NewsWestern democracies finance Putin's regime via uranium deals

Western democracies finance Putin's regime via uranium deals

Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant
Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant
Images source: © Public domain
Łukasz Michalik

9 July 2024 19:33

Although Russia's aggression against Ukraine has lasted for over two years now – and counting from the secession of Donbas – more than a decade, many Western democracies still finance Vladimir Putin's regime by purchasing strategic raw materials from Russia. This includes the United States, which in May 2024 placed the largest order for Russian uranium in over a year.

May's purchases of Russian uranium cost the United States over £162 million and were the largest since the spring of 2023. While the war in Ukraine has brought many economic repercussions, not all industries have felt them in the same way.

As the West imposes more sanctions on Russia, there is one area where cooperation is not only going well but has experienced exceptional growth since 2022. This area is the global trade in enriched uranium – a raw material essential for nuclear power.

From ore to fuel for power plants

While Kazakhstan is the largest exporter of uranium globally, and other leading countries include – alongside Australia and Canada – Namibia and Niger, other countries play significant roles in the international market. This is because uranium, or rather its ore, is just a raw material, not much different from other natural resources exploited by the mining industry.

After being extracted from the ground, uranium ore undergoes processing, resulting in an intermediate product known as yellowcake. It contains the non-fissile isotope U-238 (99.3%) and fissile U-235, as well as trace amounts of the isotope U-234. Initially, the percentage share of U-235 is limited to about 0.7%. To increase the value and significance of uranium, it needs to be enriched.

Yellowcake - a semi-finished product made from uranium ore
Yellowcake - a semi-finished product made from uranium ore© Flickr, IAEA, Lic. CC BY-SA 2.0

A by-product of this process is U-238 or depleted uranium. Due to its high density, it is used in the armour of Abrams tanks and in certain types of ammunition, where uranium forms, among other things, armour-piercing projectiles.

Environmental impact

The most common method of uranium enrichment is the use of centrifuges, where centrifugal force leads to the separation of U-235, which is lighter and remains in the central part of the centrifuge, from U-238, which as the heavier isotope accumulates along the centrifuge walls.

This process requires extensive infrastructure and strict oversight, and its result – aside from uranium production – is significant amounts of waste, including some that require storage planning for millennia.

These very issues – rather than technological superiority – have led countries that ignore environmental costs, such as Russia and China, to dominate global enriched uranium production.

Radioactive waste container
Radioactive waste container© Bill Ebbesen, Lic. CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

A propaganda success for the Kremlin

Widespread media coverage of the sale of Russian uranium to the United States is not just a business success, but also – and perhaps primarily – a propaganda victory for the Kremlin. The information about American orders is heavily emphasized by Russian propaganda.

Although Putin's propagandists may celebrate the success, it seems that supplying America with uranium is their swan song. The resource dependency of the free world on countries at odds with liberal democracy is a fact, but over two years of Russian attacks on Ukraine has proved to be long enough for changes in logistical chains to start taking effect. This also applies to uranium.

In April 2024, the United States announced the first – for now, very modest – batch of domestically produced enriched uranium from Ohio. While 91 kilograms is a minuscule amount compared to the country's total needs, estimated at over 16 million kilograms, it is a sign of upcoming changes. Especially since it is accompanied by a recently introduced ban on importing uranium from Russia.

Uranium pellet, from which fuel rods used in nuclear power plants are made.
Uranium pellet, from which fuel rods used in nuclear power plants are made.© Public domain

The beginning of the end of Russian dominance

Although it is subject to several caveats, it shows a political willingness to end dependency on Russia. This also applies – though to a lesser extent – to Europe, whose growing enrichment capacities have worried Moscow to the extent that it supported a coup in Niger, attempting to destabilise the supply of strategic raw materials to countries like France.

The marginalisation of Russia's role in the global uranium trade seems, however, inevitable. A coalition of Western countries and Japan has decided to spend billions of pounds on expanding their own infrastructure for uranium enrichment.

The United Kingdom delivered another blow to Putin by deciding to launch the first facility in Europe for producing highly enriched uranium, a resource previously supplied exclusively by Russia. While the effects of these actions will only be visible after years, the process of pushing Russia out of the global uranium market has already begun.

Related content