USA plans revival of uranium sector

12 May 2020

The US nuclear industry had its "best year ever" in 2019, as it "led the world" in generating more than 809 terawatt hours of electricity, Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy (DOE), said yesterday. Despite this achievement, the country's ability to produce domestic nuclear fuel is "on the verge of a collapse", she added.

Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy (Image: DOE)

In an op-ed published on the Department of Energy's website, Baranwal noted that uranium production in the USA has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s as its nuclear power plant operators replaced domestic uranium production with less expensive imports. About 90% of the uranium fuel used today in US reactors is produced by other countries. Last year, the USA produced around 174,000 pounds of uranium, the lowest annual total in more than 70 years.

"Our uranium miners are eager for work, the nation's only uranium conversion plant is idle due to poor market conditions, and our inability to compete with foreign state-owned enterprises (most notably from China and Russia) is not only threatening our energy security but weakening our ability to influence the peaceful uses of nuclear around the world," Baranwal wrote.

The DOE recently released its strategy for Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage, which followed the Nuclear Fuel Working Group, established by President Trump.

The first immediate step in this plan calls for DOE to establish a uranium reserve programme, according to which the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) 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, re-establish active conversion capabilities, and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption.

NE will initiate a competitive procurement process for establishing the Uranium Reserve programme "within the next year", Baranwal said. Additional support will be considered over a 10-year period as market conditions evolve, she added. This will include "consideration of enrichment needs after first addressing the very near-term pressure on the uranium mining and conversion sub-sectors".

Researched and written by World Nuclear News