Not uranium alone: testing for the strength of Russia with nuclear fuel continues | Latest news The Moscow Post
29 November 2023

Not uranium alone: testing for the "strength" of Russia with nuclear fuel continues

As it turned out without Russian uranium, the US economy may bend.

In the first half of the year, the United States bought 416 tons of uranium from Russia, paying $0.7 billion for this, or about 65 billion rubles. Over the year, the cost of Russian uranium supplies to the United States increased 2.5 times, and their share in American uranium imports increased to 32%. The import of uranium by tonnage in the first six months of this year exceeded last year's indicators by 2.2 times. Details in the material of the correspondent of The Moscow Post.

All this is happening in front of US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who agreed back in March to expand the range of nuclear fuel suppliers. To their "plan" to replace Russia as a source of uranium for their nuclear power plants, they attracted their own "like-minded allies," namely France and Great Britain.

The Americans themselves have little left. The plant in New Mexico is the property of the British-Dutch-German company Urenco. The consortium's share in the global enriched uranium market is about 30%, and in the US market - 50%. The last U.S. commercial uranium enrichment plant in Kentucky closed in 2013.

The only uranium conversion plant in the United States was closed in 2017, when the global market was oversaturated and prices fell (Uranium conversion is a chemical process for converting uranium-containing materials - mainly uranium oxides - into uranium hexafluoride).

Russia and China did not stand still and today together control about two-thirds of the global conversion market. Product prices have risen, and ConverDyn is again ready to launch a mothballed plant in Illinois, but subject to long-term and guaranteed demand.

Soon the tale takes its toll

While there is talk, Rosatom and its subsidiaries supply fuel to almost one in four of the 92 nuclear reactors installed in the United States.

Russia has half of the world's uranium isotope separation capacity. Rosatom, as the owner of these capacities, also ranked second in the world in uranium reserves after acquiring the Budenovskoye field in Kazakhstan, one of the largest in the world. This was told by the general director of the state corporation Alexei Likhachev at a meeting with Vladimir Putin on August 14.

In May 2022, the head of Rosatom also informed the Russian leader that the Russian Federation took second place in the world in uranium mining, confidently holds first place in enrichment and conversion and is steadily among the top three in fuel fabrication.

"We confidently came in second place in terms of [uranium] reserves and are in the top three in all alterations in the nuclear fuel cycle, we maintain our leadership," Aleksey Likhachev emphasized. Supplies are stable or growing across all consumers, he said.

Supplies to friendly countries, including China, as well as the Middle East and Africa, have grown markedly. "There we have up to 60‒70% growth in various types of supplies in the nuclear fuel cycle," Likhachev said.

Rosatom will soon bring nuclear fuel to the Rooppur nuclear power plant under construction with the participation of Russia in Bangladesh. It also plans to put into commercial operation the second power unit of the Belarusian NPP, built with the participation of the Russian Federation. Rosatom plans to start trial mining of uranium ore in Tanzania.

The main player in the uranium market is China. Having said this, the head of Rosatom Alexei Likhachev added that the state corporation participates in 40% of China's mining projects.

That Rosatom sanctions...

Russia is leading the supply of uranium enrichment services for American nuclear power plants.

In 2020, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan supplied about half of the uranium necessary for the operation of nuclear power plants to the United States - 10.3 million kg. According to Bloomberg, in 2020, the Russian Federation accounted for 16.5% of uranium imported to the United States and 23% of enriched uranium for commercial nuclear reactors.

Europe also depends on Rosatom, especially Russia's eastern neighbors. In particular, the Russian Federation produces fuel for Soviet-designed nuclear power units. They are installed in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. Europe receives about 30% of enriched uranium from Russia and disconnecting Rosatom from supplies will require at least five years of preparation.

Some structures of Rosatom fell under the restrictions of the United States and Great Britain. Thus, the American sanctions list (SDN) included the manufacturer of carbon fiber Umatex, Rusatom Overseas and Atomflot. London imposed restrictions on Alexei Likhachev, Atomflot and Ranera.

