Uranium is, in theory at least, a strategic resource. It can be used to make nuclear weapons, of course, but can also be used to create fuel for nuclear power plants. So when somebody claims Hillary Clinton sold 20% of the U.S.’ strategic uranium reserves to Russia, that grabs some eyeballs. One problem: She didn’t. In fact, nobody sold any of these strategic uranium reserves to the Russians, because there was no uranium to sell. Uranium One (as Fox News’ Shepard Smith recently pointed out while dismantling his network’s coverage of the matter) is not a vast conspiracy to undermine the U.S.
Instead, the Uranium One “scandal” is the geopolitical equivalent of selling your crap on Craigslist and your roommate insisting that no, she was the one who owned that busted coffee grinder. But there is a reason to look at it: Trump, and the GOP’s, obsession with the case may lead them towards a path that burns them, although Hillary is certainly the target.
- What is Uranium One? It’s a Canadian uranium mining company, founded in 2005. In 2010, the mining division of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned uranium monopoly, asked to buy it for $1.3 billion. That’s generally something the U.S. pays attention to, but it was in particular focus because, at the time, Uranium One owned two mines in Wyoming, one of 11 sites certified to mine uranium in the U.S. That’s where the 20% bit supposedly comes in; it quotes a letter from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission representative. It later turned out these were smaller mines, so it’s more like 10%. As you might guess, this deal has a lot of red tape, and the big question was: Could Russia steal our uranium?
- Even at the time, Russia could not steal our uranium: In addition to being a strategic asset, uranium is one of the most dangerous poisons in the world. Uranium miners have to worry about radiation on top of everything else dangerous about mining, and uranium ore is absolutely useless until you refine it, by grinding it up. You do not just pull this stuff out of the ground and throw it on the back of a FedEx truck care of Dr. Evil’s Discount Nuke Barn; the NRC has an entire division dedicated just to knowing where this stuff is, inside American borders, at any given time.
- But also, Russia didn’t want to steal our uranium: Russia has plenty of uranium. In fact it produces more uranium than the U.S. The Uranium One deal, most experts are convinced, was entirely about mines in Kazahkstan. There is, in fact, a very serious story here. Russia’s kleptocratic government appears to have manipulated the Kazahk government in order to secure highly profitable uranium mines. Oh, also, there’s 5,900 pounds of weapons-grade, refined uranium from the U.S. that was shipped overseas across decades and all we’ve got as evidence it hasn’t been stolen is “reassurances.”