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Russia dominates global nuclear reactor and fuel supply chains

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Wind turbine and cooling towers of the Cruas-Meysse nuclear energy plant in France, April 12, 2021.

Jean-Marie HOSATTE | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Photos

Russia’s battle in Ukraine has pushed international locations across the globe to wean themselves from Russian oil and pure fuel.

Parallel conversations are imminent within the nuclear power area, too, as a result of Russia can also be a dominant participant in international provide chains of nuclear reactor expertise, as is detailed by a brand new paper revealed Monday from Columbia College’s Heart on World Power Coverage.

There have been 439 nuclear reactors in operation across the globe in 2021, and 38 of them had been in Russia, an extra 42 had been made with Russian nuclear reactor expertise, and 15 extra below development on the finish of 2021 had been being constructed with Russian expertise.

Decreasing or eliminating dependence on nuclear provide chains from Russia will differ by nation and wish.

If a rustic has not but constructed nuclear reactors, then they will, from the start, resolve to not contract with Russia. The U.S., France, Korea and China are “viable” provider choices, in keeping with the paper.

Second, if a rustic already has Russian nuclear reactor fashions, VVERs, then in all probability appears to be like to Russia for restore elements and providers. (VVER stands for ‘water-water power reactor’ in Russian, which is vodo-vodyanoi enyergeticheskiy reaktor in Russian, ergo the acronym.) On this case, international locations can get restore help from Westinghouse, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, in accordance the the report.

Then there may be the problem of gas. Nuclear fission reactors are fueled with enriched uranium.

Russia mines roughly 6% of the uncooked uranium produced yearly, in keeping with the report. That is an quantity that may be changed if different international locations that mine uranium enhance their uranium mining.

Nevertheless, uranium doesn’t go immediately from a mine right into a nuclear reactor. It has to undergo conversion and enrichment earlier than it may be used as gas in a nuclear reactor.

Right here, Russia is a dominant participant. Russia owned 40% of the entire uranium conversion infrastructure on the planet in 2020, and 46% of the entire uranium enrichment capability on the planet in 2018, in keeping with the report. (This was essentially the most up-to-date knowledge publicly out there, in keeping with the report authors.)

That is the place the U.S. and allied international locations would wish to focus their consideration, in keeping with the report, which was co-authored by Paul Dabbar, a former below secretary of Power for Science on the Division of Power, and Matthew Bowen, a analysis scholar at Columbia’s Heart on World Power Coverage.

Apart from Russia, these uranium conversion and enrichment capabilities exist in Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.

These capacities “are sufficient to switch not less than some” of the conversion and enrichment that Western nuclear reactors want, nevertheless it’s not clear that the capability will be capable of absolutely substitute the Russian capability.

The U.S. additionally must be ready for gas that goes into superior reactors, that are at the moment in improvement, and require uranium enriched to fifteen to19.75%, the place typical mild water reactors which might be at the moment in operation in the US use uranium enriched to between 3 to five %.

This high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) gas is at the moment solely out there at a business scale from Russia, in keeping with the report.

“Extra funding in mining, conversion, and enrichment amenities could also be mandatory to completely extricate Western nuclear gas chains from Russian involvement, Dabbar and Bowen write of their report. “Nevertheless, including ample new conversion capability and enrichment capability will take years to perform.”

However to persuade non-public firms to dedicate cash and sources to uranium infrastructure, they want the federal government to decide to not reverting to Russian provides.

“Their fear shall be that in a 12 months or two, maybe much less, Russian uranium merchandise shall be allowed again into nationwide markets and can undercut them, inflicting them to lose out on their investments,” Dabbar and Bowen stated.

In the US, there is just one uranium conversion facility — it is in Metropolis, Illinois — and it has been on standby since November 2017. Its reopening is “pending market enchancment and buyer assist,” in keeping with a power point presentation from the partnership between Basic Atomics and Honeywell that operates the plant, ConverDyn. It will not be capable of return to operability till 2023, when it may convert 7,000 tons of uranium per 12 months. To ramp as much as 15,000 tons per 12 months, it should take the one plant longer than 2023.

Subsequently, Dabbar and Bowen stated it will be prudent for the US to wean off Russian confinement capability “a interval of years not months.”

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