Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2022
By Bob Mayberry
It’s ironic to contemplate, devastating to realize, that while the U.S. has banned Russian oil, coal, and gas imports, we continue to buy uranium for our nuclear reactors from Moscow. How much are we spending on reactor fuel? Estimates differ wildly. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., claims the U.S. is “underwriting Putin’s war machine” to the tune of $100 million a month. But Sen. Barrasso has reason to exaggerate since uranium mining revenues in his state might increase following a ban on Russian imports.
The Washington Post reported that International Trade Commission figures for 2016 show the U.S. spending just over $1 billion on Russian uranium, but that figure shrank to $568 million in 2020. However, even those figures aren’t certain. Post reporter Glenn Kessler located a Senate Energy Committee webpage showing sales to the U.S. from Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, totaled $784 million in 2020.
Clearly the U.S. is spending between five hundred million and a billion dollars annually on Russian uranium. Interestingly, Rosatom was founded by Vladimir Putin in 2007. And, according to The Verge, it now produces 20% of the world’s reactor fuel.
According to Reuters, the U.S. relies on Russia, and its allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for roughly half of the uranium used to fuel our 93 reactors. Those units are responsible for nearly 20% of U.S. electricity. The Biden administration exempted uranium from the bans on Russian imports in part to keep electricity prices low.
Meanwhile, Sen. Barrasso and others are lobbying to add uranium to the Russian import ban, while simultaneously trying to kick-start uranium mining in states like Wyoming, Utah, Texas and Arizona, where large reserves are found. Uranium mining was largely abandoned in the U.S. due to the dangers of radioactive pollution. Thousands of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona have led to high levels of radioactive metals in the bodies of the women living on the reservation, according to a recent report from the University of New Mexico’s Navajo Birth Cohort Study.
While Sen. Barrasso and others call for renewed uranium mining, Native Americans demand long-overdue cleanup of abandoned mines, mills, and mountains of tailings scattered across the western U.S. that continue to emit dangerous radiation and contaminate water on Indigenous lands.
Transitioning to renewable energy would avoid uranium imports and cut toxic and radioactive pollution.
—Bob Mayberry is a retired English and Theatre Professor at Cal State University-Channel Islands.
Calma, Justine, “The US Can’t Seem to Quit Russian Uranium,” The Verge, 31 March 2022; Daniel, Will, “The U.S. is Miles Away from True Energy Independence, and It’s Not Because of Oil,” Fortune, 29 March 2022; Kessler, Glenn, “Does Russia Sell Nearly $1 Billion in Uranium to the U.S. a Year?,” Washington Post, 20 April 2022; Navajo Birth Cohort Study, University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy