While the war in Ukraine has triggered a wide-ranging set of economic sanctions against Russia and its energy-related exports like oil and natural gas, similar barriers do not currently apply to the fuel used in nuclear power plants.
Russia is a key player in this global supply chain, and Ameren is an energy company that has a long history of relying on Russia for the fuel used at its lone nuclear power plant in Callaway County, Missouri, near Jefferson City.
The St. Louis-based energy company acknowledged this week that at least some of its nuclear fuel needs are still tied to Russia — though it declined to give a number of details about what its current business ties with the country entail.
The company and outside nuclear experts stress that there are no immediate risks to nuclear fuel needs – for Amers or US nuclear power plants as a whole – even if Russia were to be blocked as a supplier. However, some describe the potential for longer-term disruptions given Russia’s influence in the nuclear fuel world and the bottleneck that would result if the country were cut off.
People also read…
“It’s difficult to reverse quickly,” said Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an organization that advocates for the industry. “Adding capacity doesn’t happen overnight.”
There are four main steps in the nuclear fuel supply chain, he explained. The first is the mining of uranium – an activity that takes place in many countries around the world. But before it can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor, the uranium must undergo processing – or “conversion” – followed by enrichment and finally fuel manufacture when it is converted into usable pellets or rods.
This final step is performed entirely in the United States for household utilities. But the middle steps – conversion and enrichment – are often controlled by Russia.
“The problem here is conversion and enrichment. It’s a very limited market,” Ashkeboussi said. “You have very, very limited options.”
For example, he said only two companies outside of Russia can currently do both steps. Overall, US utilities get about 20% of their enriched uranium from Russia, he added.
Fuel for Callaway
Utilities like Ameren are long-time customers for enriched nuclear fuel from Russia and a state-owned uranium export company called Techsnabexport or Tenex. Ameren had a contract with Tenex from 2014 to 2020, which included an option to extend.
Ameren has not made it clear what happened after his Tenex contract, which ran until at least 2020. The company struck that earlier deal alongside two other US utilities, with the Russian nuclear contracts having a total investment of $1 billion.
The company said that “almost all” of its nuclear fuel comes from outside Russia, but didn’t explain how much else comes from the country or if that comment refers only to where its uranium is mined.
The company also did not answer questions as to whether it still relies on Russian companies for the middle stages in the supply chain.
Ameren said that “no Russian-based organizations are involved in future fuel sourcing” for the company, but declined to clarify the effective date. The utility said that “in our recent negotiations on new nuclear fuel, we deliberately avoided Russian-based organizations due to procurement risks,” but declined to say when those talks took place.
In a recently filed financial report, the company said it has sufficient inventories and supply contracts to meet its uranium, conversion and enrichment needs “at least until fueling in 2026” at its Callaway County nuclear power plant.
US nuclear power plants, including Ameren’s, require refueling every 18 to 24 months. If Russian supplies were disrupted, experts say there would be no immediate impact on Ameren or other U.S. utilities. However, planning for alternatives would need to start immediately, and problems could arise about a year later, as it would take significant time and investment to develop new capacity in the global nuclear fuel supply chain outside of 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 uranium enrichment capabilities in the US. Some steps had already been taken before the Ukraine conflict broke out. For example, a decommissioned conversion plant in the southern Illinois city of Metropolis is scheduled to restart next year, Ashkeboussi said.
But some said it’s unclear whether uranium prices can surge high enough to restore and sustain domestic production capacity — and that it could be a challenge.
Meanwhile, NEI has lobbied the White House against expanding sanctions to include Russian uranium, according to a recent Reuters report. NEI declined to answer related policy questions from the post-dispatch.
However, lawmakers in Congress are pushing for a ban on Russian uranium, with legislation being introduced in the US Senate.
If a ban is imposed, the US nuclear fleet could likely survive, said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said US nuclear power plants have uranium years in advance — enough to weather any supply shock as long as it’s limited to the short-term future.
“There’s no real reason the industry can’t weather something like this,” Lyman said, describing the prospect of banning Russian uranium. “But over time that could become a problem.”