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The US Nuclear Fuel Working Group's (NFWG) has published a report, Restoring America's Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage: A strategy to assure US National Security, aimed at reviving the USA's nuclear fuel cycle.

President Donald Trump established the NFWG in July 2019 to undertake a fuller analysis of national security considerations for the entire nuclear fuel supply chain. This followed a presidential decision in response to a Section 232 Petition from two US uranium miners, Energy Fuels Inc and Ur-Energy, which called for a quota on uranium imports. However, the report’s recommendations extend far beyond uranium processing.

"The clear outcome of the Working Group's efforts is confirmation that it is in the nation's national security interests to preserve the assets and investments of the entire US nuclear enterprise and to revitalise the sector to regain US global nuclear leadership,” it says. “We can accomplish this by addressing domestic and international security interests, expanding nuclear generation, minimising commercial fleet fiscal vulnerabilities, assuring defence needs for uranium, and levelling the playing field against [foreign] state-owned enterprises."

The NFWG says "immediate and bold" action must be taken to strengthen the uranium mining and conversion industries. It says investments must be made in research, development and demonstration "to consolidate technical advances and strengthen American leadership" in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies. The government should ensure "there will be a healthy and growing nuclear energy sector to which uranium miners, fuel cycle providers, and reactor vendors can sell their products and services".

The report says there needs to be a "whole-of-government approach" to supporting the US nuclear energy industry in exporting civil nuclear technology in competition with foreign state-owned enterprises, while assuring consistency with US non-proliferation objectives and supporting national security. 

It recommends that the government should streamline regulatory reform and land access for uranium mining. It also says governmet should support efforts by the Department of Commerce to extend the Russian Suspension Agreement to protect against future uranium dumping in the US market.

In addition, it should enable the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny imports of nuclear fuel made in Russia or China for national security purposes. It calls for the government to "create a level playing field for all energy sources in power markets" and encourage Federal Energy Regulatory Commission action to improve competition in the wholesale energy markets.

“Simply put, it is within our power to pull America’s nuclear industrial base from the brink of collapse and restore our place as the global leader in nuclear technology, ensuring a strong national security position and buttressing our strength for generations to come,” the report says.

“America has lost its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy to state-owned enterprises, notably Russia and China, with other competitor nations also aggressively moving to surpass the United States,” it notes. The strategy “is designed to restore America’s competitive nuclear advantages”

Recommendations include:

Directly purchase uranium by establishing a Uranium Reserve;End DOE’s bartering of uranium and reevaluate DOE’s Excess Uranium Inventory Management Policy;Create a level playing field for all energy sources in power markets and encourage action to improve competition in the wholesale energy markets;Streamline regulatory reform and land access for uranium extraction;Support Department of Commerce efforts to extend the Russian Suspension Agreement to protect against future uranium dumping in the US market;Enable NRC to deny imports of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China for national security purposes;Fund R&D for Accident Tolerant Fuels, fund R&D for High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU), complete HALEU enrichment demonstration programme, and fund advanced water treatment technology for uranium mining and in-situ recovery;Support the National Reactor Innovation Center and Versatile Test Reactor;Fund R&D and support demonstration of US advanced nuclear reactor technology;Demonstrate the Use of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and micro-reactors to power federal facilities;Designate a senior Administration position dedicated to leading nuclear export coordination and implementation;Establish a Nuclear Industrial Base structure analogous to the Defense Industrial Base Fund the R&D for domestic origin commercial fuel replacements for international sale for use in foreign-origin reactors, including Accident Tolerant Fuel;Increase efficiencies in the export processes and the adoption of 123 Agreements to open new markets for exports of US civil nuclear technologies materials, and fuel;Add civil nuclear to the annual Select-USA Investment Summit;Expand civil nuclear international cooperation programs, including regulatory technical exchanges and assisting in the development of foreign nuclear regulatory frameworks to accelerate foreign licensing of US nuclear technologies with existing NRC licences;Ensure US financing institutions support civil nuclear industry to compete against foreign state financing;Promote the reentry of US vendors into the research reactor supply market.