But the West avoids imposing total sanctions against Rosatom, which will harm its nuclear industry and economy to a greater extent than the Russian economy, Bloomberg said. Nuclear power enterprises of Western "like-minded allies" have no more than 18 months of fuel reserves for work. In the long term, according to the World Nuclear Association, about 80% more uranium may be needed by 2040 than today, or about 112 thousand tons per year.

… then Europe - Niger

Russia is formally in sixth place on the list of fuel uranium producers. Two-thirds of the world's uranium production is provided by Kazakhstan, Namibia and Canada. Australia and Uzbekistan are facing the Russian Federation in terms of production volumes. Niger immediately follows.

Uranium ore mined in Niger is of high quality. In 2022, uranium production in Niger amounted to 2020 metric tons, or almost 5% of global uranium supplies. Exports to Europe provided up to 15% of France's needs and about 20% of uranium imports by EU countries.

The change of power in this country changes the plans of the French state-owned company Orano, which planned to increase production at the Imuraren field by the method of underground well leaching.

"The decision to begin development of one of the largest uranium deposits in the world will be made in 2028 after hydrogeological research, which should begin in 2024," the director of the joint venture Imouraren SA Agence France-Presse (AFP) quotes.

The increase in production could provide fuel for about 20 reactors, including those in Central Europe. But access to the raw materials was blocked by the new authorities, banning the export of uranium to France.

"Niger Factor"

The Niger Factor makes it difficult for the EU to impose new sanctions against the Russian Federation. It will be more difficult to reduce purchases of Russian raw materials for nuclear power plants. Rosatom continues to export uranium, including to Europe.

European Commission spokesman Adalbert Janz made a statement at a daily press briefing in Brussels, recalled that Niger is an important supplier of natural uranium to the EU. He also encouraged, saying that "there is no risk regarding the supply of uranium to the EU. The European Union has sufficient reserves of uranium at the national levels so as not to be afraid of risks in the short term, "Jantz said.

In terms of the medium and long term, the EU has enough resources around the world to ensure such supply, he added.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the global potential of nuclear power plants should double compared to 2020 levels by 2050. This will be a critical factor in meeting the goals of limiting emissions and achieving carbon neutrality.

Accordingly, the demand for fuel for nuclear power plants will grow. In particular, Sweden plans to build at least ten reactors by 2045 and increase the capacity of its nuclear energy by three times. These and other projects will need enriched uranium.

Occupying the sixth place in the extraction of primary uranium (2.6 thousand tons out of 48 thousand tons), Rosatom controls the ARMZ holding (6% of world production). The first three places in the rating are occupied by Kazatomprom (22%), French Orano (9%) and Canadian Uranium One (9%).

Uranium One Inc. is part of the corporate structure of Rosatom, only this company is registered in Canada. Until recently, such a scheme of owning, mining and subsequent enrichment of natural uranium to the state of reactor fuel was acceptable. The Russian corporation, through its Canadian representative office, owned shares of Kazakh uranium mines, which, from the point of view of international law, allowed it to fight off accusations of an attempt to monopolize the market.

In the realities of 2023, such "little things" have become irrelevant. In fact, Russia has finally established itself in the status of the world's main producer of fuel uranium.

Uranium One is said to own uranium deposits not only in Kazakhstan, but also in Namibia, Tanzania, Australia, Canada and the United States. Then, as Kazatomprom is also a joint venture with the Russian state corporation. If we add up the shares of ARMZ, Uranium One and Kazatomprom, then Russia may have about half of the world's primary uranium production.

Will Russia remain among the suppliers of fuel for European nuclear power plants? At least, the head of Rosatom, Alexei Likhachev, does not pin great hopes on European partners. It may foresee that the European Union and in the nuclear energy sector can choose "self-fire," as happened with the import of Russian natural gas.

Photo: RBC

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