America’s nuclear power plants and defensive capabilities are currently operating primarily on imported uranium, including from Russia.
Foreign nations now provide 93 percent of all uranium purchased by nuclear power reactors in the United States, according to a recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The United States has only one operating uranium mill left, Utah’s White Mesa Mill. Uranium milling involves extracting uranium ore, after which it is crushed into a fine powder and treated with chemicals to separate the uranium. After the ore is milled, it is turned into a type of uranium concentrate called yellowcake.
The production of yellowcake is taking place at seven facilities in the United States.
However, domestic production of uranium concentrate fell by another 16 percent last year, which is the lowest annual production since 2004.
U.S.-based uranium producers say they are unable to compete with foreign producers who are state sponsored.
“In 2017, U.S. uranium production fell to near historic lows, due in large part to uranium and nuclear fuel imported from state-subsidized foreign entities; 2018 domestic production is likely to be even lower,” wrote American uranium producers Ur-Energy Inc. and Energy Fuels Inc., in a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce earlier this year.
The companies are requesting that foreign uranium imports be considered a national security risk.
Uranium is used to operate nuclear power plants as well as the production of nuclear weapons and other purposes by the Defense Department.
American nuclear power plant operators have supplies that on average would last only one year. The reliance on imported uranium provides foreign countries, such as Russia, with unique leverage over the United States that would be detrimental in the case of an armed conflict.
The Defense Department is required only to use uranium sourced in the United States, but American companies say this might no longer be possible at some point.
“Unless steps are taken now to foster a healthy domestic uranium mining industry, the defense stockpiles currently held by the DOE will be depleted, and it is unlikely that domestic producers will have sufficient capabilities to meet our defense needs in the future,” the letter reads.
Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan account together for a combined 32 percent of all uranium imported into the United States.
The petition filed by the American energy companies seeks to set a quota to limit imports of uranium to the United States by reserving 25 percent of the nuclear market for U.S. production. It also proposes to require U.S. federal utilities and agencies to buy U.S. uranium produced in America.
“Without a viable nuclear fuel cycle, the commercial and nuclear capabilities of the U.S. will be diminished, and the nation is likely to become 100 percent dependent on foreign parties,” the statement reads.
Russia’s Quest for Uranium Dominance
In 2006, Russia approved a plan to spend $10 billion to grow its annual uranium production by 600 percent.
The effort was led by Russian state-owned atomic energy agency Rosatom and Russia’s natural resources ministry.
The U.S. government has been aware for at least a decade of Russia’s intentions to use dominance in the nuclear energy sector for its political purposes. A leaked State Department cable in 2009 showed that the United States was aware of Russia’s plans to use nuclear energy to put pressure on Eastern Europe.
The Russian plan also involved the use of bribery, kickbacks, extortion, and money laundering to grow Russia’s nuclear energy influence in the United States.
In January this year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted the former co-president of a Maryland-based transportation company for his alleged role in the bribery of a Russian official connected to Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation.
In 2010, the Obama administration approved a controversial deal that allowed Rosatom, through its wholly owned subsidiary ARMZ, to take a controlling stake in uranium mining company Uranium One.
The deal was controversial because, at the time, Uranium One controlled 20 percent of all mining capacity in the United States.
The deal required the approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), given its national security implications. This included the State Department, which was headed by Hillary Clinton at the time.
However, Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, had close connections themselves to Uranium One through their Clinton Foundation.
In 2005, Bill Clinton accompanied Frank Giustra, founder of UrAsia Energy Ltd., on a trip to Kazakhstan to meet President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Shortly after the visit, Nazarbayev signed a major mining agreement with Giustra’s company. Following the deal, Giustra donated more than $30 million to the Clinton Foundation, as well as $100 million to a new initiative called the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative.
In 2007, Giustra’s company was acquired by Uranium One to continue as a combined company under the name Uranium One Inc., headquartered in Canada.
As Russia tried to get the United States to approve its majority stake in Uranium One, it hired American lobbying firm APCO Worldwide because the firm was in a position to influence Hillary Clinton, former FBI informant William Cambell told Congress on Feb. 7, according to The Hill. The influence was exerted, in part, through donations to the Clinton Global Initiative.
Uranium One Chairman Ian Telfer also donated millions to the Clinton Foundation from 2009 to 2012, through a Canadian entity he controlled, the Fernwood Foundation.
After the deal was approved in 2010, Rosatom acquired the remaining Uranium One stakes to gain 100 percent control over the company in 2013, after which it took the company private.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2011 wrote in a response to a letter by four members of Congress raising the concern that Rosatom could only export U.S. uranium with a license, which it did not have at the time.
However, instead of providing Rosatom with a license directly, the NRC added Uranium One to an existing export license in 2012, thus allowing American-produced uranium to leave the country.
Uranium was exported to Canada through the third party, a logistical firm called RSB Logistics Services Inc., after which some of the uranium made its way to Europe. It is unclear where the uranium went after it reached Europe.