Plan for uranium reserve is ‘first step’ towards reviving sector The Crow Butte uranium mine in Nebraska. Photo courtesy Cameco. The US nuclear industry saw its best year for production in 2019, but despite operating the largest fleet of commercial reactors in the world the country’s ability to produce domestic nuclear fuel is “on the verge of a collapse”, a Department of Energy official said.

Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for the DOE’s office of nuclear energy, said in 2019 the US led the world in generating more than 809 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from nuclear, which is enough to power more than 66 million homes.

But she said the nation’s only uranium conversion plant – the Honeywell facility in Illinois – is idle due to poor market conditions, and the country’s inability to compete with foreign state-owned enterprises, most notably from China and Russia, is threatening energy security and weakening Washington’s ability to influence the peaceful uses of nuclear around the world.

Ms Baranwal said “within the next year” the DOE will begin a competitive procurement process for establishing a uranium reserve. The reserve is a direct result of a report by the Nuclear Fuel Working Group, established by president Donald Trump, to address the challenges facing the nuclear fuel cycle.

Ms Baranwal said the reserve is “the first step” in a plant to fix the problems affecting the industry.

Under the uranium reserve programme, the DOE would buy uranium directly from domestic mines and contract for uranium conversion services. The new stockpile is expected to support the operation of at least two US uranium mines, reestablish active conversion capabilities, and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption.

Uranium production in the US has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s as US nuclear power plant operators replaced domestic uranium production with less expensive imports. State-owned foreign competitors, operating in different economic and regulatory environments, have also undercut prices, making it virtually impossible for US producers to compete on a level-playing field.

As a result, 90% of the uranium fuel used today in US reactors is produced by foreign countries.

Nuclear fuel production capabilities have also taken a severe hit. In 2019, the US produced roughly 174,000 pounds of uranium, the lowest annual total in more than 70 years. A handful of US uranium properties are now operating at minimal levels to keep their facilities in working order. Many more are not operating at all, waiting for market signals to begin production. “The nation’s only uranium conversion facility is also idle and all are at risk of shutting down permanently if markets don’t improve,” Ms Baranwal said.

Date: Friday, 15 May 2020
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