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U.S. Nuclear Programs Get Support as Russia Holds Ukraine Plants

March 17, 2022, 3:51 PM

A top Energy Department nuclear official pledged Thursday to accelerate aid for current and future U.S. nuclear reactors with global uranium and enriched fuel supplies under threat, while expressing concern for Ukrainian plants currently under Russian control.

“We need to build out capacity for a Western alternative for the Russian component of the uranium market, including conversion and enrichment capacity,” Kathryn Huff, a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “There is no question in my mind that we will continue to focus on uranium as an incredibly important fuel.”

Huff was speaking during her confirmation hearing to be the assistant secretary of the department’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Her nomination garnered support from the committee’s bipartisan leaders.

“Our nuclear program is in decline, and has been for some time,” Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.), the committee’s chairman, said. “But we cannot afford to give up on nuclear power. We cannot meet our climate goals and energy needs without it.”

Russian Reliance

The U.S. has 93 operating nuclear reactors, most of which are more than 40 years old. The Energy Department’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program funds 10 advanced reactor projects, including two projects that will be ready to deploy by 2028: X-energy in Washington State and TerraPower in Wyoming. The department has said the program is essential to achieving the administration’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

But the U.S. nuclear fuel supplies for both current and advanced reactors have been disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Western countries’ move to impose economic pain on Russia has led to calls to block U.S. imports of Russian-produced uranium. Russia is the third-largest source of U.S. uranium, accounting for about 16% of total U.S. imports, and the Biden administration has so far continued to allow Russian uranium to enter the country.

“Unless the department acts swiftly, our reactors will be dependent on Russia,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee’s top Republican.

On Thursday, Barrasso introduced legislation that would ban uranium imports. He drew support from three other Republican senators, including Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who said her state has “more than enough uranium to fill this gap.”

The department is moving forward on two programs established in 2020 to secure supplies of uranium and specialized fuel required by advanced reactors. The department will continue to support its demonstration program with Centrus Energy in Piketon, Ohio, to produce the advanced reactor fuel. A uranium processing facility, run by Honeywell in Metropolis, Ill., requires support as it restarts and expands.

“It could potentially be incentivized to restart our conversion capability rapidly, as long as there’s a signal from the federal government and from the industry,” Huff told lawmakers. “We need an aggressive, forward-moving appropriation.”

Safety Fears

At the same time, long-standing fears over nuclear safety have emerged after Russian soldiers seized Ukrainian nuclear plants and marched through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the site of nuclear catastrophe in 1986.

Russian forces, moving through the Chernobyl area, picked up some radioactive material, Huff said, adding she has monitored the situation from the department’s emergency operations center. The radioactive impact was “localized” and “has since died down,” Huff said.

The biggest immediate concern is the treatment of Ukrainian nuclear workers who are operating the Chernobyl shutdown reactor and spent fuel pools under the control of Russian soldiers, she said.

“It is of the utmost importance that any nuclear facility be managed by well-rested, well-fed, well-cared-for individuals,” Huff said. “This is a very serious situation with regard to humanitarian, as well as a nuclear safety issue.”

Western-style containment builds are “hardened against incredible odds” but are “not designed to withstand repeated, intentional, sophisticated military assault,” she said.

Huff, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering, left her academic career to join the department in May 2021. She was appointed to serve as the principal deputy assistant secretary, overseeing the department’s early efforts to launch a consent-based strategy for siting an interim spent nuclear fuel storage facility, implement the $6 billion civilian nuclear credit program, and publish a recent report on the nuclear energy supply chain.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at zsherwood@bgov.com