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  • (blade slides)

  • (paper and plastic crinkle)

  • (upbeat music)

  • - [Woman] So Matt, why do you have a piece

  • of uranium ore in the studio?

  • - Well, because it's cool.

  • It's also a little freaky,

  • and because it was left off of a very important list

  • that made the news.

  • - Today, I'm announcing we're banning all imports

  • of Russian oil and gas and energy.

  • - It turns out the Russian Ukraine war is exposing a problem

  • that doesn't get that much coverage,

  • the nuclear fuel supply chain,

  • and that could have major impacts

  • on the future of nuclear power in the United States.

  • (counter clicks)

  • (upbeat music)

  • In response to the invasion of Ukraine,

  • the U.S. and other countries have placed sanctions on Russia

  • including energy resources like oil and gas,

  • but not uranium.

  • - Russia is a huge player on the global stage

  • when it comes to nuclear energy

  • and particularly when it comes to the uranium supply chain.

  • - Justine Calma is a science reporter at "The Verge"

  • who wrote a story about why it's so hard for the U.S.

  • to quit Russian uranium.

  • - The U.S. can pretty easily turn its back

  • on Russian oil and gas and has,

  • and has not been able to pull the trigger on uranium,

  • because we rely on Russia for a significant chunk

  • of our uranium.

  • (soothing music)

  • - Uranium is a common nuclear fuel, because its isotope,

  • U-235, is easily split during fission,

  • releasing tons of energy.

  • Nuclear power is highly contested,

  • but it still makes up about half

  • of our carbon-free electricity in the U.S.

  • Right now, the Biden administration is investing heavily

  • in nuclear energy to meet the U.S.' climate goals,

  • which is why we're talking about uranium.

  • So when we talk about nuclear power,

  • it all kind of starts with this, uranium ore,

  • which is radioactive.

  • That's why we're wearing gloves.

  • We did speak to professionals about how to properly

  • handle this stuff, (counter clicks)

  • so we're taking all the necessary precautions,

  • but you know, don't try this at home.

  • (upbeat music)

  • Most uranium ore is like this sample.

  • It's overwhelmingly not uranium.

  • Low grade uranium ore only has about 0.1% of uranium in it.

  • The rest of this ore is just regular rock

  • plus some elements like lead, thorium, and bismuth

  • that the uranium is slowly decaying into.

  • It's actually those daughter products

  • that are tripping our Geiger counter.

  • We need a much (counter clicks)

  • more sensitive device to sniff out the uranium.

  • Somewhere in this sample (dramatic music)

  • is a very small amount of this,

  • a mineral that's rich in uranium called uraninite,

  • which is for lack of a better expression

  • just a lot of uranium packed in very tightly.

  • This stuff is one of many minerals that has uranium in them,

  • and even that small bit of uranium tucked inside

  • tons of useless rock, most of that is the wrong isotope

  • for uranium fuel.

  • - Naturally occurring uranium,

  • like the stuff that you dig out of the ground,

  • has very low levels of U-235.

  • - The point is we need a lot of uranium ore

  • to produce a relatively tiny amount of fuel,

  • and it takes a lot of work to make that happen.

  • (soothing music)

  • To be useful as nuclear fuel, uranium has to go

  • through a conversion and enrichment process,

  • which basically means taking a bunch of U-235

  • and packing it in really tight.

  • - So uranium needs to be mined,

  • it needs to be turned into yellow cake,

  • that yellow cake needs to be converted into a gas,

  • that gas needs to be enriched,

  • so it has higher concentrations of U-235,

  • and then that enriched uranium needs to be fabricated

  • into a fuel rod.

  • Now that doesn't all happen in like one smooth go (laughs).

  • - This is an extremely laborious process,

  • and it's contracted out to different companies,

  • and only a handful of countries are really up

  • to doing this like France, Russia, and China.

  • - There are security concerns

  • along that entire supply chain,

  • because when you enrich uranium,

  • it can be enriched for nuclear energy.

  • It can also be enriched (bomb explodes)

  • for nuclear weapons.

  • It's been sort of a saturated market as well,

  • but demand is starting to grow.

  • - Some governments are now reprioritizing nuclear power

  • as an alternative to fossil fuel,

  • so the supply chain is back in the spotlight,

  • which brings us back to Russia.

  • The Russia Ukraine War has amplified ongoing tensions

  • between the U.S. and Russia,

  • and it's exposed the vulnerabilities

  • of the nuclear supply chain.

  • One potential answer to that problem?

  • A strategic uranium reserve.

  • (dramatic music)

  • - This is basically a stockpile of uranium

  • to fuel our power plants, you know, in case of emergency.

  • Say this war drags on, as it has dragged on,

  • maybe we can pull from our strategic uranium reserve.

  • - The war also jeopardizes the build out

  • of next generation nuclear reactors.

  • Most plants today run off of a fuel

  • that's enriched to 5% of U-235,

  • but newer reactors in development need to bump that up

  • to as much as 20%.

  • - Having that higher concentration of U-235 makes

  • for more efficient fuel basically,

  • and that allows for reactors that can be built

  • to be much smaller than today's ginormous nuclear reactors.

  • And when you shrink the size, you also shrink the costs,

  • and costs has been one of the biggest roadblocks

  • for more nuclear energy.

  • - Right now, the only country that can commercially

  • make this NextGen fuel is you guessed it, Russia.

  • The U.S. is working on its own production facility

  • to make NextGen fuel, but it's still gonna take years

  • to really move the needle on American uranium independence.

  • (soothing music)

  • So if we're going through all this trouble to stockpile

  • and enrich uranium, some argue that the U.S. might

  • as well start mining it again too,

  • which doesn't have the best track record.

  • From the 1940s to the 1980s,

  • mining companies dug up lots of uranium ore

  • in the Western U.S., and decades later,

  • the EPA is still trying to clean up the mess

  • that was left behind.

  • Many indigenous tribes object to the return of mining

  • on or near their lands, which are still littered

  • with toxic waste.

  • - If you turn to the Navajo Nation,

  • hundreds of uranium mines left over on Navajo lands

  • that have been linked to cancer

  • and other horrible health outcomes,

  • because of uranium contamination of water

  • and other problems with the legacy of those mines.

  • - Nuclear powers issues don't end at mining.

  • There's the issue of storing (upbeat music)

  • radioactive waste and the threat of meltdowns,

  • so there's a lot at stake here.

  • The Biden administration recently set a goal

  • of reaching 100% carbon free energy by 2035,

  • and Biden wants nuclear power to be part of that puzzle,

  • so the debate around it may only intensify.

  • - There's no question that climate change really is a crisis

  • that the world has to face,

  • and some of the biggest fights now are gonna be

  • how are we gonna meet that crisis?

  • And nuclear energy is really one of the core questions

  • at the center of that debate,

  • and it's only gonna become a bigger flash point

  • as we move forward.

  • Here's what advocates for more nuclear energy say.

  • Beggars can't be choosers.

  • We need carbon free energy, and here's nuclear, right?

  • It's not perfect (laughs),

  • but we don't have a whole lot of great options.

  • - That debate won't be resolved anytime soon.

  • So it looks like we're gonna be stuck with this rock