Back in March 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden signed an executive order that banned the import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal to the United States. Although the ban together with EU sanctions were blamed for skyrocketing global energy prices, U.S. refiners were none the worse for wear since Russia supplied just 3% of U.S. crude oil imports.
However, the punters were quick to point out that one notable export was left off of that list: uranium.
For a long time, the U.S. has been heavily reliant on Russian uranium, and imported about 14 percent of its uranium and 28 percent of all enrichment services from Russia in 2021 while the figures for the European Union were 20 percent and 26 percent for imports and enrichment services, respectively. And, there seems to be no end in sight despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year calling on the U.S. and the international community to ban Russian uranium imports following the Russian shelling near Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya power plant. U..S companies are sending more than $1 billion each year to Russia's state-owned nuclear agency, Rosatom, and imported another $411.5 million in enriched uranium in the first quarter of 2023 alone.
Western governments have avoided sanctioning Rosatom for obvious reasons. But their over reliance on Russian uranium comes with a huge risk because most utilities only keep about 18 months of fuel inventory, meaning their nuclear sectors would face a meltdown if Putin suddenly decided to stop doing business with them.
“We’re bearing the costs of an overreliance on Russia for nuclear fuel. And it’s not just us, it’s the entire world,” Pranay Vaddi, a White House nuclear adviser at the National Security Council, has lamented.
Luckily, expansion plans at the home-based uranium enrichment factory that delivered fuel for America’s first ever atomic bombs dubbed Manhattan Project might help the country solve its nuclear conundrum. The $5 billion Urenco plant in Eunice, New Mexico, is home to hundreds of massive centrifuges which spin at supersonic speeds to separate the uranium isotopes needed to make fuel for nuclear power plants. Urenco, which supplies about one-third of U.S. demand for enriched uranium, is currently in the process of boosting output by 15% as it looks to rejuvenate nuclear energy production among the West’s fleet of nuclear reactors.
According to Karen Fili, chief executive officer of Urenco’s U.S. subsidiary, the planned expansion of the New Mexico facilities will be completed in 2027, which combined with the parent company’s ramp-up in Europe, would be enough to cover Rosatom’s share of the American market.
“We are the very reasonable solution for the U.S. increased production from Urenco would be enough to cover any gap in Russian imports,”Fili has said.
Predictably, the Kremlin has derided the effort and dismissed it as “...an attempt at creating Frankenstein’s monster.” According to the Kremlin, historical attempts by Europe to build an integrated supply chain of enriched uranium with individual units in far-flung regions have never been successful.
But the Kremlin could be underestimating America's and Europe’s resolve to decouple from Russian energy, with Europe currently flush with natural gas despite Putin earlier warning of a coming gas crunch during winter.
Even better, the Biden administration is actively hunting for uranium alternatives.
With the administration having set a goal of reaching 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035, nuclear power will likely continue to be a hot-button issue despite being a low-carbon fuel mainly because conventional nuclear fuel creates a lot of hazardous waste. What would give nuclear energy a major boost would be a significant technological breakthrough in substituting thorium for uranium in reactors. The public would likely be far easier to bring on board with the removal of dangerous uranium.
Thorium is now being billed as the 'great green hope' of clean energy production that produces less waste and more energy than uranium, is meltdown-proof, has no weapons-grade by-products and can even consume legacy plutonium stockpiles.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Engineering & Science Center at Texas A&M and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have partnered with Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy (CCTE) to develop a new thorium-based nuclear fuel they have dubbed ANEEL. ANEEL (Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life) is a proprietary combination of thorium and “High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” (HALEU) that intends to address high costs and toxic waste issues (thorium must be paired with at least a small amount of a fissile material due its inability to naturally fissile on its own). The main difference between ANEEL and the uranium that is currently used in U.S. reactors is the level of uranium enrichment. Instead of up to 5% uranium-235 enrichment, the new generation of reactors need fuel with up to 20 percent enrichment. Several years ago, CCTE started fitting existing reactor designs to enable them to use ANEEL fuel, which the company projected could enter commercial use as early as 2024. Meanwhile,two years ago, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved Centrus Energy’s request to make HALEU at its enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio, becoming the only plant in the country to do so. However, more could be on the way if the new fuel proves to be a success.
While ANEEL performs best in heavy water reactors, it can also be used in traditional boiling water and pressurized water reactors. More importantly, ANEEL reactors can be deployed much faster than uranium reactors.
Another key benefit of ANEEL over uranium is that it can achieve a much higher fuel burn-up rate of in the order of 55,000 MWd/T (megawatt-day per ton of fuel) compared to 7,000 MWd/T for natural uranium fuel used in pressurized water reactors. This allows the fuel to remain in the reactors for much longer meaning much longer intervals between shut downs for refueling. For instance, India’s Kaiga Unit-1 and Canada’s Darlington PHWR Unit hold the world record for uninterrupted operations at 962 days and 963 days, respectively.
The thorium-based fuel also comes with other key benefits. One of the biggest is that a much higher fuel burn-up reduces plutonium waste by more than 80%. Plutonium has a shorter half-life of about 24,000 years compared to Uranium-235’s half-life of just over 700 million years. Plutonium is highly toxic even in small doses, leading to radiation illness, cancer and often to death. Further, thorium has a lower operating temperature and a higher melting point than natural uranium, making it inherently safer and more resistant to core meltdowns.
Thorium’s renewable energy properties are also quite impressive.
Yet another benefit: There is more than twice thorium in the earth’s crust than uranium. In India, thorium is 4x more abundant than uranium. Thorium can also be extracted from sea water just like uranium, making it almost inexhaustible.
Back in February, Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) kicked off the planning phase of pre-licensing review of Clean Core's ANEEL thorium and HALEU, signaling progress is being made.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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