As the U.S. has ceded the lead in nuclear technology to France, Russia, China and Canada, so it has let the uranium industry wither on the vine. We now import 83 percent of our uranium from other countries scattered widely around the world. Uranium mines closed here during the 1980s and are now having difficultly reopening because of environmental opposition. Our main source of imports if Canada and the famous Cigar Lake mine. Russia has been another large source but that has been mainly from the Megatons-to-Megawatts, where we have been burning up downblended enriched uranium from the old Soviet weapons program. The equivalent of 20,000 old warheads have been recycled, at times providing 10 percent of America’s electricity. That program is scheduled to end next year, however, and will not be renewed. Other major sources of raw uranium are Australia, Kazakhstan and Namibia, where Saddam Hussein once probed for uranium supplies.
On the enrichment side, the news is worse. Although the U.S. enriched 62 percent of its raw uranium last year, the nation’s only enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky closed in May. Originally built in 1952, it was the only remaining plant in the world still using the hold gas diffusion technology developed in World War II. Enrichment everywhere else, including in Iran, has long switched to more efficient centrifuge technology. The United States Uranium Corporation (USEC), which owned and operated Paducah, will draw down inventories and then begin fulfilling its contract obligations through 2022 by buying enriched uranium from Tenex, a Russian company. At that point we will be totally reliant on imported fuel for our remaining reactors.