Russian uranium troubles US producers

29 January 2001

The US nuclear fuel industry is being adversely affected by the US programme to buy highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons, according to Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accounting Office.

In 1993, the USA agreed to a 20-year programme of buying highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons, imported in a form suitable to fuel commercial reactors. The DoE created the US Enrichment Corporation (USEC) to handle the purchases, then let the corporation be privatised. (NEI January 2001).

According to a report from the General Audit Office (GAO), USEC has not been successful in balancing a conflict of interests as a profit-making company and that it should be replaced. “While the corporation has tried to balance conflicting commercial and national security interests,” the report says, “its priority as a private company is to remain a profitable commercial enterprise and maintain maximum value to its shareholders.” The 40-page report was requested by House Commerce chairman Thomas Biley. Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told the GAO that he agreed with some of the report’s themes, but added that it understated some of USEC’s achievements.

The report concluded that an oversupply of uranium caused by Russian imports has led to price drops, lower domestic production and decreased employment in the US industry. From June 1995 through October 2000, USEC paid Russia $1.6 billion for slightly more than one fifth of the 500t of uranium that the USA agreed to buy between 1993 and 2013.

The corporation is closing its enrichment facility in Portsmouth, Ohio in June 2001, leaving it with just one facility in Paducah, Kentucky. The report says that this will cause reliance on an “ageing plant that lies in an earthquake zone.” In Russia, the State Duma’s defence committee says that a special debate on the HEU deal is needed in view of the “international scale of the issue and interest among the Russian public, Duma members included, in the deal.” The committee says Russia has stockpiles of about 600 tonnes of weapons-grade uranium, and to sell all but 100 tonnes of this would put Russia “at a clear disadvantage from the point of view of national security.”
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