Keep Calm and Carry On: No Risk In the Uranium One Sale

By Sara Z. Kutchesfahani 

The Uranium One story — the one where Secretary Clinton “gave away all of our uranium to Russia” — is back in the news. The politics behind it are covered here, but it’s important to understand why, from a technical perspective, this whole “controversy” is ridiculous. Despite what Fox News and less mainstream purveyors of conspiracy theories are saying, the Uranium One story is not a scandal; it’s standard operating procedure.

The facts here are simple.

First, commercial companies mine uranium all the time. A small proportion of mined uranium is used for producing medical isotopes and in naval propulsion, but the majority of it is used for nuclear energy. Uranium mines operate in about 20 countries, but U.S. production levels are low. As a result, most of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants is imported. In 2015, owners and operators of U.S. nuclear power reactors purchased 57 million pounds of uranium, mainly from Canada and Kazakhstan. An open, accessible uranium market is essential given that nuclear power produces 20 percent of our electricity.

Second, Uranium One is one of many foreign-owned uranium mining companies that operates in the United States. Based in Toronto, Canada, Uranium One also has operations in Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and South Africa. It was formed in 2005 as a Canadian public company, and was bought by Russia’s Rosatom in January 2013. Other global companies operating uranium mines in the United States include, Cameco (Canadian-owned, operates uranium mines in Nebraska and Wyoming), and BHP Billiton (Anglo-Australian owned, operates uranium mines in Texas).

Third, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency body run by the Department of the Treasury, together with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, approved the majority sale of Uranium One to Rosatom. CFIUS is a committee — committee being the operative word here — that reviews deals that would transfer to foreign ownership companies that might be sensitive to national security.

In 2016, misleading reports surfaced contending that Secretary Clinton received money from several people affiliated with the sale, and then pushed CFIUS to approve it in return. But, CFIUS doesn’t work like that. Secretary Clinton’s vote would have been only one of nine. Further, cabinet secretaries don’t typically deal with the committee — that task is delegated to an assistant secretary. For Secretary Clinton, that fell to the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, Jose Fernandez. Further, the CFIUS decision on the Uranium One deal was unanimous — all nine representatives agreed to approve it. Of course, while Uranium One has control of more than 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity, it has no ability to export that uranium. Basically, what is mined here, stays here. 

Fourth, nuclear energy cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is not new. In 2011, the U.S. and Russia signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement — a “123 Agreement” — permitting the significant transfer or nuclear material, equipment, and components for nuclear research and nuclear power production between the two nations. That agreement was approved by Congress. 

Finally, a nuclear energy cooperation agreement between the United States and Russia helped to get rid of 20,000 bombs worth of nuclear material. The Megatons to Megawatts Program, or the 1993 United States-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, was one of the most successful nuclear non-proliferation programs to date. The agreement, which was completed on schedule in December 2013, allowed for 500 metric tons of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) — equivalent to 20,000 nuclear warheads — to be recycled into more than 14,000 metric tons of low enriched uranium (LEU). That LEU was then sold to the United States for use as fuel in American nuclear power plants. In other words, over two decades, we salvaged excess stocks of Russian HEU — material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon — that was converted to LEU, which was then used to power one out of every 10 light bulbs in America.

In sum, uranium mining is not a crime, nor is the U.S.-government-approved foreign ownership of uranium mines. Mined uranium that fuels nuclear power plants around the world helps to generate much-needed electricity. The international community can, does and should cooperate in this arena. It’s just that simple. 

We live in a world that’s rife with nuclear threats and despite fact-free assertions from conspiracy theorists, Uranium One mining uranium to produce energy is not one of them.