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Today in Energy

October 3, 2018

U.S. uranium imports continue as domestic production remains at historical lows

origin country of uranium purchased for U.S. commercial nuclear reactors
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Uranium Marketing Annual Report

During 2017, owners and operators of U.S. nuclear power plants purchased 40 million pounds of uranium from foreign suppliers. Canada, Australia, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan represented the top five countries of origin and together accounted for 84% of total U.S. uranium purchases in 2017. A little more than half of these purchases originated from Canada and Australia, which provided 14 million pounds and 8 million pounds of uranium, respectively. The United States supplied 3 million pounds, or 7% of total uranium purchased by U.S. power plants.

U.S. domestic uranium concentrate production began in 1949 and peaked in 1980. Currently, production remains near historical lows. Uranium concentrate production totaled 2.3 million pounds of triuranium octoxide (U3O8) in 2017, the lowest level since 2003. Through the first six months of 2018, uranium concentrate production totaled 592,000 pounds of U3O8, down 50% compared to the first half of 2017. Total uranium concentrate production in 2018 is very likely to be at its lowest level since the industry increased production in the early 1950s.

U.S. uranium concentrate production
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review and Domestic Uranium Production Report

In 2017, U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors purchased 43 million pounds of U3O8. Purchases were 15% lower than the 2016 total (50.6 million pounds) and were the lowest amount since 1998, when 42.7 million pounds of U3O8 was purchased. Although the amount purchased varies from year to year, increasing unit retirements and rising uranium inventories held by owners and operators of nuclear power plants both exert downward pressure on purchases.

The September closing of New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station left 98 operable nuclear units in the United States. Oyster Creek was the sixth reactor to retire in the past five years. Twelve additional reactors have announced planned retirements within the next seven years. Given the nuclear retirement outlook, U.S. plant operators in competitive markets have curtailed plans for future uranium purchases.

uranium at U.S. nuclear power reactors
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Uranium Marketing Annual Report

Preparing uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors involves several steps in the nuclear fuel supply chain. The production of U3O8, known more commonly as yellowcake, is the first step in the nuclear fuel production process. Uranium concentrate is then converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), enriched, fabricated into fuel pellets, and loaded into nuclear reactor fuel assemblies.

EIA's Uranium Marketing Annual Report presents data on purchases and sales of uranium contracts and market requirements, enrichment services, and other information pertaining to feed, loaded uranium, and inventories.

More information on the United States uranium industry is available in EIA's Domestic Uranium Production Report - Annual, Domestic Uranium Production Report - Quarterly, and Uranium Marketing Annual Report.

Principal contributors: Slade Johnson, Tim Shear