New Mexico Senators Oppose Expanding Russian Uranium Imports
Senators from New Mexico and Ohio oppose suggested changes to the Suspension and Highly Enriched Uranium agreements, which currently allow only Russian nuclear fuel supplies derived from dismantled nuclear weapons to be delivered to U.S. utilities. New Mexico senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, as well as Ohio's Mike DeWine and Gregory Voinovich, came forward in defense of the interests of the emerging nuclear related industries. The senators represent states which are home to the United States' only uranium enrichment plants, the recently licensed National Enrichment Facility in New Mexico and the U.S. Enrichment Corporation plant in Ohio. New Mexico also lies in the uranium belt, and although there are not any current mining activities underway, a resumption has been proposed.
United States utility companies have asked that the agreement be changed so that Russia could sell uranium to the utility companies directly. According to the companies, limiting access in the current way will hinder the development of further nuclear power plants in this country. However, the Senators fear that changing the agreement would hinder the resurgence of the nuclear-related industries. These industries are not the power plants themselves, but the uranium mining and enrichment plants, which are the necessary precursors for the generation of nuclear power.
Russia is now the largest supplier of enriched uranium to United States utilities. Currently all of this uranium has been generated by down blending weapons grade materials to concentrations appropriate for power generation. The United States subsidizes these activities in order to encourage and aid Russia's efforts towards non-proliferation. The utility companies desire direct access to all Russian enriched uranium, not only down blended uranium.
The senators wrote, "[expanding Russian access] could have a very chilling effect on the massive investments needed to resurrect a healthy domestic U.S. enrichment industry." The two enrichment plants will require a combined investment of $3.2 billion. Once operational the two facilities would have the capacity to provide roughly half of the enriched uranium requirements of the United States nuclear power reactors.
President Bush will attend a Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg this weekend. One of the main topics for discussion will be global energy. It is expected that Bush and Russian President Putin will negotiate the uranium trading agreements then.
The Bush administration is also seeking to enter into a civilian nuclear pact with Russia, through which the United States would send spent nuclear fuel for storage and reprocessing in Russia. This plan would provide for the disposal of nuclear waste generated by the Bush Administration's proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Through GNEP, Bush intends to promote nuclear energy throughout the world and would reclaim the waste for reprocessing after the fuel rods are spent. Through the civilian nuclear pact, this waste from oversees would be reprocessed and stored in Russia.
Many in both the United States and Russia are opposed to such an arrangement. When Russia enacted a law allowing the import, storage and repossessing of foreign spent nuclear fuel, public opinion polls found 90% in opposition. Activists question where the waste by-products of reprocessing, including depleted uranium, highly radioactive fission products and plutonium will be disposed.