The US Senate has unanimously voted to approve legislation banning the import of enriched uranium from Russia. The Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act must be signed by President Biden before becoming law. It would bar US imports 90 days after enactment while permitting temporary waivers until January 2028. The House of Representatives adopted a similar bill by voice vote in December 2023. However, the legislation was stalled for some time in the Senate due to unrelated political differences.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Senators Jim Risch and John Barrasso. “America’s dangerous reliance on Russian enriched uranium must come to an end – our national security depends on it,” said Risch. “With the passage of our legislation, America is taking an important step to spur uranium conversion and enrichment in the US, support advanced nuclear development and energy independence, and end Russian control of the global nuclear fuel supply chain.”

“I have fought for years to end America’s reliance on Russian nuclear fuel. Our efforts have finally paid off with passage of our bill to ban these imports once and for all,” said Barrasso. “Wyoming has the uranium to replace Russian imports, and we’re ready to use it. Our bipartisan legislation will help defund Russia’s war machine, revive American uranium production, and jumpstart investments in America’s nuclear fuel supply chain. This is a tremendous victory. I’m grateful to members of both parties for helping get this over the finish line.”

US uranium producer Energy Fuels Inc said: "We stand ready to help supply the nuclear market with responsibly produced US uranium" in a statement on X. Uranium Energy Corp (UEC) President & CEO Amir Adnani said the bill will strengthen US energy and national security, and end an "untenable reliance" on Russian uranium imports. "This new law, in conjunction with the recently passed Nuclear Fuel Security Act, creates a firm foundation for long-term growth of the US uranium industry to supply the fuel that powers American households, data centres, and industrial base with clean baseload power," he said. UEC is aiming to restart uranium production at its operation in Wyoming in August, followed by the resumption its operations in Texas in 2025.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Russia has been supplying about 24% of US enriched uranium used to fuel the US fleet of 94 commercial reactors with 12% from Germany and 11% from the UK. The US supplies around 27%. This provides an estimated $1bn a year to Russia. RIA Novosti reported in February, citing official statistics, that the US imported a record $1.2bn of Russian uranium in 2023.

The White House in 2023 called for a “long-term ban” on Russian imports. “This is a national security priority as dependence on Russian sources of uranium creates risk to the US economy and the civil nuclear industry that has been further strained by Russia’s war in Ukraine,” the White House said in a fact sheet. “Without action, Russia will continue its hold on the global uranium market to the detriment of US allies and partners.”

The ban is also needed to unlock some $2.7bn to support the US domestic uranium industry made available by Congress earlier this year, contingent on there being limits on the import of Russian uranium. A house of Representatives bill was approved by voice vote in December 2023 but the companion bill in the Senate was delayed due to political differences.

The legislation, which expires at the end of 2040, permits the Department of Energy to issue waivers authorising the entire volume of Russian uranium imports allowed under export limits set in an anti-dumping agreement between the Department of Commerce and Russia which expires in 2027.

Without those waivers, the ban could result in an approximate 20% increase in the current enrichment spot price of $165 per separative work unit (SWU) to as much as $200 per SWU, according to Jonathan Hinze, President of nuclear fuel market research firm UxC, Bloomberg reported. “But if there is an immediate ban it could be even more extreme,” Hinze said. “There are very limited supplies available.”

There is concern that Russia could respond with a unilateral export ban if the US bars imports. Last December, there were reports that Russia’s Tekhsnabexport (Tenex) had warned that Russia could pre-emptively ban exports of its nuclear fuel to the US if Washington adopted legislation prohibiting imports starting in 2028.

Tenex’s US subsidiary reportedly told energy companies including Constellation Energy Corp, Duke Energy Corp and Dominion Energy to prepare for such an outcome. However, these reports were denied by Rosatom. “Tenex completely refutes as inaccurate the information regarding the alleged ‘warnings’ of a potential ‘pre-emptive’ ban on enriched uranium supplies to the United States,” Rosatom’s press office said in an emailed statement.

In any event, an import ban would take some time to affect US NPP operators as reactors are typically refuelled every 18-24 months, and fuel purchases are negotiated long in advance. Most utilities have enough uranium to keep their reactors running for at least the next few years.

Currently Russia is the only commercial source of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel needed for many of the small and advanced reactors now in the design stage. Some providers in the US, with federal support, are in the process of producing Haleu. Centrus Energy recently delivered a first batch of Haleu fuel to the US Department of Energy (DOE), finalising the first phase of a domestic manufacturing demonstration process.

The only commercial enrichment operation in the US is Urenco’s facility in New Mexico which began operations in 2010. Aside from Russia, other countries with enrichment capacity include Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, and the UK.

Image: The US Capitol building in Washington, DC