The report states: “As nations implement strategies to deploy cleaner energy technologies, many increasingly favour nuclear reactors.” It notes that, while US private sector has “a massive opportunity” to compete in these markets, “the competition is a step ahead of the US in demonstrating next-generation technologies.”

It references to China’s fast reactor high temperature gas reactor (HTR-PM) as well as Russia’s two commercial fast reactors (BN-600 and BN-800) and the fast test reactor under construction.

The Working Group “supports continued funding of advanced nuclear reactor research and development and enabling the demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors in partnership with the private sector”. It “recommends using the purchasing power of the federal government to spur demand” in particular the Department of Defense, which is important “for sustaining a baseline of US nuclear power generation, while strengthening the durability of many US critical national security facilities”.

It says next-generation reactors “could be ideal for providing resilient and reliable off-grid power directly to military installations and other national security infrastructure”. The Working Group, therefore “recommends the adoption of policies by Executive Order that demonstrate SMRs’ potential to enhance energy flexibility and energy security at domestic military bases in remote locations…. Doing so would serve as a mechanism for adoption of early deployments of these technologies.”

The Working Group also recognises the importance of protecting the fuel fabrication subsector from erosion due to the strategic action of Russian or Chinese state-owned enterprises. It notes that Russian fuel company TVEL began a project in 2008 to develop replacement fuel for US-origin reactors operating in the United States. “While this path is not currently being pursued, TVEL could develop such replacement fuel in the near future. If this occurs, the Working Group supports swift action, via Executive Order to limit or ban the import of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China, on national security grounds, in so far as fuel imports adversely impact the physical and economic security of the United States.”

Industry responds

The US nuclear energy industry welcomed the report.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said it showed strong support for maintaining domestic fuel cycle capabilities. NEI president and CEO Maria Korsnick said support for the development of next-generation technologies and advanced fuels will drive innovation across the industry. “

And the administration plans bold steps to address challenges faced by US nuclear companies as they compete against state-owned enterprises in Russia and China. “Actions to bolster export financing, strengthen export coordination and open new markets to US firms will enable the US to foster 100-year relationships through nuclear energy exports and technology cooperation,” she said.

Maryland-based nuclear fuel and services supplier Centrus Energy said the US had dominated the global nuclear fuel market, which provided it with leverage to insist upon the highest standards of safety and nonproliferation in exchange for US exports of nuclear fuel.

“The collapse of US uranium mining, conversion, and enrichment capabilities has greatly reduced this influence, and the US has gone from the world’s largest exporter of nuclear fuel to the world’s largest importer,” the company noted.

International reaction

In response to the report, China’s Foreign Ministry representative Geng Shuang said China firmly opposes the politicisation of nuclear energy cooperation by the United States. Noting that the report said Russia and China do not adhere to high standards of non-proliferation in their nuclear energy cooperation unlike the United States and use it as a tool for marketing goods, he said: “This is absolutely untrue." "Beijing strongly opposes such erroneous politicization of nuclear energy cooperation and refuses to accept the fictitious accusations against China mentioned in this report", he said.

Commenting on the report, Russian daily, Sputnik, quoted Russia’s permanent representative to international organisations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, as saying Washington's plans to win a market share in the nuclear technologies sphere from Russia seemed strange given the current Covid-19 pandemic.

“From the political point of view, the presentation of such tasks looks at least strange and shows that the US energy sector representatives have not yet understood the new reality emerging in light of the coronavirus, which, I believe, calls for cooperation instead of tough competition", he said.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov also criticised attempts to cast doubt on Russian standards in the nuclear industry.

"For us, of course, such assessments are unacceptable, since Russia is a recognised world leader in this field, as in the whole sphere of nuclear technologies," Ryabkov told Sputnik.

Date: Wednesday, 29 April 2020
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