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Biden Signs Law Banning Russian Uranium Imports
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Biden Signs Law Banning Russian Uranium Imports

The nuclear fuel ban comes as Republicans and Democrats are zeroing in on atomic energy.

Happy Wednesday! By the end of the year, Chuck E. Cheese will scrap its animatronic Munch’s Make Believe Band at locations across the country. We used to be a real and proper country.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Georgian Parliament voted Tuesday to approve a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which would require independent media companies and NGOs that receive 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “bearing the interests of a foreign power.” Tens of thousands of Georgians continue to protest against the law in the capital of Tbilisi. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said she would veto the law, but the country’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, has a sufficient legislative majority to overrule the president’s veto. 
  • The Biden administration informed Congress on Tuesday that it is advancing a $1 billion arms package for Israel, despite the president having previously decided to delay a delivery of precision bombs to the country and warning that a full-scale invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, could lead to further holds on military aid. The package—which could take years to fully fulfill—reportedly includes tank ammunition, tactical vehicles, and mortar rounds. “We are continuing to send military assistance,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday. “We have paused a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs because we don’t believe they should be dropped in densely populated cities.” Israeli forces have continued to advance further into Rafah and an estimated 450,000 people have fled the city, according to the United Nations. 
  • The United Nations said one of its international workers was killed—and another staff member injured—when their vehicle came under fire in Rafah on Tuesday, marking the first time an international U.N. staffer has been killed in the current war between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli military conducted an initial inquiry into the incident and said that the vehicle was traveling in a designated active combat zone and that forces “had not been made aware of the route of the vehicle.” U.N. officials, however, said the vehicle was marked and that they had informed the military of their convoy’s movements.
  • President Joe Biden announced a bevy of new Section 301 tariffs—to be phased in over three years—on Chinese imports on Tuesday, including on steel and aluminum, semiconductors, electric vehicles, and medical equipment. The tariff rate on Chinese electric vehicles will increase from 25 percent to 100 percent next year, and tariffs on solar panel imports will double—from 25 to 50 percent—but also include duty-free exceptions for certain solar panel components. “American workers and businesses can outcompete anyone—as long as they have fair competition,” the White House said in a statement announcing the measures. “But for too long, China’s government has used unfair, non-market practices.”
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Tuesday from Kyiv that the administration plans to seize Russian assets held in the United States. “Our Congress has given us the power to seize Russian assets in the U.S., and we intend to use it,” he said, without elaborating. The Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity (REPO) for Ukrainians Act, signed into law as part of last month’s aid package, empowered the president to confiscate Russian assets for the purposes of transferring them to Ukraine. The announcement follows the European Union’s agreement last week to seize windfall profits from Russian assets to aid Ukraine. 
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday that the producer price index (PPI)—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging customers—rose 0.5 percent month-over-month in April after falling 0.1 percent in March and increasing 0.6 percent in February. Producer prices were up 2.2 percent year-over-year in April, the biggest annual rate gain in 12 months. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell suggested on Tuesday that the central bank would likely hold interest rates at their current levels at the Fed’s next policy meeting.
  • Defense lawyers for former President Donald Trump cross-examined former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen—the prosecution’s final witness—on Tuesday during Trump’s New York criminal trial. The defense tried to paint Cohen—who has posted disparaging social media videos about Trump regularly since shortly before the trial began—as motivated primarily by vengeance against his former employer, who Cohen suggested in his testimony was involved in falsifying business records to cover up the payments Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. Cohen also testified that the former president told others, “Don’t cooperate,” when Trump was under investigation by the FBI in 2018. Meanwhile, a New York appeals court on Tuesday upheld a gag order that Judge Juan Merchan imposed on Trump, finding that Merchan had correctly balanced concerns about the former president’s First Amendment rights and the rights of witnesses and others involved in the case to be “free from threats, intimidation, harassment, and harm.”
  • A federal district judge rejected a request on Tuesday from Hunter Biden’s lawyers to delay his trial on three felony gun charges, solidifying the trial’s June 3 start date. Prosecutors, led by special counsel David Weiss, have accused President Joe Biden’s son of lying about his drug use on a form he filled out ahead of purchasing a gun. After an hour of discussion, the judge said she was “not persuaded” by the case brought by Biden’s lawyers, who asked to delay the trial until September to give the defense more time to identify potential witnesses. Also on Tuesday, a three-judge federal appeals panel ruled the trial in a separate tax case against Hunter Biden in California could go forward, scheduled for later in June. 
  • Eight TikTok content creators sued the U.S. government on Tuesday over a recently enacted law that could force the popular social media app to shut down in the country if the app’s China-based owner, ByteDance, does not divest from the company. According to their lawsuit, the creators say the law—passed last month as part of a large national security and aid package—is an “extraordinary restraint on speech” and infringes on their First Amendment Rights. TikTok similarly filed suit last week. 
  • Angela Alsobrooks—the executive of Prince George’s County—won Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday, handily beating three-term Democratic Rep. David Trone, who spent more than $60 million of his own money to make the race the most expensive in state history. Alsobrooks will face off against former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, in the November general election. 

