The US House voted recently to approve legislation that would bar the importation of enriched Russian uranium, sending the measure to the Senate where it has support but limited time for passage this year.
The Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, which was approved by voice vote, would bar Russian uranium imports 90 days after enactment while allowing a temporary waiver until January 2028.
Russia provided almost a quarter of the enriched uranium used to fuel America’s fleet of more than 90 commercial reactors, making it the No. 1 foreign supplier to the US last year, according to Energy Department data. Russia is also the only commercially available source of special highly enriched reactor fuel known as Haleu that is needed for a new breed of advanced nuclear reactors that are under development, according to Chris Gadomski, head nuclear analyst for BloombergNEF.
Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have both said they believe the measure will clear the Senate.
“We need to ban Russia from exporting uranium to the United States,” Barrasso, the author of the Senate’s version of the measure, said in an interview last week. “There is no reason for us to have any of it.”
Still, the bill faces a tight deadline for passage as Congress completes remaining business for the year, including assistance for Ukraine as it continues to combat the Russian invasion, before leaving for winter recess.
BETTER PROSPECTS NEXT YEAR
One option, according to a Senate aide, is attempting to move the House-passed measure by unanimous consent this month — a procedure that would require no objection from any of the Senate’s 100 members. That might prove difficult, however, and an alternative is moving the bill by traditional means next year, said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the legislation.
“We think there is sufficient support for the bill in the Senate, but the hurdles have to do more with timing and process,” Timothy Fox, a vice president at research firm ClearView Energy Partners, said in an interview. “We think prospects for passage increase next year.”
The House legislation, which expires at the end of 2040, does allow the Department of Energy to issue waivers authorizing the entire volume of Russian uranium imports allowed under export limits set in an anti-dumping agreement between the Department of Commerce and Russia through 2027. The Energy Department can issue the waivers if no alternative source of reactor fuel is found or if allowing enriched uranium imports from Russia is determined to be in the national interest, according to text of the bill.
RECORD-HIGH COSTS POSSIBLE
“I think they could make the determination there is no alternative,” said Jonathan Hinze, president of nuclear fuel market research firm UxC. “I’m not aware of much enriched uranium conversion to cover these significant quantities.”
In addition, Hinze said there is a “real threat” that Russia retaliates with a unilateral export ban if the US bars imports, which could end deliveries of enriched uranium from the country immediately and render the waiver allowances moot.
While the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated a ban on Russian uranium imports could increase nuclear-fuel costs in the US by 13%, Hinze said without waivers prices would likely be much higher, adding that a 20% jump from the current enrichment spot price of $152 per separative work unit to a record high $180 per SWU was “not out of the question.”
Enriched uranium is measured in separative work units, or SWU, which account for the volume and enrichment density of the radioactive metal.
“It could be a much more significant price impact at least in the near term,” Hinze said. “Markets tend to react violently to supply disruptions.”