TerraPower boosts nuclear fuel efforts amid calls for import ban

By: 
Dustin Bleizeffer with WyoFile, from the Wyoming News Exchange

The U.S. needs to revitalize its uranium mining industry and fast-track an expansion of its nuclear fuel processing capabilities to end reliance on Russia and other foreign adversaries for its nuclear power industry, Wyoming’s congressional representatives say.

U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney — all Republicans — have called for a prohibition on Russian energy, including uranium for nuclear fuel, in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. When a ban should be put in place, however, remains a question.

U.S. reliance on Russian imports has increased since 2020 when it supplied approximately 16% of low-enriched uranium for U.S. nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Another 22% came from Kazakhstan, 8% from Uzbekistan — both former Soviet Socialist Republics — while less than 14% came from domestic production.

An immediate ban on Russian uranium imports could result in spiking nuclear fuel prices and a more volatile world uranium market, according to industry experts.

Barrasso, ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Lummis introduced a bill in the Senate last week “to prohibit the importation of uranium from the Russian Federation.”

“While banning imports of Russian oil, gas and coal is an important step, it cannot be the last,” Barrasso said in a joint press release with Lummis and co-sponsors U.S. Sens. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) and Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota). “Banning Russian uranium imports will further defund Russia’s war machine, help revive American uranium production, and increase our national security.”

Domestic uranium production for nuclear fuel has cratered in recent years, including in Wyoming — once the No. 1 source of U.S. yellowcake uranium production. Industry officials say the U.S. has allowed its uranium mining and nuclear fuel processing capabilities to diminish over the past decade despite rich deposits of domestic uranium ore, including in Wyoming.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine, combined with calls to boost U.S. nuclear power capacity, presents a major challenge for TerraPower’s proposed liquid sodium-cooled Natrium nuclear power plant in Kemmerer. Currently, the only commercial source for the “high-assay low enriched uranium” (HALEU) that the Natrium plant will require is located in Russia.

TerraPower officials say there’s much work to be done to expand domestic nuclear fuel capabilities by the time it commences operations at its Natrium power plant in Kemmerer in 2028.

“While there are multiple uranium mines in America, the United States does not currently have commercial scale HALEU enrichment capability, deconversion facilities or fuel fabrication facilities for Natrium,” TerraPower’s Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin told WyoFile via email.

TerraPower made a “multi-million dollar contribution” for a research facility in Ohio to help speed up domestic capacity for commercial scale nuclear fuels such as HALEU, Navin said. Combined with federal dollars, the Washington-based company headed by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is backing a $200 million effort to ramp up the development of commercial HALEU fuel in the U.S.

“All of those financial commitments were made before Russia invaded Ukraine, but the invasion has reiterated the need to expedite the development of domestic HALEU enrichment capabilities,” Navin said.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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