On Sunday, two days after a federal grand jury approved the first indictments in the investigation of potential collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia, President Trump tweeted his concern about the “Uranium to Russia deal,” an issue he sought to elevate during the 2016 campaign.
The president’s tweet referred to the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with U.S. mine holdings, to a Russian company while Hillary Clinton was secretary of State. The president’s allies rushed to support the tweet with assertions that the sale was an urgent, factual and more visible example of Russian collusion. Breitbart.com, for instance, called the sale “the center of an explosive scandal.”
What is Uranium One?
The 12-year-old company, based in Toronto, is a subsidiary of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear technology corporation. Uranium One owns uranium reserves and operates a mine in Willow Creek, Wyo.
What’s the issue?
In 2010, while Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, Rosatom acquired a majority share of Uranium One. Because Uranium One controls 20% of U.S. uranium production capacity, the transaction required federal approval. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump asserted that Clinton “gave 20% of our uranium — gave Russia for a big payment.”
Trump charged that Clinton approved the sale in exchange for $145 million in donations from Uranium One investors to the Clinton Foundation. He argued that Clinton colluded with the Russians and put U.S. national security at risk.
What are the facts?
News organizations and Politifact.com, an independent fact-checking group, took a careful look at Trump’s assertion. They found that a nine-member interagency group, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, considered the Uranium One sale and that one of its members, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, issued the approval. News organizations quoted members of the committee who said that Clinton was not involved in the decision.
The principal Uranium One donor to the Clinton Foundation was Frank Giustra, an investor who had divested himself of a stake in the company three years before the sale. The New York Times reported that in 2010 a Russian bank paid former President Bill Clinton $500,000 to address a conference in Moscow and that Ian Telfer, another Uranium One investor, donated $1.3 million to $5.6 million to the Clinton Foundation during and after the interagency review.
Independent analysts said the facts did not support Trump’s assertion of scandal. Trump’s allies disagree. Newt Gringrich, the former Republican House speaker, wrote on FoxNews.com on Friday: “I think we are on the edge of the greatest corruption scandal in American history.”
Is the U.S. uranium sector a vital link in U.S. national security?
No. More than 90% of the roughly 55 million pounds of uranium used in U.S. nuclear reactors each year is imported, principally from Canada and Kazakhstan, according to the Department of Energy. The American uranium market, like the market for coal, appears to be fading. Since 2012, operators have announced retirements for six nuclear plants, or 10% of the 61 nuclear plants operating across the nation. Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse, one of the world’s largest nuclear reactor designers and builders, filed for bankruptcy protection last spring. While reactors consume the largest share of uranium used in the United States, a portion of the radioactive metal was used in producing atomic warheads, which are being removed from the nuclear stockpile.
Is Russian ownership of 20% of U.S. uranium reserves and production significant?
Not really. U.S. mines produced 2.3 million pounds of uranium last year, the lowest level since 2004, according to the Department of Energy. The White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah, owned by Energy Fuels Inc., is the only one of five uranium ore processing plants still operating in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. Six more plants that use a different uranium processing technique operate in Nebraska (one) and Wyoming (five). Aside from the tiny production figures, in order for Uranium One to aid Russia’s uranium supply, or any other nation’s, it would need an export license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The company does not have an export license.
Is Rosatom’s presence in the United States and Canada significant?
Maybe. The company outpaces Russia’s nuclear power industry and challenges Chinese nuclear developers as the world’s largest nuclear company. Two years ago it said it had agreements to build more than 30 nuclear plants in 13 nations, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Turkey and India.
But fierce civic protests and rapidly rising costs are imperiling nuclear power plant projects around the world. Vietnam canceled plans to build nuclear power plants. India’s Russian-built reactor project in Tamil Nadu is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
Follow me on Twitter @modeshift