Editorial Board: Congress Should Address Russian Uranium Addiction | Editorial

STAR-TRIBUNE EDITORIAL COMMITTEE

We have all been horrified by the stories and images coming out of Ukraine in the two weeks since Russia attacked the country without provocation. We have seen cities bombed, civilian areas targeted and innocent people killed by Russian bombs and bullets. The war triggered a refugee crisis reminiscent of World War II, with more than 1.5 million Ukrainians fleeing to western countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears unabashed by the near-universal anger his invasion has provoked, with many experts predicting he will double down. In a way, the worst may be yet to come.

Much of the world has responded with far-reaching sanctions that have already ravaged the Russian economy. The rouble, for example, is at an all-time low against the dollar, and ratings firms have indicated they suspect Russia will soon be unable to pay its debts. The sanctions have targeted several areas of the Russian economy, from its banking system to the oligarchs who profited from it under Putin. On top of that, dozens of Western companies pulled out of the country, leaving countless Russians without jobs or access to certain assets.

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Russia is the world’s third-largest energy producer, and the sanctions are also aimed at disrupting this critical part of the country’s economy. In the early days of the war, Germany froze the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. More recently, the United States banned imports of Russian oil. Even before the war and the sanctions, the price of oil had skyrocketed. Brent Crude, the international benchmark, soared to over $100 a barrel. West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, is also north of $100. At the pump, the drivers wince as they pay $4 or $5 a gallon.

Russia is not just a major producer of fossil fuels. The country is also the world’s largest supplier of nuclear fuel, exporting 35% of the world’s enriched uranium for reactors, according to Bloomberg. This reality took on new significance for Wyoming last summer when Bill Gates’ TerraPower and utility Rocky Mountain Power announced plans to install a next-generation demonstration reactor here. According to the project schedule, it is supposed to start operating in 2028.

The TerraPower reactor requires a very specific type of fuel: high-grade low-enriched uranium, also called HALEU. As Star-Tribune reporter Nicole Pollack wrote in December, this fuel is not commercially available in the United States. Instead, most of it is produced by Russia. The Department of Energy has planned for some time to develop a program to address the problem, but whether the war will accelerate that timeline remains to be seen.

In recent weeks, a handful of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought to ban the use of Russian uranium in the Wyoming reactor, but that effort has been pushed back. But questions remain about the use of Russian fuel: the United States is investing in next-generation nuclear reactors as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels and as a gateway to a renewable future. But right now these reactors need Russian fuel. How to approach this reality?

Putin’s reckless war highlights the problem of depending entirely on other countries for enriched uranium of the type that would power the TerraPower reactor. These projects exist for a long time, and we should not embark on projects that rely on a fuel source that may not be available once it is time to flip the switch. Congress should step up funding to get a US program for the HALEU production online sooner. It won’t be cheap, but reducing our dependence on a country like Russia deserves that kind of investment.

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