This Uranium Deal Was No Scandal
In 2010, Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency, bought a controlling interest in Uranium One, a Canadian-based company that owned valuable extraction rights in Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. These three countries are the world’s largest uranium producers, and Russia’s acquisition of those rights served its ambitions to build and fuel nuclear power plants around the world.
In an ancillary part of the deal, Rosatom also bought mining rights in the United States, where uranium production is sparse. These rights were initially estimated to represent 20 percent of American production, but in practice, this figure has averaged less than 10 percent. Overall, Rosatom’s purchase of Uranium One transferred control of what now amounts to about 8 percent of world uranium output. The American portion represented about one-thirtieth of the deal.
At the time, none of this was considered remarkable or controversial. The governments of Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia approved the transfer as a normal commercial transaction. Similarly, the United States’ part of the deal was authorized by a panel of officials from nine federal agencies — including the State Department, then led by Hillary Clinton.
But in 2016, in the run-up to the presidential campaign, the sale became notorious. A growing chorus of Trump supporters claimed that the sale didn’t happen for business reasons, but in exchange for millions in donations by people associated with Uranium One to the Clinton Foundation, led by Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.
The allegation appeared in a 2015 book, “Clinton Cash,” by Peter Schweizer, a collaborator of Steve Bannon, then head of Breitbart News and later Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Mainstream news organizations, including The New York Times, investigated the deal, and it became the subject of near daily attacks from Breitbart News itself. At campaign rallies, Mr. Trump routinely led chants of “Lock her up” in reference to Mrs. Clinton.
Now Mr. Trump, whose campaign is under investigation by a special counsel, Robert Mueller, for possibly collaborating with Russia to manipulate voters last year, is calling once more for an investigation of the deal. In response, the Justice Department is examining whether to assign a special counsel to review the case. Two Republican-led congressional committees have also started investigations.
By now, the allegation has been widely undermined, usually on two grounds. First, there is no evidence that Mrs. Clinton played an active role in the sale’s approval. Second, the major contributor of Uranium One-related donations to the Clinton Foundation, Frank Giustra, has said that he sold his stake in the company three years before Rosatom’s purchase.
But the story’s purveyors are persistent. Relying on the evocative power of “uranium,” they assert that Russia gained a strategic prize in the United States, and in a suspicious way. As opposed to the Trump campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russians, they argue, it is a Clinton-Russia crime that should be investigated.
But the mining rights that Russia acquired in the United States are strategically and commercially insignificant. No one should be fooled into thinking that they justify the very serious allegations made by Mr. Trump and his allies.
Uranium ore is mined in many countries. But about 70 percent of world production comes from just three countries: Kazakhstan (almost 40 percent), Canada (over 20 percent) and Australia (nearly 10 percent). Of 68,000 tons mined annually, most goes to nuclear power utilities in some 30 countries.
American utilities buy nearly one-third of global uranium output. But mining in the United States accounts for only 2 percent of that total. That means that operators of American nuclear reactors get about 90 percent of their nuclear fuel from foreign sources.
That supply is dependable because the global uranium market works reliably. Supply-and-demand governs price, buyers and sellers interact personally, and their companies adhere to safeguards that ensure safe and legal use. For the United States, supply is further assured by the resources of our neighboring ally Canada. Russia, which mines 5 percent of global output, enjoys a similar position vis-à-vis Kazakhstan.
As for nuclear weapons, both Russia and the United States have stockpiles of highly enriched uranium from post-Cold War arms reductions. Neither country needs to ever fear a shortage of uranium, for weapons or electricity.
Because American mining yields only 2 percent of world output, and under 10 percent of that comes from the Uranium One license, the allegation that this was a major prize for the Russians turns out to be absurd: Less than one-fifth of 1 percent of global output comes from Uranium One’s holdings in the United States.
A comparison illuminates just how tiny this molehill is.
In February 1993, a newly inaugurated President Clinton joined with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia in an accord that embodied, on a scale unique in history, the ideal of turning swords into plowshares. The agreement’s premise was that nuclear arms reductions could yield fissile material for electricity generation, particularly in the United States.
Under a plan called “Megatons to Megawatts,” the Russian government took uranium for 20,000 Soviet-era nuclear warheads, converted it for nuclear power generation, then sold it to American utilities as fuel for some 100 reactors that produce nearly 20 percent of domestic electricity.
The plan ran for 20 years, and in most of that period provided nearly half of the uranium used in United States reactors. This meant that one out of every 10 American light bulbs were powered by fissile material once contained in nuclear warheads aimed at the United States and its allies.
The Clinton-Yeltsin deal was a landmark success, resulting in the United States acquiring the equivalent of over 150,000 tons of Russian uranium, more than double annual world output.
The Uranium One deal, in contrast, has resulted in a Russian-owned company extracting an average of about 150 tons of United States uranium a year and then selling it into what is essentially a global market. This is not a significant amount. And this deal was not a scandal.