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U.S. calls for expanded domestic uranium supply, nuclear R&D and infrastructure exports

by Greg Klein | April 23, 2020

US calls for expanded domestic uranium supply, nuclear R&D and foreign infrastructure competition

Nuclear energy provides about 20% of American electricity,
serves vital military purposes and offers geopolitical opportunities.

 

The strategy vows to pull the American industry “back from the brink of collapse and restore our place as the global leader in nuclear technology.” An advisory group established by U.S. President Donald Trump last July has issued recommendations to revive the country’s nuclear supply chain, end foreign reliance, encourage R&D, and compete globally with Russia and China to supply nuclear energy infrastructure.

Stating the U.S. Congress “has provided broad bipartisan and bicameral support for U.S. nuclear energy,” the Nuclear Fuel Working Group starts with proposals for a revitalized mining, milling and conversion chain. In addition to streamlined permitting and licensing, the report calls for government purchases of uranium to expand the national reserve. Such quantities would “directly support the operation of at least two U.S. uranium mines and the re-establishment of active domestic conversion capabilities.”

The working group estimates the reserve would need 17 to 19 pounds of U3O8 beginning this year and domestic conversion providing 6,000 to 7,500 tons of UF6 beginning no later than 2022. Beginning possibly in 2023, 25% of domestic enrichment should be available for defence.

The military needs low-enriched uranium to produce tritium for nuclear weapons and highly enriched uranium to fuel navy nuclear reactors. Current stockpiles hold sufficient uranium to 2041 for weapons and into the 2050s for navy propulsion.

The report also foresees the development of micro-nuclear reactors for military bases in the U.S. and abroad, strategically ending their dependence on the grid. “In a future of increasingly electrified warfare, power delivery becomes increasingly critical to mission success.”

A far-reaching goal would enhance international stature by competing with Russia and China to install nuclear energy globally. “Establishment of nuclear infrastructure incorporates large-scale cross-cutting economic, security and geopolitical relationships between the purchasing nation and the technology-providing nation for the ensuing 100 years,” the working group points out. American neglect “has empowered Russia and China to establish long-term relationships with nations, inimical to U.S. national interests.”

Using state-owned and supported enterprises, the rivals bolster their geopolitical advantage.

Russia—a nation that has “weaponized” its energy supply as an instrument of coercion—dominates nuclear markets. Russia is advancing its economic and foreign policy influence around the world with $133 billion in foreign orders for reactors, with plans to underwrite the construction of more than 50 reactors in 19 countries. China, a strategic competitor that uses predatory economics as a tool of statecraft, is currently constructing four reactors abroad, with prospects for 16 more reactors across multiple countries, in addition to the 45 reactors built in China over the past 33 years, and the 12 reactors currently under construction in China.

Meanwhile, the United States is entirely absent from the global new build nuclear reactor market with no foreign orders. The United States is missing out on a nuclear reactor market that the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates is valued at $500 billion to $740 billion over the next 10 years.

Nowhere are the predatory tactics of state-owned enterprises more evident than in the realm of export financing.—U.S. Nuclear Fuel Working Group

The group urges American financing institutions to support the civilian industry against foreign state financing. “Nowhere are the predatory tactics of state-owned enterprises more evident than in the realm of export financing.” The report also encourages expanded, government-funded R&D in co-operation with private projects, along with education and training.

“The decline of the U.S. industrial base in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle over the past few decades has threatened our national interest and national security,” commented U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette. “As a matter of national security, it is critical that we take bold steps to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear energy enterprise.”

Predictably, the report drew praise from U.S. producers. With two mines and a mill, Energy Fuels TSX:EFR noted it’s the country’s biggest uranium producer “and holds more uranium production capacity and more permitted uranium resources than any other U.S. company.” Another domestic producer, Ur-Energy TSX:URE operates the Lost Creek ISR mine and moves its Shirley Basin project through advanced licensing.

In the wake of pandemic-caused mining suspensions around the world, uranium prices have surged past $33 a pound from approximately $27.35 at the end of March.

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