After Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the U.S. was quick to ban imports of Russian gas and oil. But imports of low-enriched uranium remain largely unimpeded—and highly lucrative for Moscow.
America is a major consumer of low-enriched uranium. We rely on nuclear energy for just over 18% of our electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, America’s commercial reactor operators got 24% of their enrichment services from Russia in 2022.
Indeed, Russia dominates the global enrichment market, accounting for nearly 42% of global capacity—six times what we account for.
We and our allies pay for this dependence. In 2022, U.S. companies sent over $850 million to Russia for nuclear fuel services. Adding in our European allies raises that amount to $1.7 billion. Not only does America depend on Russia for nuclear fuel, but we are helping fund the Kremlin’s war.
This is not just the result of market dynamics but also of policy choices made after the Cold War.
The Soviet Union, like the West, had built up a major nuclear weapons infrastructure during the Cold War. When the Iron Curtain fell, what to do with both the weapons and the infrastructure to build them became a major concern.
Much of America’s nuclear infrastructure was beginning to age out at about the time the Cold War was ending. Modernizing it would require significant capital investment so, at the time, it seemed to make more economic sense to take advantage of post-Cold War Russia’s vast nuclear resources. This was especially true given the uncertain future of nuclear energy.
To help deal with the weapons, a program called Megatons to Megawatts was put in place to convert the weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium used for warheads into the low-enriched uranium used to fuel power reactors.
This program provided about half of America’s commercial nuclear fuel for about 20 years and was deemed a great success in nonproliferation terms.
The two real benefits to this approach were that U.S. industry had access to high-quality and affordable nuclear-related commercial services, and Russia’s military infrastructure was at least partially refocused toward peaceful uses.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made it painfully clear that our growing dependence on commercial Russian nuclear products and services had left us with a massive energy security vulnerability.
Unfortunately, private companies can’t start commercially producing more low-enriched uranium with the flip of a switch. Expanding enrichment capacity takes time and a lot of money. It also needs the clear assurance of predictable, long-term demand to justify the investment.
What can be done? Fortunately, the United States is not starting from scratch.
Indeed, we still get most of our uranium fuel from non-Russian sources. Some of the most advanced commercially available enrichment services in the world are in New Mexico.
Nuclear plant operators, recognizing the risks posed by a reliance on Mr. Putin, are also starting to seek alternative suppliers. This could be because Russia is seen as an unreliable partner, or it could be a hedge against a possible ban on Russian uranium.
Either way, conditions have changed, and nuclear operators are making commitments to replace at least some of their Russian fuel with domestic sources. This provides domestic uranium enrichers with the certainty that they need to begin expanding capacity—and that is happening.
But more needs to be done if the policy goal is to end America’s addiction to Russian nuclear fuel. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, has introduced the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act.
The bill, passed by the House late last year, would ban commercial reactors in the U.S. from using Russian uranium fuel starting 90 days after it becomes law. The legislation also creates a waiver process that authorizes the Energy Department to allow some imports through 2027 if the secretary finds there is “no alternative viable source” to imported Russian uranium and that importation is “in the national interest.”
This bill provides nuclear plants with the ability to transition away from Russian fuel without plant shutdowns that would harm the public; legislators should be careful, however, that the waiver is not exploited to get around the ban.
Explicitly stating how much Russian uranium will be allowed in America and for how long would provide the enrichment industry with the certainty it needs to justify the major capital investments necessary to replace Russian fuel entirely.
Now is the time to end America’s energy dependence on Russia.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times