The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is exposing a lesser-known unexpected link between Russia and the United States: the nuclear fuel supply chain. Back in March 2022, President Biden announced sanctions on Russia’s energy exports, specifically oil and gas. But one notable export was left off of that list: uranium.
In 2021, the US relied on Russia for 14 percent of its enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. The process of enriching uranium is highly complicated and can only be done in certain countries — including Russia.
Uranium fuel starts as uranium ore, a naturally occurring radioactive material. Only very little of this ore is useful for fuel. Once mined, the ore is converted into yellowcake, which is just concentrated uranium. That yellowcake is turned into a gas, which is enriched with the isotope U-235. This isotope is fissile, making it more efficient for nuclear fuel. The enriched uranium is then fabricated into fuel rods and can be used in a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear power is highly controversial. It creates a lot of hazardous waste, which is stuck in political limbo in the US. There’s also the rare risk of meltdowns, like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. However, proponents say that nuclear power is a necessary source of carbon-free energy. While solar and wind power rely on the weather, nuclear power is an on-demand option that can fill in gaps left by other forms of carbon-free electricity. With the Biden administration’s goal of reaching 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035, nuclear power will likely continue to be a hot-button issue.
As the Russia-Ukraine war drags on, there are many suggestions about how the US can become more independent with its uranium supply. Check out our video to learn more.