Nuclear Renaissance, Ahoy? 

The decommissioned Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in Herald, California. (Via Getty Images)
The decommissioned Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in Herald, California. (Via Getty Images)

In the days and weeks following Russia’s unprovoked February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration slapped sanctions on the Kremlin and on the Russian energy sector, in particular—which has for decades been the lifeblood of the country’s economy—in an effort to cripple Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine. The United States and its allies banned Russian oil, gas, and coal, but another product—that helped provide roughly 18 percent of U.S. electrical production in 2022—was conspicuously absent from any sanctions list: enriched uranium for nuclear power plants. 

That changed on Tuesday when President Joe Biden signed into law a ban—with some carve-outs—on U.S. imports of Russian-enriched uranium. The ban is a tricky one for a bedeviled industry that has increasingly seemed to be on the cusp of a renaissance, with Republicans and Democrats—including the Biden administration—evermore in favor of the alternative fuel after years of decline in nuclear power.

The legislation that Biden signed Tuesday—which flew through the House with bipartisan support and by unanimous consent in the Senate—starts a 90-day clock to ban all “low-enriched” uranium from Russia, the material that most nuclear power plants need to run. About 20 percent of U.S. low-enriched uranium comes from Russia, and almost all of the enriched uranium U.S. civil nuclear reactors use is imported. There’s no purely domestic source either: the only commercial uranium enrichment facility in the U.S., in New Mexico, is owned by a European conglomerate. According to a December 2023 House of Representatives report, uranium enriched in the U.S. accounts for only 30 percent of the country’s nuclear fuel requirements. 

The law unlocks $2.7 billion in Department of Energy (DOE) funds to try to restart domestic uranium enrichment by making the U.S. government a guaranteed buyer in the volatile space after a glut of uranium from decommissioned Russian nuclear weapons collapsed the industry in the 1990s. “This new law reestablishes America’s leadership in the nuclear sector,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday. “It will help secure our energy sector for generations to come.”

In the meantime, though, the law is sensitive to the ban’s potential for supply disruption, allowing the DOE to grant waivers if utilities can’t secure alternative supplies or in the event of a national security need—but only until 2028. Though utilities have been planning for the possibility of a ban since the invasion by securing other supplies, others may well seek waivers. U.S. companies currently pay a combined $1 billion annually to Russian energy company Rosatom for their uranium supplies. 

Enthusiasm for nuclear energy and securing a domestic nuclear energy supply chain has grown over the last several years, even as the number of nuclear power plants in the U.S. has fallen—to 93 last year—since the 1990s. The Trump administration made moves to support the U.S. nuclear industry in the name of national security and energy independence, and the Democratic Party added an endorsement of nuclear energy to its 2020 platform—the first time since 1972 the party platform has spoken positively of the power source. “It’s been Democrats and environmentalists who have shut down most of the nuclear plants in this country that have been shut down,” Chris Barnard, president of the American Conservation Coalition and nuclear energy proponent, told TMD. “They’re [also] the ones that have opposed building new ones, or making it easier to build new ones.”

