Assuming Trump signs the bill or his veto is overridden, how might Russia strike back?
First, let’s discuss the background.
By a 98-2 vote, the Senate slapped sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. The only Senators voting against the bill was the odd mix of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. The bill passed the House by a 419-3 vote. Thus, any veto could easily be overridden.
Everyone is hopping mad over alleged Russia interference in the US election despite the fact there is not a shred of credible evidence.
Senator John McCain offered his typical babble: “The United States of America needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy.”
How Might Russia Strike Back?
Most of the uranium loaded into U.S. nuclear power reactors is imported. During 2015, owners and operators of U.S. nuclear power reactors purchased 57 million pounds of uranium. Nearly half of these purchases originated from two countries, Canada and Kazakhstan, providing 17 million pounds and 11 million pounds of uranium, respectively.
U.S. uranium concentrate production, which started in 1949 and peaked in 1980, has recently been near historic lows. Uranium production was 0.63 million pounds of uranium (U3O8) in the first quarter 2016. At that rate, total 2016 production may be about 2.5 million pounds, only slightly higher than the low of 2.0 million pounds produced in 2003.
Nebraska and Wyoming are the only states that produced uranium concentrate in fourth-quarter 2015 and first-quarter 2016. Production in Texas and Utah stopped in the third quarter of 2015. The one uranium producer in Nebraska has decided to reduce production. Three new producers have begun operations in Wyoming since 2013, but the state’s other producers are scaling down production.
Employment in the U.S. uranium production industry generally correlates to the market price for uranium. The spot price of uranium increased from an annual average of $11 per pound in 2003 to nearly $100 per pound in 2007. Uranium production employment more than quadrupled from 321 person-years in 2003 to 1,563 person-years in 2008. Since then, uranium spot prices and production employment have been lower, with prices averaging below $30 per pound and employment at 625 person-years in 2015.
The Russians Have the Sanctions Hammer
Lost in all of this talk about the U.S. Congress adding sanctions onto Russia is Russia’s unique placement in the world’s Uranium industry. So much focus is placed on its Oil and Gas industry (and specifically the share of its exports) that it blinds our analysis to the how strong Russia’s position in world nuclear power is.
And, so, John McCain can grandstand all he wants about how Russia is nothing more than a “gas station masquerading as a country” what he doesn’t want to admit to himself or the world is that Russia is more central to the world’s uranium fuel market than Saudi Arabia ever was to the crude oil market.
Russia’s power in this industry doesn’t come from its production of Uranium Oxide (U3O8 or yellowcake) it comes from owning 45% of the world’s enrichment capacity into a usable fuel. Russia only produces around 3,000 tons of U3O8 annually.
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of yellowcake with the world’s largest reserves. Do you seriously think Kazakhstan, one of Russia’s strongest allies, is going to go it alone in one of its major industries if the new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia intensifies further?
I have two words for you. Hell and No.
Canada’s Athcabasca Basin in Saskatchewan has been instrumental in expanding world yellowcake supply in recent years. But, that’s not changing the dynamics of the industry, it’s just keeping Urainium prices depressed.
SWUs Trump SJWs
The issue isn’t ore production but turning that ore into usable fuel, called Single Work Units (SWU). And the U.S. and Canada are not interested in refining Uranium due to environmental policy. I’ve heard nothing from the Trump administration on this either, so, nothing is going to change in a way to affect current or fear future events.
Rosatom, the Russian State Nuclear Energy company, has tremendous leverage. The faux outrage over Hillary Clinton selling 20% of U.S. Uranium reserves to the Russians is irrelevant.
I will paraphrase her for the only time in my life, “What difference does it make” to expand ore production when the Russians effectively control the refineries?
Due to policy changes over the past twenty years the U.S. has no ability to credibly produce its own nuclear fuel. So, improved Canadian ore production still has to be shipped to Russia or Europe for processing.
19.5% of our electricity comes from Nuclear Power. The base load of the U.S. electricity grid is supplied by Russian SWU’s, folks. Without relations with Russia there is no air-conditioning.
We are the world’s largest consumer of SWU’s, using over 32% of the global total. That’s around 15.1 million SWUs. France is next at 14%. Over 90% of our Uranium consumption is imported.
All discussion about U.S. energy security is a non-starter until we discuss Uranium. It is the limit at which the U.S. Congress can make noise until Putin has had enough.
You notice he never talks about it. No one does. Because, all puns intended, this is truly the “Nuclear Option” in geopolitics. It is the hammer that can be brought down once the world is in an SWU deficit, which we are rapidly approaching.
China’s embracing of solar is all Keynesian pump-priming make-work. It’s not a solution to their energy problems. Russian Oil, Gas and Uranium is.
If things get really testy over the Nordstream-2 pipeline with Germany, then you can bet that becomes an issue as well. This is why the sanctions are so stupid. They are driving Germany into the arms of Russia even faster. They are driving the Russians to deepen ties with China.
Evidence on Russia Interference?
Despite weeks of media hyperventilation, there is no proof or even credible evidence on Russia.
Even if there is evidence, unless the US is willing to stop meddling abroad, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.
If we cannot keep our filthy hands to ourselves, why should we expect anyone else to?
Philosophical discussions aside, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
What the Sanction Bill is Really About
The bill is aimed specifically at the Nord Stream 2 project, which the US considers as detrimental to its interests.
Nord Stream 2 is a gas pipeline deal between Russia and the EU. It will bypass Ukraine, thus all the huffing and puffing by McCain.
This kind of meddling and unwarranted reactionary politics is precisely what sets off global trade wars.
In regards to the sanctions bill, I commented:
Even without the uranium angle, these sanctions were economic folly. Uranium is icing on the economic madness cake.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock