Russia dominates global nuclear reactor and fuel supply chains

Wind turbine and cooling towers at the Cruas-Meysse nuclear power plant in France, April 12, 2021.

Jean-Marie HOSATT | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused countries around the world to wean themselves off Russian oil and natural gas.

Side conversations are also imminent in the field of nuclear energy, as Russia is also a dominant player in global supply chains of nuclear reactor technology, as detailed in a new article published Monday by the Center on Global Energy Policy from Columbia University.

There were 439 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide in 2021, and 38 of them were in Russia, another 42 were manufactured with Russian nuclear reactor technology, and another 15 under construction as of the end of 2021 were underway building with Russian technology.

Reducing or eliminating reliance on Russian nuclear supply chains will vary by country and need.

If a country has not yet built nuclear reactors, it can, from the start, decide not to contract with Russia. The United States, France, Korea and China are “viable” supplier options, according to the document.

Second, if a country already has models of Russian nuclear reactors, VVERs, it is likely to look to Russia for spare parts and services. (VVER stands for “water-water energy reactor” in Russian, which is vodo-vodyanoi enyergeticheskiy reaktor in Russian, ergo the acronym.) In this case, countries can get repair assistance from Westinghouse, headquartered in Pennsylvania, according to the report.

Then there is the issue of fuel. Nuclear fission reactors are fueled with enriched uranium.

Russia mines about 6% of the raw uranium produced each year, according to the report. This is an amount that can be replaced if other countries that mine uranium increase their uranium mining.

However, uranium does not go directly from a mine to a nuclear reactor. It must undergo conversion and enrichment before it can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor.

Here, Russia is a dominant player. Russia had 40% of the world’s total uranium conversion infrastructure in 2020 and 46% of the world’s total uranium enrichment capacity in 2018, according to the report. (This was the most recent publicly available data, according to the report’s authors.)

This is where the United States and allied nations should focus their attention, according to the report, which was co-authored by Paul Dabbar, former undersecretary of energy for science at the Department of Energy, and Matthew Bowen, researcher. at Columbia’s Center for Global Energy Policy.

In addition to Russia, such uranium conversion and enrichment capabilities exist in Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

These capabilities “are sufficient to replace at least some” of the conversion and enrichment that Western nuclear reactors require, but it is unclear whether the capability will be able to fully replace Russian capability.

The United States must also be prepared for the fuel that goes into the advanced reactors, which are currently under development, and which require uranium enriched to 15 to 19.75%, whereas the conventional light water reactors which are currently in service in the United States use uranium enriched for between 3 and 5%.

This high-dosage low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel is currently only commercially available in Russia, according to the report.

“More investment in extraction, conversion and enrichment facilities may be needed to fully extricate Western nuclear fuel chains from Russian involvement, write Dabbar and Bowen in their report. “However, adding a new Sufficient conversion capacity and enrichment capacity will take years. “

But to convince private companies to commit money and resources to uranium infrastructure, they need a government commitment not to go back to Russian supplies.

“Their worry will be that in a year or two, maybe less, Russian uranium products will be allowed back into domestic markets and undermine them, causing them to lose their investments,” Dabbar and Bowen said.

In the United States, there is only one uranium conversion facility – it’s in Metropolis, Illinois – and it has been dormant since November 2017. Its reopening is “pending improvement market and customer support,” according to a power point presentation of the partnership. between General Atomics and Honeywell which operates the plant, ConverDyn. It will only be able to become operational again in 2023, when it could convert 7,000 tonnes of uranium per year. To rise to 15,000 tonnes per year, the plant alone will take more than 2023.

Therefore, Dabbar and Bowen said it would be prudent for the United States to wean Russian containment capability “over a period of years, not months.”

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