US OKs some uranium imports from Russia – but figures set to jump within decade

frontpageingressimage_HeULeu-2-1..jpg Photo: www.usec.org

The new purely commercial imports from Russia are set to begin in 2011 and would be limited by yearly quotas. The United States and Russia have agreed to relax US import restrictions to the extent of specified quantities of low-enriched uranium that are minimal.

But these quantities are trivial initially, say officials familiar with the agreement, and will jump to 485 tonnes of enriched uranium in 2013 after the ”Megatons for Megawatts” or HEU-LEU programme importing blended-down Russian military material expires – the figures are expected to get even higher after that.

Some 44 percent of the reactors in the United States are fueled in part with cheap uranium coming from the Megatons to Megawatts programme, and that figure could jump drastically after the non-proliferation efforts ends.

How Russia got by the anti-dumping laws

By defining uranium enrichment as a service, not a good, a US court last year opened the way to ending years of protection from Russian and EU imports.

USEC, Inc. – the Bethesda, Maryland based company that is one of the world’s leading suppliers of enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power plants for year – has been the US partner with Russia’s nuclear fuel export monopoly Tekhsnabexport (Tenex) on the "Megatons to Megawatts" programme, in which Russia has converted weapons-grade uranium to low-enriched uranium and sold it to USEC for commercial purposes.

The US Department of Commerce’s international Trade Administration, and Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency Rosatom initialled an amendment to the 1992 Agreement Suspending the Antidumping Investigation on Uranium from the Russian Federation – the ‘Suspension Agreement’ – on November 27th.

The amendment was published in the Federal Register on 4 December 4th, beginning a 30-day comment period. The amendment will be confirmed once the comment period has expired.

Amounts expected
The proposed amendment will allow Russia to export uranium products to the United States in accordance with the export limits and other terms detailed in the amendment.

The initialled amendment details export limits expressed in kilograms of uranium, as low-enriched uranium (LEU), at a product assay of 4.4 percent and a tails assay of 0.3 percent.

Quantities would initially be small, increasing steadily from 17 tonnes in 2011 to 41 tonnes in 2013 when the “Megatons to Megawatts” program is due to expire.

Quantities will rise sharply after 2013, increasing from 485 tonnes in 2014 to 514 tonnes by 2020.

USEC Concerned, but has no apparent ‘objections’ as yet

The importing of Russian low-enriched uranium for use in commercial power reactors has been a contentious issue for years because of concern that Russia, with huge amounts of the material, would undercut America’s domestic uranium supplier.

USEC has expressed concern about uncontrolled Russian uranium imports. The import of Russian low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in commercial nuclear power reactors has been a contentious issue for years because of concern that Russia, with its large amounts of the material, could undercut USEC’s prices.

USEC spokeswoman Linda Johnson said the company has not yet studied the details of the tentative agreement and could not comment on it specifically.

"We have no objection to imports of Russian commercial LEU -enriched uranium – at levels that do not jeopardize existing facilities and the various projects now underway to modernize the US fuel cycle in support of a nuclear renaissance," said Johnson in a statement.

Among those projects is a plan by USEC to build a uranium enrichment facility, using the centrifuge technology

Another source within USEC said last month, however, that a flood of very cheap Russian enrichment capacity would be a "significant threat to the ability of the US enrichment industry to deploy new production capacity."

USEC itself is currently working hard to do just that, as it constructs the Lead Cascade of its American Centrifuge facility, in Piketon, Ohio. USEC received a construction and operating license earlier this year. Others build new US enrichment capacity based on Urenco centrifuge technology.

USEC currently operates a gaseous diffusion enrichment facility in Paducah, Kentucky.

Charles Digges