The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Climate 202

Congress banned Russian oil and gas imports. Will uranium be next?

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today at 9 a.m. Eastern, Washington Post Live will hold a discussion on federal climate policy with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) , co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus; Evelyn Wang, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy; and leading conservation experts. You can register here.

Not a subscriber? Sign up for The Climate 202 to get scoops and sharp analysis in your inbox each morning.

Below, we’ll cover the Agriculture Department’s announcement of the availability of $11 billion in grants and loans for rural electrification. But first:

Momentum grows for banning Russian imports of uranium used in nuclear fuel

Legislation to ban Russian uranium imports is gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers look to further punish Moscow for invading Ukraine.

Yet the United States remains heavily reliant on Russia for uranium, the main fuel used by nuclear power plants – yet another conundrum facing lawmakers as they seek to combat climate change while curbing U.S. dependence on foreign adversaries.

Congress took swift action to ban Russian oil and gas imports a month after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But blocking uranium imports has taken much longer, in part because Russia supplies more than 20 percent of U.S. nuclear fuel. Similar challenges are bedeviling the U.S. solar industry as it works to scale up domestic manufacturing while reducing its reliance on China, which dominates the global supply chain for solar cells and panels.

The details

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security will mark up three bills, including the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act.

  • The legislation would “prohibit the importation into the United States of unirradiated low-enriched uranium that is produced in the Russian Federation.”
  • The measure also would authorize the Energy Department to issue waivers for utilities that would have to shut down nuclear reactors if Russian supplies were immediately cut off. The waivers would allow these utilities to continue importing limited quantities of Russian uranium up until 2028.
  • The bill was introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who chairs the full committee, and Rep. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio), chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

McMorris Rodgers told The Climate 202 yesterday that she is “hopeful” the bill will eventually pass the House, adding that she is “working to build support” among committee members.

“We voted to ban [Russian] oil and natural gas last year, and I believe it’s important that we do this,” McMorris Rodgers said. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is using energy as a weapon, and we have a lot of infrastructure and supply here. And this is an important signal to investors that America wants to lead in nuclear energy.”

How we got here

America’s reliance on Russian uranium can be traced back to a 1993 nuclear disarmament program soon after the Cold War ended.

  • Under the program, dubbed Megatons to Megawatts, the United States bought 500 metric tons of uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads and converted it to nuclear reactor fuel. 
  • In exchange for giving U.S. utilities cheap fuel and placating arms-control advocates, Moscow got desperately needed cash.

At the time, policymakers in Washington hailed the deal as a win-win. But today, some experts say it had the unintended consequence of delivering such inexpensive Russian fuel that U.S. and European companies struggled to compete. 

Now, Russia ranks as the world’s biggest supplier of enriched uranium, accounting for nearly half of global capacity. And Moscow’s state-owned nuclear power conglomerate, Rosatom, has earned billions from U.S. and European customers.

Yet documents show Rosatom has been working to supply the Russian arms industry with components, technology and raw materials for missile fuel, heightening calls for sanctions on Capitol Hill.

In the Senate

Unlike the House version of the bill, which has only Republican co-sponsors, the Senate version has garnered strong bipartisan backing. 

  • Original co-sponsors include Sens. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
  • Manchin’s support bodes well for the bill’s potential passage out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, although the panel has not yet scheduled a markup of the measure.

“To be as dependent as we are on both Kazakhstan and Russia for our uranium is indefensible,” Lummis told The Climate 202 yesterday. “We get over 90 percent of our uranium from overseas, those countries being principal among them. We should be producing our own uranium, enriching it here and using it here.”

Lummis was referring to the fact that landlocked Kazakhstan ships much of its uranium through Russia to the United States and Europe.

View from the industry

Uranium mining companies, nuclear energy trade groups and nuclear-reliant utilities have largely said they support the bill, as long as policymakers help boost Western capacity for uranium mining and enrichment.

  • Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in an email that the trade group “commends” the co-sponsors of the legislation.
  • Joseph Dominguez, president and chief executive of Constellation, the largest U.S. nuclear utility, testified at a recent hearing that the utility has purchased enough nuclear fuel “to meet our needs through 2028" even if sanctions were imposed.
  • And Scott Melbye, executive vice president of uranium miner Uranium Energy and president of the Uranium Producers of America, told The Climate 202 that he thinks existing uranium mines could quickly ramp up Western production, while lawmakers could help speed up the licensing process for new mines in the coming years.

“After the Soviet Union broke up and Russia was joining the civilized world, we dialed back a lot of our activities to make room for Russia in the global nuclear fuel market,” Melbye said. “Obviously, with the events in Ukraine, everyone is really rethinking that.”

Agency alert

USDA announces $11 billion to bring clean energy to rural America 

The Agriculture Department today announced the availability of nearly $11 billion in grants and loans to help deploy clean energy in rural communities, marking the largest investment in rural electrification since former president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 Rural Electrification Act.

The money, which was authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act, will come from two programs.

  • The Powering Affordable Clean Energy Program will make $1 billion available in partly forgivable loans to clean-energy developers or electric service providers to help finance large-scale solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydropower and storage projects. 
  • The Empowering Rural America Program will deliver $9.7 billion to eligible rural electric cooperatives to deploy renewable energy and carbon capture technology. 

“An investment in rural America is an investment in all America,” John Podesta, the White House senior adviser for clean-energy innovation and implementation, told reporters on a call yesterday. “We’re committed to do all we can to make sure that the best strategy reaches every corner of our country.” 

Energy Department to buy 3 million barrels to replenish oil reserve

The Energy Department announced Monday that it is seeking bids for up to 3 million barrels of oil to replenish the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in August, marking the agency’s second attempt to fill the emergency fuel stockpile since it released more than 200 million barrels last year to help ease soaring energy costs, Bloomberg News’s Jennifer Jacobs and Ari Natter report. 

In a statement, the agency said it plans to “repurchase crude at a lower price than the over $94 per barrel price it was sold for in 2022, while strengthening energy security by providing certainty to the industry in a way that helps encourage near-term supply.”

Monday’s solicitation comes after the agency canceled a January attempt to refill the reserve because it received offers that were either too expensive or didn’t meet other specifications. Last fall, the Biden administration said it wants to replenish the reserve when prices are at or below $67-$72 per barrel. 

Awards will be announced in June. As it stands, the reserve holds about 360 millions barrels of oil, or nearly half of its overall capacity, according to Energy Department data. 

Climate in the courts

Supreme Court declines to hear Delaware, Hoboken climate cases

The Supreme Court yesterday declined a request from fossil fuel companies to move climate liability cases to federal court, allowing lawsuits from Delaware and the city of Hoboken, N.J., to proceed in state court.

Both lawsuits are aimed at holding oil and gas companies — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell accountable for allegedly misleading the public about their role in causing climate change. Last month, the high court also turned down petitions to hear climate liability lawsuits brought by Rhode Island and cities or counties in California, Colorado, Maryland and Hawaii.

In the atmosphere


Thanks for reading!