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Know the West

Russia’s war reverberates in the West

Putin’s military moves — and the globe’s response to them — have unexpected consequences for the region.

Kemmerer, Wyoming, a small, soon-to-be-former coal-mining and power plant town in the southwest corner of the state, is a long way from Ukraine and the Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic. But Kemmerer’s future is inextricably entwined with what happens in Ukraine — and with how the Biden administration responds to it. 

 

That’s because Bill Gates-backed TerraPower hopes to construct its first advanced nuclear reactor in Kemmerer. The new reactor will run on only one type of fuel: high-assay, low-enriched uranium — HALEU — which has higher levels of uranium-235 than conventional reactor fuel. Russian company Tenex, a division of state-owned Rosatom, is currently the world’s primary commercial-scale producer of the fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy hopes to ramp up uranium enrichment capacity to produce it domestically, but success is still years away. 

Now, Wyoming lawmakers are calling on President Joe Biden to expand his ban on Russian oil, coal and natural gas imports to uranium, including HALEU. Such a ban would leave the planned reactor — and Kemmerer’s future — running on empty. But it might also revitalize the West’s uranium mining industry, which crashed in the 1980s due to a number of factors and has been in decline ever since, as utilities turned to cheaper foreign sources, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. 

This is just one small example of how the Ukraine crisis is reverberating across the Western United States, in both predictable and surprising ways. Oil-state politicians and petroleum corporations are weaponizing high gasoline prices in their fight against state and federal drilling restrictions. Russian oligarchs own homes in Aspen and stash cash in Jackson, and their financial tentacles extend into enterprises across the region, from a Colorado steel mill to Nevada copper mines.   

 

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We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Illustrations by Emily Poole/High Country News

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, European Union, U.S Department of Justice, Evraz, Washington Post.