Thousands and thousands of empty holes line the bare concrete floor of the Pentagon-sized cavernous facility nestled in an Appalachian valley.
Just 16 of them house slender, 30-foot-tall centrifuges that enrich uranium and turn it into the key ingredient that powers nuclear power plants. And so far they are at peace.
However, if each hole had a working centrifuge, the device could get the United States out of a predicament that has implications for both the war in Ukraine and America’s transition away from burning fossil fuels. American companies today pay roughly $1 billion a year to Russia’s state nuclear agency to buy the fuel that generates more than half of the emissions-free energy in the United States.
It is one of the most significant remaining flows of money from the United States to Russia, and it continues despite strenuous efforts by America’s allies to cut economic ties with Moscow. Payments for enriched uranium are made to subsidiaries of Rosatom, which in turn is closely linked to the Russian military apparatus.
The United States’ reliance on nuclear power is poised to grow as the country seeks to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. But no American company is enriching uranium. The United States once dominated the market until a swirl of historical factors, including a deal to buy enriched uranium between Russia and the United States to support Russia’s peaceful nuclear program after the collapse of the Soviet Union, allowed Russia to command half the world market. . The United States has completely stopped enriching uranium.
The United States and Europe have largely stopped buying Russian fossil fuels as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine. But building a new enriched uranium supply chain will take years — and significantly more government funding than is currently allocated.
That the huge facility in Piketon, Ohio, sits nearly empty more than a year after Russia’s war in Ukraine is indicative of the difficulty.
About a third of the enriched uranium used in the United States is now imported from Russia, the world’s cheapest producer. Most of the rest is imported from Europe. The last, smaller part is produced by a British-Dutch-German consortium operating in the United States. Nearly a dozen countries around the world depend on Russia for more than half of their enriched uranium.
The company, which operates the Ohio plant, says it could take more than a decade to produce quantities that rival Rosatom. The Russian Nuclear Agency, which produces both low-enriched and weapons-grade fuel for Russian civilian and military purposes, is also responsible for controlling the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. causing concern that a battle over it could cause releases of radioactive material or even more meltdowns.
“We can’t be held hostage by nations that don’t have our values, but that’s what happened,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy Committee. Mr. Manchin is the sponsor a bill to restore America’s enrichment capacity this would support federal subsidies for the industry that the United States privatized in the late 1990s.
The vulnerability of nuclear power
Reliability also leaves current and future nuclear plants in the United States vulnerable to Russia halting sales of enriched uranium, which analysts say is a conceivable strategy for President Vladimir V. Putin, who often uses energy as a geopolitical tool.
Although the war is now in its second year and its end is in sight, the US government has shown little willingness to start domestic enrichment. Billions of dollars in potential federal funding remain bogged down in red tape.
“It’s inexplicable that more than a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration doesn’t seem to have a plan to end this addiction,” said James Krellenstein, director of GHS Climate, a clean energy consulting firm that recently released white paper on topic. “We could eliminate almost all of America’s dependence on Russian enrichment by completing the centrifuge plant in Ohio.”
The U.S. centrifuge plant in Ohio will also be key to producing another, more concentrated form of enriched uranium, which is critical to the development of smaller, safer and more efficient next-generation reactors. This decades-long development in nuclear power has received billions of dollars in federal development funds. However, in the United States, next-generation reactors remain in the design phase.
One American company, TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, had to delay the opening of the first new-generation nuclear power plant in the United States by at least two years because it pledged not to use Russian enriched uranium. .
The TerraPower facility will be built on the site of a coal-fired power plant in remote Kemmerer, Wyo., that will be decommissioned in 2025. TerraPower has promised jobs and retraining for all coal-fired plant workers. But the delay has some in Kemmerer dubious.
All of this leads to an unlikely connection between Piketon and Kemmerer, towns of 2,400 residents nestled in America’s coal country, both hoping the crisis facing the U.S. government will benefit their economies. “Some of the biggest national security issues facing the country run through Piketon and Kemmerer,” said Jeff Navin, director of external affairs for TerraPower.