But those days may be nearing an end. “Fortunately, Biden has bucked that trend a little bit,” Barnard said. “He’s displayed a fairly strong level of support for nuclear.” The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act—a law chock full of climate initiatives and one of the Biden administration’s key legislative efforts—incentivized nuclear energy with tax credits for existing and new reactors. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 also added new nuclear tax credits, including those aimed at helping nuclear compete with the fossil fuel industry and its deeply subsidized green energy competitor in wind energy. The latter bill also included $6 billion to keep open safe nuclear plants that are on the brink of shutting down.

In March, the Biden administration approved a $1.5 billion loan to Holtec International—a multinational company that produces components for nuclear reactors—to reopen a Michigan nuclear power plant. The reactors were shut down in 2022 after over 50 years of operation; a month later, Holtec International purchased the site. “Nuclear power is our single largest source of carbon-free electricity, directly supporting 100,000 jobs across the country and hundreds of thousands more indirectly,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the former two-term governor of Michigan, said at the time.

But bringing a nuclear reactor back online isn’t like switching on a light switch. Long periods of inactivity can degrade the quality of a nuclear reactor’s components, and getting every element to pass muster with regulators is costly—in both money and time. Compared to the cost of building a nuclear plant from scratch, however, reopening closed plants is an enticing, potentially cheaper alternative. “There are a couple of nuclear power plants that we probably should, and can, turn back on,” Jigar Shah, director of the U.S. Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, said last month.

There are also some new plants and reactors opening, the result of decisions from more than a decade ago that may or may not have paid off. Georgia Power brought a reactor online late last month—the second of a pair of new reactors at Plant Vogtle, the first in the U.S. in decades. The new addition joins three other operation reactors at Plant Vogtle, making the nuclear power plant—owned by Southern Company—the largest carbon-free electricity provider in the country. Each reactor is estimated to power around 500,000 homes and businesses in Georgia.

At Plant Vogtle, the new reactors were roughly a decade-and-a-half in the making. Over $30 billion over budget and several years past their original deadlines, the Georgia reactors are an object lesson in a problem that often plagues nuclear infrastructure: They require time—and a lot of money—to get off the ground. Most nuclear reactors in the U.S. have taken more than a decade to complete from start to finish, and as of July 2023, 41 nuclear reactors in the U.S. had been shuttered.

And as is common with public utility expenses, the costs are ultimately passed down to the consumer. “The average Georgia Power residential customer has already paid around $1,000 for the plant’s construction, which lasted seven years longer than expected,” Liz Coyle, executive director of the nonprofit consumer group Georgia Watch, said last month. And that was before the reactors even generated any electricity. Average consumers in Georgia using 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month saw a $5.42 monthly electricity bill increase when the first reactor in August 2023 went online, and will see an additional $9 increase with the completion of the second reactor.

The high price raises questions about nuclear energy’s near-term value, especially compared to alternatives like natural gas. “I still have my doubts whether nuclear energy, nuclear electricity, and new stations are economic, with natural gas prices where they are,” Benjamin Zycher—a senior fellow in energy and environmental policy at the American Enterprise Institute—told TMD. “I don’t think nuclear power is competitive with natural gas power plants.”

In an industry the U.S. government more or less invented out of whole cloth—can we recommend a little film called Oppenheimer?—government intervention has long been the name of the game, from owning every stage of production to tax incentives. But the government sticking its oar in can sometimes hurt as much as it helps. “There’s also an enormous delay caused by the regulatory process,” Zycher said. And time is money when constructing any utility. 

Simply making reactors smaller is another way to lower costs, an approach now picking up steam with the development of small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs produce around one-third the energy output as traditional reactors, but unlike their larger older siblings, an SMR’s component parts are themselves more manageably sized and can be built at a factory before being sent to its site for construction, streamlining the production process. “The benefit is that it’s obviously small, and you can just plop them down in places where you need far less infrastructure … that can then feed into the grid locally,” Barnard told TMD

But the technology isn’t foolproof yet: High costs and construction delays have also stalled SMR installation, and there currently aren’t any operational in the U.S. One was scheduled for construction in Idaho, but was scrapped in November 2023 after expected costs became untenable. SMRs also require a rare fuel—high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU)—which currently only Russia and China have the infrastructure to produce at a commercial scale. Russia supplies around 44 percent of the world’s HALEU today and between 20 and 30 percent of HALEU fuel used in the U.S. and Europe. U.S.-based Centrus Energy produced limited amounts of the fuel in Ohio as part of a DOE test program in October, but the plant isn’t yet commercially viable. The Biden administration is also trying to boost the domestic supply of HALEU by reducing restrictions on the fuel’s research and development and offering tax credits to support research projects.

