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‘Urgent’ Threat Seen From U.S. Nukes Using Russia Uranium (1)

March 1, 2022, 5:07 PMUpdated: March 1, 2022, 9:56 PM

The Energy Department is considering options to expand U.S. uranium supplies to nuclear reactors that rely on Russian imports for current operation and next-generation research, the DOE’s top science official told senators Tuesday.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine last week has made the agency’s uranium-development efforts “even more urgent,” Geraldine Richmond, undersecretary for science and innovation, said in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The department’s Office of Nuclear Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are discussing “different ways and different sources of uranium so we’re not dependent on Russia,” Richmond said. “It is a rapidly changing picture.”

About 16% of total U.S. imports of uranium originated in Russia in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In 2020, Congress established energy department programs to support fuel development for advanced reactors, which often require a specialized type of material to achieve smaller designs that get more power per unit of volume.

Congress also authorized $75 million to establish a Strategic Uranium Reserve program, for which the energy department collected public comments last year.

Advanced Nuclear

The agency’s fuel efforts come as it supports 10 advanced nuclear reactor projects. It plans to spend $2.5 billion on two projects—X-energy in Washington State and TerraPower in Wyoming—under the agency’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP).

Until recently, Russia was considered the chief supplier for the high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel for those projects, Richmond said.

“The most urgent, near-term needs include supporting the ARDP demonstration projects,” Richmond said.

Agency officials “are exploring feasible options to address this issue, but any solution will require a substantial and sustained source of government funding,” Richmond said.

She pressed lawmakers to approve $500 million for advanced reactor fuel development in the Build Back Better plan—the Democrats’ climate and social spending bill that passed the House but is currently stalled in the Senate.

Time to ‘Accelerate’

Developers of advanced reactors, which are significantly smaller than current nuclear fleet, called on Congress and the Energy Department to scale up the fuel development initiative, called the HALEU Availability Program.

“None of us want to use Russian enrichment in our advanced reactors,” Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, said Tuesday during a virtual panel hosted by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

TerraPower is willing to invest more in fuel research, but “we really need to get the government on board with this as well,” Levesque said. “Now it’s time for the U.S. to accelerate this program.”

U.S. utilities have worked to mitigate the risks of nuclear fuel supply disruptions by contracting with a global network of sources, said Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a trade association for the industry.

But with a “significant” supplies still coming from Russia, “NEI supports the development of a domestic supply chain for commercial fuel conversion and enrichment,” Ashkeboussi said.

Bipartisan Support

Top lawmakers on the committee backed the role of nuclear and energy research in meeting the Biden administration’s climate goals. The committee discussed seven energy bills, five of which had garnered bipartisan support.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the committee’s chairman, has supported the creation of the DOE’s uranium programs. The programs will “prevent reliance on Russia or other foreign suppliers to fuel the next generation of nuclear power,” Manchin said in December, when the DOE announced a public comment period.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee’s top Republican, praised the nuclear industry’s new reactors but pushed DOE to expedite uranium enrichment activities over the long term.

“Unless the department acts swiftly, our advanced reactors are going to be, again, dependent on Russia,” Barrasso said.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Moore at dmoore1@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com