America’s dependence on foreign enriched uranium reflects its competitive disadvantages in microchips and critical minerals used to make electric batteries—two essential components of the global energy transition.
But in the case of uranium enrichment, the United States once had an advantage and decided to give it up.
In the 1950s, when the nuclear era began in earnest, Piketon became the site of one of two huge enrichment facilities in the Ohio River Valley region that used a process called gaseous diffusion.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union developed centrifuges in a secret program, relying on a team of German physicists and engineers captured at the end of World War II. His centrifuges have proven to be 20 times more energy efficient than gaseous diffusion. At the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia had roughly equal enrichment capacities but huge differences in production costs.
In 1993, Washington and Moscow signed an agreement called Megatons to Megawatts, in which the United States bought and imported much of Russia’s massive weapons-grade uranium, which it then reduced for use in power plants. This provided the US with cheap fuel and Moscow with cash and was seen as a gesture of de-escalation.
But it also destroyed the profitability of inefficient US enrichment facilities that were eventually shut down. Then, instead of investing in modernized centrifuges in the United States, successive administrations kept buying from Russia.
The Piketon centrifuge, operated by Centrus Energy, occupies a corner of the site of the old gas diffusion facility. Building it to its full potential would create thousands of jobs, according to Centrus. And it could produce the kinds of enriched uranium needed in current and new nuclear power plants.
Without Piketon’s output, plants like TerraPower would have to look to foreign producers like France, who might be a more politically acceptable and reliable supplier than Russia, but would also be more expensive.
TerraPower sees itself as an integral part of phasing out climate-warming fossil fuels in electricity. Its reactor would include a sodium-based battery that would allow the plant to ramp up electricity production on demand, offsetting fluctuations in wind or solar production elsewhere.
It’s part of the energy transition that pro-coal senators like Mr. Manchin and John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, want to fix as they seek a nuclear replacement for lost coal jobs and revenue. While Mr. Manchin in particular has complicated the Biden administration’s efforts to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, he has also pushed back against colleagues, mostly Democrats, who are skeptical of nuclear power’s role in that transition, in part because of the radioactive waste it generates. .
“We have emissions targets that we’re trying to meet,” Mr. Manchin said, “and people who talk about taking nuclear power out of the mix are living in an unrealistic bubble.”
The Department of Energy estimates that meeting U.S. emissions reduction commitments will require more than doubling nuclear power capacity.
Without U.S. competition in enrichment and next-generation reactors, TerraPower and Centrus officials say the gap between Washington and its rivals will only widen as Russia and China race ahead to win long-term nuclear contracts with countries that the United States is also pursuing . court.
“The administration is talking really well about using American technology to support its geopolitical goals, as well as the speed with which we need to move to address climate change,” Mr. Navin said. “But their failure to move this very basic process forward in such a long time frame is puzzling.”
This week, the department released the long-awaited draft request for proposals to increase home enrichment, especially with plants like TerraPower. Kathryn Huff, the assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said the proposal was an “important step” to end America’s “trust in Russia.”
A lifeline in coal country
In Piketon and Kemmerer, the stakes are more personal.
Once 1,800 workers finish dismantling the old gas diffusion facility outside Piketon, there will be even fewer good-paying jobs and reasons to stay, said Billy Spencer, who has been the town’s mayor for 20 years and worked as a security guard at the plant. 38 years before that.
Mr. Spencer recently raised the city’s flat monthly water fee by $15 to help pay off a 40-year loan for a new water treatment plant. Even that small bump will cause people to leave, he fears. “We’re not getting the government help we need,” he said.
There is still hope in Kemmerer that the hundreds of coal workers who will lose their jobs when the local plant closes will find work, but the delays are causing jitters. Bill Thek, the mayor, said he still hopes the city can grow enough to attract not just nuclear work but, for example, a plumber, a service Kemmerer now lacks.
“All we can do is hope they find a way to come together to sort this out,” Mr Thek said.
He produced the sound Adrienne Hurst.