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A billet of highly enriched uranium that was recovered from scrap processed at the Y-12 National Security Complex Plant. Wikipedia

The state of the world uranium market

We all remember very well the Russian-American agreement on the processing and supply of uranium , which was signed in February 1993 by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Vice President Al Gore. Russia pledged to supply the United States with low-enriched uranium (LEU) obtained from 500 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for 20 years.

Published: May 6, 2022, 10:44 am

    The Americans also pledged to accept, place on the market, pay for the work of separation and the natural uranium component of LEU. The first delivery of low-enriched uranium to the United States was made in May 1995, and the last on November 14, 2013. In total, 14,446 tons of LEU were exported under the Gor-Chernomyrdin deal. This far exceeds the total amount of uranium produced in the US in history.

    Between the Russian Federation and the United States was also concluded an agreement to process some of the weapons – grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants. At the time of its conclusion, there were 125 tons of plutonium in the Russian Federation, and 100 tons in the USA. It was supposed to process 34 tons on each side. The Russian side fulfilled its part of the agreement, and the United States, in violation of the agreements, changed the technology and retained the possibility of “recovering” reprocessed plutonium into weapons-grade plutonium, in connection with which Russia withdrew from the agreement.

    The situation led to huge financial losses, approximately $8 trillion. Russia lost its position in the uranium market for decades.

    Sanctions have not yet affected uranium supplies from Russia. The United States continues to want to receive this raw material. If supplies stop, all US nuclear power will have to stop in a year. The consequences will be catastrophic for the States. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that by the end of 2020, about 90 percent of the uranium used in the United States is imported. Of these, 47 percent – for supplies from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. For American nuclear power plants, 48.9 million pounds of uranium oxide U3O8 were purchased. Of this volume, the United States produced only 5 million pounds on its own.

    The uranium market in the US is controlled by two large groups of suppliers. Canada and Australia supply 34 percent. Russia and Kazakhstan 38.6 percent. In the state corporation Kazatomprom, controlling stakes in uranium mines in Kazakhstan belong to Rosatom. Kazakh uranium is enriched at Russian plants.

    Of the 440 power units in the world, 93 are located in the United States. And the only commercial uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico was commissioned in 2010. It belongs to the Urenco company headquartered in the UK. Most of the uranium processed for industrial use in the United States is supplied by Urenco. It is impossible to promptly increase production and enrichment of uranium.

    The officially explored uranium reserves in America are only 1 percent of the world’s, although some of the reserves may not be “declared”. The prospect of imposing sanctions on uranium supplies could cut off the EU and the US from nuclear fuel from Russia.

    Fuel for nuclear power plants in the United States will last for about a year. What’s next? Only an uncontrolled rise in the cost of uranium on the “free” market. Rosatom accounts for 35 percent of the world production of enriched uranium. The 55 American nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 95.5 GW generate 19.7 percent of electricity in the United States.

    There is nothing to compensate for this volume, since there are no spare capacities in the USA. For the time needed to increase production and enrichment, nuclear power plants will still have to be closed. And stopping so many reactors at the same time and safely is a very difficult task.

    Since a full-scale economic war is now being waged against Russia, it is necessary to consider all possibilities for protection, including the termination of uranium supplies to the US and the EU.

    Of course, for Russia this will mean the loss of a large market. But one should not repeat Chernomyrdin’s mistakes for the sake of short-term gain. A new market will be formed on more favorable terms for Russia, among the potential participants of which are India, China and Iran.

    Carl Friedrich

    opinion@freewestmedia.com

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