stages of the fuel cycle, from uranium mining through fabrication and reprocessing, but mostly uranium supply. 

It has also initiated a number of domestic nuclear fuel projects, often in cooperation with foreign suppliers of uranium ore.

The national policy is to obtain about one-third of uranium supply domestically, one-third from Chinese equity in foreign mines, and one-third on the open market.

China will need 540 tonnes of uranium to produce an additional 20GW of electrical power by 2025.  

US Nuclear Fuel Supply Chains

The Columbia University paper co-authored by Paul Dabbar, a former under secretary of Energy for Science at the Department of Energy, and Matthew Bowen, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy outlined the major role Russia plays in the world’s nuclear industry.

There were 439 nuclear reactors in operation around the world in 2021, with 38 of them in Russia, and an additional 42 were made with Russian nuclear reactor technology, and 15 more under construction with Russian technology at the end of 2021. 

Moscow has signed many nuclear energy agreements with African countries ready to adopt Russian nuclear energy.  In 2020, Rwanda’s Parliament approved a plan for the Russian State-owned Rosatom nuclear conglomerate to build a nuclear research center and reactor in the capital city of Kigali.

Rosatom, the world’s biggest nuclear company by foreign orders, signed agreements with Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia. Meanwhile, Ghana, Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo too have transacted with the Russian nuclear energy conglomerate.

The Chinese General Nuclear Energy Group established the Hasab uranium mine as one of the largest investments of a Chinese state-owned company ever in Africa.

While Russia and China have been securing supply abroad, the US has grown dependent on foreign imports to meet its own demand and continues to this day to rely on imports from Russia, despite the current conflict in the Ukraine.

The Russian uranium imports originated in the wake of the Cold War. The US struck a deal in 1992 to buy enriched uranium from scrapped Russian nuclear warheads, through a non proliferation program called Megatons to Megawatts which lasted until 2013. 

Even when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and then despite the invasion of Ukraine this year, the United States continues to import large quantities of Russian uranium.

US-uranium-imports-Russia

As Russian uranium sales began to meet US demand, the American uranium industry idled mines, a result of the collapse of prices after the end of the Cold War arms race and of a slowdown in construction of new nuclear plants.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed countries globally to wean themselves of Russian oil and gas, highlighting that it may be time to embrace alternative energy production such as nuclear power. 

Uranium mining in the U.S. is undertaken by few companies, and in order to reduce supply chain risks, the country needs to take a look at its mineral dependencies.

Check out the uranium projects on Prospector with the interactive map below...

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