The ban on Russian uranium will help the US build nuclear fuel capacity, a Reuters official says

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By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. has been preparing since 2022 for the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin would stop selling nuclear fuel to the country, and an upcoming ban on Russian imports will help boost domestic capacity to sell uranium fuel, the outgoing top nuclear energy. an official told Reuters.

The US Senate on Tuesday passed legislation banning imports from Russia, the latest move by Washington to disrupt Putin’s ability to pay for the massive invasion of Ukraine that began in 2022. The ban, which is expected to be signed by President Joe Biden, will begin 90 days after it takes effect, although it will allow the Department of Energy to grant waivers in the event of supply issues.

The move has raised fears that Putin could retaliate by freezing exports to the US, causing uranium prices to rise. Russia supplied about 24% of the uranium used by U.S. reactors in 2022, and was the top foreign supplier.

But Kathryn Huff, the DOE’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy, who is resigning on Friday, told Reuters the US is prepared for any scenario.

“The reality is this: In recent years, there has been a very real and present possibility that Russia could abruptly stop sending enriched uranium to the United States.”

Countries such as Canada, France and Japan will help the US find an “allied alternative” to Russian uranium, Huff said.

And the import ban would free up $2.7 billion from previous legislation to build the domestic uranium industry.

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“A paired structure where we invest in new conversion and enrichment capacity and then protect those investments with some import restrictions is what is needed” to reduce dependence on Russia, said Huff, who is returning to university teaching and nuclear research.

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Nuclear power plants only refuel about every two years, and contracts are worked out years in advance. Huff said the U.S. has “just enough time,” or about three or four years, to build new uranium conversion and enrichment capacity and replace Russian imports.

In the US, the Vogtle nuclear power plant in the state of Georgia opened this week after years of delays. But there is no new construction on the books, raising concerns that the US will not be able to meet Biden’s 2050 goal of decarbonizing the economy.

Huff expects the next plant to come online will be Palisades in Michigan. Holtec, the owner, is trying to reopen a nuclear power plant for the first time in American history. Palisades closed ten days early in 2022 due to a problem with a control rod.

Opponents of reopening Palisades, which opened in 1971, say the reactor vessel is vulnerable to cracking, a situation called embrittlement.

Holtec, which received a $1.5 billion DOE loan in March, will have to revamp the plant to get approval from U.S. regulators, Huff said. “I fully expect it to function better than before once the renovations are completed.”

Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said Palisades, which still needs to be reapproved, will undergo thorough inspections before restarting.

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