Over the last decade, the world of fissionable material has experienced a quiet revolution. Plutonium, once the lethal darling of nations seeking a secure source of fuel for their nuclear reactors (and their nuclear weapons) has fallen from favor. Uranium has replaced plutonium as the feedstock of choice for the world’s nuclear haves. And business is booming.
Asian powers like China and India, concerned about energy security and environmental degradation—and despite the disaster at Fukushima—are turning to nuclear power. The demand for uranium is expected to grow by over 40% over the next five years.
Russia brings some unique advantages to the nuclear fuel business. The first is an impressive stockpile of excess plutonium. This, however, is a wasting asset as Russia works through its current inventory without generating significant new quantities of metal. Russia is keeping its fingers in the plutonium pot through a program of constructing fast breeder reactors—which generate a surplus of plutonium—despite their technical, safety, and cost headaches.
The second and most crucial advantage is what one might characterize as a determinedly cavalier attitude toward the hazards of nuclear waste, reinforced by the fact that Russia is already a nightmare of nuclear contamination. In fact, it is possible that any additional shipments of nuclear waste to Russia will not contribute significantly to the already dire state of affairs.
Nuclear waste is unpopular, as the successful effort to block the US disposal facility at Yucca Mountain attests. Russia’s ability to absorb it—despite growing anxiety and activism within the country—is a major competitive advantage. Countries and companies that burn nuclear fuel but have no local recourse except on-site storage are naturally interested—and sometimes legally compelled—to source their material from a supplier that is willing to accept and dispose of the waste.
Russia—even though its domestic uranium reserves are rather paltry—has become a major player in uranium production through investments in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and other nations. Mr. Putin and the Russian government has played geopolitical hardball in order to improve the competitive position of its ARMZ Uranium Holding Company, as the Mongolian example discussed below demonstrates.
Russia’s pivot toward uranium can be contrasted instructively with Japan’s. Plutonium can be regarded as one of Japan’s biggest misplaced industrial policy bets. As a very interesting article by Joseph Trento of the investigative organization National Security News Service, reveals, in the 1970s the Japanese government decided that Japan had to have a closed nuclear fuel cycle, in which plutonium would be generated in significant amounts in fast breeder reactors, extracted from spent nuclear fuel, and funneled back into Japanese nuclear power plants.
Continue reading at Uranium Boom and Plutonium Bust: Russia, Japan, China and the World