May 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Nuclear Fuel Working Group Recommends Key Steps to Safeguard U.S. Uranium Supply

May 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Nuclear Fuel Working Group Recommends Key Steps to Safeguard U.S. Uranium Supply

The Department of Energy (DOE) on April 23 released a long-awaited report by the president’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group (NFWG), which recommends key steps to assure an independent, continued supply of uranium for U.S. nuclear power reactors and strategic defense needs. The NFWG recommendations entail prudent moves to assure the integrity of America’s nuclear fuel cycle and the preservation of a critical domestic supply chain.

The administration’s report is the result of extensive deliberations by the NFWG, an interagency group established by a presidential memorandum in July 2019. According to a DOE statement, the memorandum directed the group to “undertake a fuller analysis of national security considerations with respect to the entire nuclear fuel supply chain, and report back to the President.” U.S. industry has anxiously awaited the recommendations in anticipation that a pro-business president would adopt them. Industry correctly expected the report to advise shoring up a struggling nuclear energy sector as an essential component of national security.

Among other recommendations, the NFWG suggests assisting America’s uranium mining, milling, and conversion sectors, which have remained in a state of collapse over many decades. As a result of several factors, including oversupply and dropping prices, sales at less than fair market value, curtailed domestic demand for nuclear power, and foreign competitors’ greater efficiency, the United States now relies on imports for around 90 percent of its uranium.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicates that the United States imported 40 million pounds of uranium in 2018. Foreign suppliers included Canada (24 percent), Kazakhstan (20 percent), Australia (18 percent), Russia (13 percent), Uzbekistan (6 percent), Namibia (5 percent), and China, Niger, South Africa, and other countries (3 percent combined).While imports have grown, domestic uranium production has fallen steadily from a peak of 43.7 million pounds in 1980. Imports of uranium in various forms now overwhelmingly fuel America’s fleet of 96 nuclear reactors, which accounted for 19.8 percent of total electricity generation in 2017.

The NFWG also advocates establishing a larger stockpile of domestically produced uranium for defense needs, since agreements with foreign countries preclude the use of imported uranium for military purposes. Those needs include fuel for nuclear-powered naval reactors and micro-reactors and tritium production for nuclear weapons. The United States has strategic uranium reserves to support defense requirements through the 2040s and 2050s, but seeks reliable supply well into the future.

The NFWG recommends several actions starting in 2020, with continued implementation over 10 years. An urgent measure is the expansion of U.S. uranium reserves, which would have the effect of assisting struggling companies and rectifying market distortion. The president’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 already supports the plan, requesting $150 million per year for 10 years for at least two uranium mines and resumed uranium conversion. The report also recommends considering the restart of U.S. uranium enrichment plants and improving the competitiveness of U.S. uranium and nuclear reactor suppliers, which would involve funding for new reactors. Such funding would spur demand across the fuel cycle.

The report recommends a ban on imports of uranium fabricated into fuel by two adversaries of the United States: China and Russia. Russia has “aggressively” targeted the U.S. market and “weaponized its energy supply as an instrument of coercion,” the report explains, leading the Department of Commerce in 2007 to establish a 20 percent cap on total uranium imports that come from Russia. The NFWG recommends extending the cap and then curtailing imports. Notably, a phase-out of Russian uranium imports would allow the United States to more freely sanction Russia’s nuclear-related malfeasance without destabilizing domestic markets.

U.S. uranium independence is a vital national security goal and one that Congress should support. An assured national supply of uranium is also a key component of a reliable and credible American nuclear deterrent. Congress should carefully study the recommendations, liaise with constituents affected by them, and implement relevant measures through appropriations and legislation.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Andrea, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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