Biden Signs Bill Banning Import of Russian Uranium: A Pyrrhic Victory?

Biden Signs Bill Banning Import of Russian Uranium
Published on: May 15, 2024

On Monday (May 13), U.S. President Biden signed the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, officially initiating the process of ending U.S. reliance on imported uranium. This ban received bipartisan support and was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. According to the provisions, 90 days after the law takes effect, American companies will no longer be allowed to import unirradiated low-enriched uranium produced by the Russian Federation or Russian entities.

The U.S. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, issued a statement on the same day, stating that the new law reaffirms the U.S.’s leadership in the nuclear energy field and aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate U.S. dependency on Russian uranium for civilian nuclear energy. Additionally, the law authorizes the federal government to allocate the $2.72 billion in funds previously approved by Congress to enhance domestic uranium enrichment capabilities, while also sending a clear signal to the industry that the U.S. is committed to the long-term growth of nuclear energy.

The act provides exemptions for nuclear power plants and other utilities that have to shut down their reactors due to cutting off the supply of Russian uranium. These exemptions will expire no later than January 1, 2028.

The history of U.S. imports of Russian uranium dates back to 1993, shortly after the end of the Cold War, with the signing of the Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement (Megatons to Megawatts) between the U.S. and Russia. Under this plan, Russia would convert 500 metric tons of “excess” weapons-grade uranium into 15,000 metric tons of low-enriched uranium, which the U.S. purchased for use as nuclear power plant fuel.

The United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, with nuclear power accounting for 20% of its energy mix and about 30% of global nuclear electricity generation, leading to a very high demand for enriched uranium fuel.

Meanwhile, Russia is the world’s largest supplier of enriched uranium, with around 24% of the enriched uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants being sourced from Russia. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Russia provides low-enriched uranium to over 90 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., making it the top external supplier of low-enriched uranium to the country. Additionally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data from 2023 indicates that 12% of U.S. imported uranium annually comes from Russia, with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan accounting for 25% and 11%, respectively.

The newly approved law banning Russian uranium imports aims to change this situation. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Western countries have been striving to diversify their sources of enriched uranium, reducing their reliance on Russia. In December of last year, the U.S., along with Canada, France, Japan, and the U.K., pledged to invest $4.2 billion to expand uranium enrichment and conversion capacities.

However, banning the import of Russian uranium could be a double-edged sword, causing significant challenges for the U.S. uranium supply and potentially driving up the price of enriched uranium by as much as 20%. In response, the U.S. has already taken action, with Wyoming being considered the preferred state for future uranium supplies for American nuclear reactors. At least five U.S. uranium producers have already begun resuming uranium mining operations in Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, and Utah.

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