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Does Russia sell nearly $1 billion in uranium to the U.S. a year?

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)
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“We are still sending about $100 million every month to Russia to buy uranium.”

— Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), interviewed on Fox News, April 13

“In 2021 Russian imports [of uranium] cost almost $1 billion, money that helped underwrite Mr. Putin’s war machine.”

— Barrasso, in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, April 12

The Biden administration has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, including eliminating preferential trading privileges and banning imports of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas and coal. So we were surprised to hear these numbers from Barrasso — that Russia received nearly $1 billion for uranium products in 2021 and is on track to earn $1.2 billion this year. The uranium is generally used as fuel to generate electricity in nuclear power plants.

Barrasso, the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, represents Wyoming, which has uranium mines that would benefit from a ban on Russian uranium. In fact, the domestic uranium mining industry has all but come to a halt, with production falling to an all-time low in 2019, as nuclear energy increasingly has relied on imports. That constituency might have made Barrasso a suspect source, though we have found that he does not routinely make up his numbers.

It turns out that it was unexpectedly hard to land on a solid answer. Different government agencies churn out data that cannot easily be added together. Moreover, uranium does not trade on an open market like other commodities, so buyers and sellers negotiate contracts privately. Barrasso’s number is difficult to verify and appears somewhat exaggerated. But he may be in the ballpark.

The Facts

Readers may remember a controversy concerning the sale of a Canadian company called Uranium One during the Obama administration to a Russian state-owned company called Rosatom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a minor role in its approval, but during the 2016 presidential campaign, opponents falsely claimed the deal involved 20 percent of the U.S. uranium supply.

Not so. Uranium One represented just a tiny part of U.S. production. Rosatom was much more interested in the company’s holdings in Kazakhstan, the world’s leading uranium producer. In 2021, Rosatom sold all of its shares in the U.S. subsidiary.

In 2020, Canada just barely held its position as the No. 1 supplier of uranium to owners and operators of U.S. civilian nuclear power reactors, just ahead of Kazakhstan, according to the Energy Information Administration. Both countries supplied about 22 percent of the uranium purchased from abroad, while Russia was in third place, with 16 percent.

That’s a much higher percentage than products that have already been banned; 5 percent of U.S. coal imports and 8 percent of petroleum products come from Russia.

When we first studied EIA’s data, we realized it suggested the value of Russian uranium in 2020 was just $207 million. (EIA showed 8.054 million pounds of Russian uranium was purchased at an average price of $25.73 in 2020.) That’s much lower than $1 billion.

But then it turned out that the EIA numbers reflect the contracts for natural uranium in the nuclear fuel chain that were entered into by U.S. civilian nuclear power reactor operators during a calendar year.

In other words, this uranium may already be in the United States, may arrive in the country in future years, or may never physically ever arrive in the United States as material gets swapped at different points in the fuel chain. (These are “book transfers” because ownership in commodity markets is not the same as possession.)

Natural uranium often includes a uranium concentrate known as yellowcake. But the EIA figures do not include a significant amount of enrichment services purchased from Russia or other Russia-based entities that operate in the uranium industry, according to Morgan Butterfield, an EIA spokesman. Before uranium can be used as fuel for nuclear power, it must be enriched. (In between is another step in which the yellowcake is converted into uranium hexafluoride.)

So then we turned to a public database of trade statistics maintained by the International Trade Commission (ITC).

In 1992, the Commerce Department suspended an investigation into whether Russia was undercutting the price of U.S. domestic uranium, and in exchange Russia agreed to limit its sales to agreed-upon levels. The deal has been extended several times, most recently in 2020 during the Trump administration. The new agreement, which continues through 2040, allowed Russia to hike the sales in the initial years of the new agreement, to up to 24 percent of enrichment demand, before reducing the ceiling to 15 percent starting in 2028. The higher limits in some years were intended to grandfather previous contracts.

The Federal Register notice contained the trade code numbers, known as Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) statistical reporting numbers, for various types and forms of uranium, including enriched uranium. So we entered all of the codes in ITC’s public database. The search turned up a total of $645,489,213 in uranium imports from Russia for 2021, or 550,388 kilograms. That appeared to be lower than the 596,682 kilograms permitted in the extension of the anti-dumping agreement.

In 2016, the ITC database shows, the United States imported $1.033 billion in uranium, or 570,783 kilos. But then the value of imports dropped sharply as U.S. demand dropped. In 2020, for instance, about $568 million in Russian uranium was exported, or 452,947 kilograms.

But this figure is not necessarily complete either. In a 2017 investigation of the uranium trade with Russia, the International Trade Commission pondered many of the same data sources that we consulted and concluded that “trade in natural uranium cannot be simply added to trade in enriched uranium to obtain a meaningful statistic, except possibly by value.”

