While the war in Ukraine has triggered a wide range of economic sanctions against Russia and its energy-related exports such as oil and natural gas, similar barriers do not currently extend to fuel used in nuclear power plants. .
Russia is a major player in this global supply chain, and Ameren is a power company that historically has long relied on Russia for fuel for its only nuclear plant in Callaway County, near Jefferson City.
The St. Louis-based energy utility acknowledged this week that at least some of its nuclear fuel needs are still tied to Russia — though it declined to provide a series of details about what its ties were. current trade with the country involve.
The company and outside nuclear energy experts point out that there are no immediate risks to nuclear fuel needs — for Ameren, or U.S. nuclear power plants in general — even if Russia were to be blocked as a provider. But some describe the potential for longer-term disruption, given Russia’s influence in the nuclear fuel world, and the bottleneck that would arise if the country were cut off.
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“It’s hard to turn around quickly,” said Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety for the Institute of Nuclear Energy, an industry advocacy organization. “Adding capacity doesn’t happen overnight.”
The nuclear fuel supply chain has four main stages, he explained. The first is uranium mining, an activity that takes place in many countries around the world. But before it can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor, uranium must undergo processing – or “conversion” – followed by enrichment, and finally, fuel fabrication, when it is turned into pellets or usable bars.
This last step is the one that is done entirely in the United States for national utilities. But the intermediate stages – conversion and enrichment – are often controlled by Russia.
“The problem here is conversion and enrichment. It’s a very limited market,” Ashkeboussi said. “You only have very, very limited options.”
For example, he said only two companies outside of Russia can currently perform either step. Overall, US utilities get about 20% of their enriched uranium from Russia, he added.
Fuel for Callaway
Utilities like Ameren are longtime customers of enriched nuclear fuel from Russia and a state-owned uranium export company called Techsnabexport, or Tenex. Ameren had a contract with Tenex in place from 2014 to 2020, which included an option to renew.
Ameren did not say what happened as a result of its Tenex contract which lasted at least until 2020. The company entered into this old agreement with two other American utilities, Russian nuclear contracts totaling 1 billion investment dollars.
The company said “nearly all” of its nuclear fuel comes from outside Russia, but didn’t say how much still comes from within the country, or whether that comment only applies to where. its uranium is mined.
The company also did not respond to questions about whether it still relies on Russian companies for middle stages of the supply chain.
Ameren said “no Russian-based organization is involved in future fuel supply” for the company, but declined to clarify an effective date. The utility said that “in our last negotiations on new nuclear fuel, we intentionally avoided Russian-based organizations due to supply risks,” but did not say when those talks took place.
In a recent financial filing, the company said it has sufficient inventory and supply contracts to meet its uranium, conversion and enrichment needs “at least until 2026 refueling” at its nuclear plant. of Callaway County.
US nuclear power plants, including Ameren, need to be refueled every 18 to 24 months. If Russian supplies were cut, experts said there would be no immediate effect on Ameren or other US utilities. But planning for alternatives should start immediately, and problems could arise about a year later, as it would take a lot of time and investment to develop new capabilities in the global nuclear fuel supply chain, outside of the Russia.
Ashkeboussi said the risk has “highlighted some of the benefits of bringing this fuel supply chain closer to home.”
NEI said it “continues to support the development of a domestic fuel supply chain,” including the creation of U.S. uranium enrichment capabilities. Certain stages have already begun, even before the Ukrainian conflict broke out. For example, an inactive conversion facility in Metropolis, Illinois is expected to resume operations next year, Ashkeboussi said.
Some, however, said it was unclear whether uranium prices could climb high enough to restore and maintain domestic production capabilities – and that could be a challenge.
Meanwhile, NEI has lobbied the White House to oppose extending sanctions to Russian uranium, according to a recent Reuters report. NEI declined to answer related policy questions from the Post-Dispatch.
Congressional lawmakers, however, are pushing for a ban on Russian uranium, with legislation introduced in the US Senate.
If a ban is imposed, the US nuclear fleet could likely get away with it, said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said US nuclear power plants are years ahead of uranium — enough to survive any supply shock, as long as it’s confined to the short-term future.
“There’s no real reason the industry can’t resist something like this,” Lyman said, describing the prospect of banning Russian uranium. “But over time that could be a problem.”