Diversification from Russian nuclear fuel requires market-oriented solutions

January 15, 2024
Yanliang Pan

The following is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2023, the United States and the United Kingdom imposed unprecedented sanctions on subsidiaries of Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation, Rosatom. Less than two months later, a group of G7 countries issued a joint statement pledging to “undermine Russia’s grip” on the world’s nuclear fuel supply chains (UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and Shapps 2023). Intentions aside, the pledge was overly optimistic: Western countries find themselves deeply dependent on Russian-origin nuclear fuel due to market and government failures in the past. And no present policy could bring about immediate diversification due to physical capacity constraints that will take producers time to overcome. Nor is accumulating a large stockpile of uranium going to solve the problem. To understand why, it is necessary first to survey the complex market for nuclear fuel.

Natural uranium takes the form of an oxide powder referred to as “yellowcake” when first extracted and refined. To turn it into the low-enriched uranium (LEU) suitable for use in a typical commercial reactor, the material must first become uranium hexafluoride (UF6) through a process known as “conversion” before going through enrichment. The enrichment process produces uranium with a higher concentration of the fissile uranium 235 isotope—the product that suppliers then use to fabricate fuel for specific reactors.

Rosatom currently meets 22.4 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of the European Union’s conversion and enrichment requirements (World Nuclear News 2023c). Meanwhile, US operators purchased 24 percent of their enrichment service requirements from Russia in 2022, or a total of 3.4 million separative work units (SWU), where SWU measures the amount of enrichment work done (US Energy Information Administration 2023, 2, 45). Such dependence not only prevents the application of full sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry, but it also subjects Western countries to various supply risks.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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