We also contacted members of the Ad Hoc Utilities Group (AHUG), a trade group of nuclear energy companies, to see if they would reveal how much they plan to pay this year to Russia for uranium products. Most refused to answer, but Suzanne Hosn, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Company, said the company has most of the fuel it needs for now. “We are evaluating options for the small amount of fuel supply we need given the current international situation,” she said.

So how does Barrasso come up with nearly $1 billion for imports of Russian uranium products in 2021 and $1.2 billion this year?

Brian Faughnan, a spokesman for the minority staff of the Energy committee, provided a screenshot of a webpage showing U.S. sales for Rosatom’s subsidiary Techsnabexport, generally known as TENEX, which exports nuclear fuel cycle products. The website page has since been deleted, and no archived page appears to exist.

The webpage indicated that TENEX had $784 million sales in “America” in 2020 and 99 percent of those sales were in uranium products. So that would be about $775 million, a higher figure than the $568 million shown in the ITC database for enriched uranium sales from Russia that year.

Presumably, the TENEX sales figures combined enriched and natural uranium sales — something that supposedly could not be gleaned from government data. It’s probably just a coincidence, but if you combine the $207 million in the EIA accounting of natural uranium sales in 2020 and the $568 million in ITC database for other uranium product sales in 2020, you end up with exactly $775 million.

Fletcher Newton, president of TENEX-USA, declined to comment, saying the information is confidential.

Faughnan said the 2020 numbers on the webpage were used to estimate Russia’s uranium sales in 2021. Russia supplied 16 percent of uranium in 2020, according to the EIA, and was permitted to supply up to 24 percent in 2021, so that would be a 50 percent increase, he said. So the TENEX sales figure was increased by 50 percent, resulting in a calculation of $1.2 billion in 2021.

This math appears to be a bit fuzzy. The EIA figures focus on natural uranium, not enriched uranium. Moreover, in 2020, Russian enriched uranium imports were limited to as much as 20 percent, or even higher, not 16 percent. So the numbers are apples and oranges. According to the screenshot, “America” makes up 36 percent of TENEX’s 2020 revenue total of $2.1 billion. It does not make sense for the U.S. revenue to increase so much when the quota goes only from 20 percent to 24 percent.

Moreover, another U.S. company, Centrus Energy, markets Russian nuclear fuel and could account for one-third of the Russian enriched uranium trade.

Confusingly, in the Wall Street Journal, Barrasso wrote that Russian uranium imports were “almost $1 billion” in 2021. Then a day later he said on Fox that imports were a $100 million a month in 2022, or $1.2 billion. But under the logic presented by Faughnan, Russian uranium sales in 2022 should decline because the anti-dumping deal limits imports to 20 percent, a reduction from 24 percent in 2021. Faughnan did not respond to emails requesting an explanation of this discrepancy.

We noticed that at a March 31 Senate Energy Committee hearing that Barrasso attended, Scott Melbye, president of the Uranium Producers of America, testified that “more than $1 billion per year in nuclear fuel purchases are flowing from the United States to Rosatom.” He told The Fact Checker that the number for what he called “blood uranium” could be as high as $1.3 billion. He said it was also calculated by assuming Russia in 2021 hit the 24 percent export target. But he acknowledged “this isn’t a precise estimate.”

Since the TENEX document shows that its sales in 2020 were about 36 percent higher than the official trade figures, perhaps a better approach would be to increase the 2021 trade numbers by a similar percentage. That yields an estimate of $880 million in 2021. That’s much less than $1.2 billion, but relatively close to the “almost $1 billion” figure Barrasso used in his Wall Street Journal article.

Another complicating factor, noted by both Faughnan and Melbye, is that much of the uranium from Kazakhstan travels through Russia before it is exported to the United States. In 2020, Russia produced 38 percent of the worldwide supply of uranium hexafluoride, much of it from uranium from Kazakhstan. Russia also has 43 percent of global enrichment capacity.

There are other reasons to treat the figures with some skepticism. Jessica Sondgeroth, a reporter for Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, said that U.S. utilities often swap converted uranium for enrichment services provided by TENEX. Before the recent extension of the anti-dumping agreement, if the swapped converted uranium was enriched in Europe, it was then designated as a European product. Now it’s treated as “Russian-origin, even if it never spent any time in Russia, simply because it is a part of that transaction with Rosatom’s TENEX,” she said. “That puts a bigger restriction on Russian imports in 2021 compared with 2020.”

The Pinocchio Test

We found this to be a fascinating exploration, but we hope readers do not think we left them with a shaggy dog story.

Barrasso’s figures are probably exaggerated, especially claiming $100 million in sales a month, and his math does not make much sense. But getting a handle on the actual number is wildly complicated. Saying Russia earned “nearly $1 billion” for uranium sales to the United States in 2021 is probably good enough for government work. It’s certainly an astonishing figure that is worth noting, given the many other sanctions on Russia.

Given the difficulty of reaching a firm conclusion, we will leave this unrated.

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