Though the supply chain is fraught—from raw fuel on up to reactors—such efforts to cut red tape and allow the private sector to become more involved could be the X factor for nuclear energy affordability. “Instead of just having a subsidy-first approach, we should be taking an approach that actually starts by saying, ‘Okay, let’s make a trip to the private sector that wants to invest in this stuff to actually do it,’” Barnard told TMD. “That’s going to be one of the biggest things that reduces the costs.”

Worth Your Time

  • In Foreign Policy, Liz Cookman and Paula Bronstein collected the stories of a handful of the thousands of Ukrainian women who have been widowed by the war. “Ivan tried to enlist to fight the day after the war started, but there were already too many volunteers, and in March 2023 he got the letter,” 29-year-old Oleksandra Potipko said of her late husband. “Ivan had always dreamed of having a child, especially a daughter. We started planning for a baby the spring he joined the military, and we got married in June. Two weeks later, I took a pregnancy test, and it was negative. Ivan was sad but said maybe it was for the best as it would be hard to be alone with a child while he was fighting. The next day, he was dead, and the day after that, I found out that I was pregnant after all. In March, I gave birth to a daughter—Ivan never knew she existed.”
  • Those planning on heading to the DMV to update their license to a “Real ID” might not need to rush, Jim Harper explained in The Atlantic. “If you fly regularly, you’ve probably seen signs saying that the Real ID Act will soon go into full effect,” he wrote. “When that happens, all domestic travelers using a driver’s license at TSA checkpoints will have to show a federally compliant one—or be turned away.” But Harper doesn’t see that actually happening anytime soon. “The deadline has been delayed again and again,” he explained. “The initial holdup was that many states bristled at federal encroachment on their turf and at the cost of revamping their license systems to meet the new standards. … Real ID is a peculiar hybrid—the closest thing to a national ID that was politically viable at the time of the act’s passage. But the marginal security gains are not worth even the short-term costs: burdensome document demands, longer lines at motor-vehicle departments, slower license issuance.”

Presented Without Comment 

C-SPAN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken Visits The Barman in Kyiv and Sings “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young.

Also Presented Without Comment 

CNN: ‘Inappropriate’ Behavior Shuts Down Dublin To New York City Portal

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after two public sculptures featuring a livestream between Dublin, Ireland, and New York City debuted, “inappropriate behavior” in real-time interactions between people in the two cities has prompted a temporary shutdown.

The two sculptures, “The Portals,” are round, lens-like installations with a 24/7 video link to allow residents and visitors in the two cities to interact with each other. Social media videos have shown people flashing body parts to people on the other side. The installation does not include audio.

In the Zeitgeist

Paging David French, again: The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power Season 2 trailer, plus a behind-the-scenes look, dropped yesterday. And if anyone has a spare $460 lying around, this Lego Barad-dûr announced yesterday—complete with the Eye of Sauron—looks like a pretty great way to spend a weekend.

Toeing the Company Line

  • Jamie, Victoria, and Drucker were joined by Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew Research Center, Mike Madrid, co-host of the Latino Vote podcast, and Julio Cotto, senior vice president of the National Hispanic Institute on last night’s Dispatch Live (🔒) to discuss the myth of the Latino vote monolith. Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • In the newsletters: Nick parsed (🔒) the tension between “Never Trump” and “Never Again.” 
  • On the podcasts: Jonah is joined on The Remnant by Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, to discuss the state of the American electorate and the Democratic Party.
  • On the site: Marvin Olasky considers what anti-Israel college students are really protesting against and Jonah argues that Biden is trying to run on policy in a vibes election.

Let Us Know

Are you encouraged by steps regulators and private-sector actors have taken in recent years to kickstart the nuclear power industry?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.