Two House committees have said that they will investigate the Obama administration’s approval of a deal that gave Russia a financial interest in U.S. uranium production.
The 2010 deal allowed Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency, to acquire a controlling stake in Uranium One, a Canadian-based company with mining stakes in the Western United States.
We covered it during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Donald Trump falsely accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving away U.S. uranium rights to the Russians and claimed — without evidence — that it was done in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.
Now, the issue is back in the news, and numerous readers have asked us about it again. So we will recap here what we know — and don’t know — about the 2010 deal.
On June 8, 2010, Uranium One announced it had signed an agreement that would give “not less than 51%” of the company to JSC Atomredmetzoloto, or ARMZ, the mining arm of Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency.
At the time, Uranium One’s two licensed mining operations in Wyoming amounted to about “20 percent of the currently licensed uranium in-situ recovery production capacity in the U.S.,” according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In-situ recovery is the extraction method currently used by 10 of the 11 licensed U.S. uranium producers.
Uranium One also has exploration projects in Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
But the deal required multiple approvals by the U.S., beginning with the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States. Under federal law, the committee reviews foreign investments that raise potential national security concerns.
The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States
The Committee on Foreign Investments has nine members, including the secretaries of the treasury, state, defense, homeland security, commerce and energy; the attorney general; and representatives from two White House offices (the United States Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy).
The committee can’t actually stop a sale from going through — it can only approve a sale. The president is the only one who can stop a sale, if the committee or any one member “recommends suspension or prohibition of the transaction,” according to guidelines issued by the Treasury Department in December 2008 after the department adopted its final rule a month earlier.
For this and other reasons, we have written that Trump is wrong to claim that Clinton “gave away 20 percent of the uranium in the United States” to Russia. Clinton could have objected — as could the eight other voting members — but that objection alone wouldn’t have stopped the sale of the stake of Uranium One to Rosatom.
“Only the President has the authority to suspend or prohibit a covered transaction,” the federal guidelines say.
We don’t know much about the committee’s deliberations because there are “strong confidentiality requirements” prohibiting disclosure of information filed with the committee, the Treasury Department says on its website. Some information would have become available if the committee or any one of its members objected to the sale. But none of the nine members objected.
“When a transaction is referred to the President, however, the decision of the President is announced publicly,” Treasury says.
We don’t even know if Clinton was involved in the committee’s review and approval of the uranium deal. Jose Fernandez, a former assistant secretary of state, told the New York Times that he represented the department on the committee. “Mrs. Clinton never intervened with me on any C.F.I.U.S. matter,” he told the Times, referring to the committee by its acronym.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission
It is also important to note that other federal approvals were needed to complete the deal, and even still more approvals would be needed to export the uranium.
First, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had to approve the transfer of two uranium recovery licenses in Wyoming from Uranium One to the Russian company. The NRC announced it approved the transfer on Nov. 24, 2010. But, as the NRC explained at the time, “no uranium produced at either facility may be exported.”
As NRC explained in a March 2011 letter to Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Russian company would have to apply for and obtain an export license and “commit to use the material only for peaceful purposes” in accordance with “the U.S.-Russia Atomic Energy Act Section 123 agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation.”
In a June 2015 letter to Rep. Peter Visclosky, the NRC said it granted RSB Logistics Services an amendment to its export license in 2012 to allow the Kentucky shipping company to export uranium to Canada from various sources — including from a Uranium One site in Wyoming. The NRC said that the export license allowed RSB to ship uranium to a conversion plant in Canada and then back to the United States for further processing.
Canada must obtain U.S. approval to transfer any U.S. uranium to any country other than the United States, the letter says.
“Please be assured that no Uranium One, Inc.-produced uranium has been shipped directly to Russia and the U.S. Government has not authorized any country to re-transfer U.S. uranium to Russia,” the 2015 letter said.
“That 2015 statement remains true today,” David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC, told us in an email.
RSB Logistics’ current export license, which expires in December, still lists Uranium One as one of its suppliers of uranium.
Uranium One, which is now wholly-owned subsidiary of Rosatom, sells uranium to civilian power reactors in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. But U.S. owners and operators of commercial nuclear reactors purchase the vast majority of their uranium from foreign sources. Only 11 percent of the 50.6 million pounds purchased in 2016 came from U.S. domestic producers, according to the EIA.
Although Uranium One once held 20 percent of licensed uranium in-situ recovery production capacity in the U.S., that’s no longer the case. There were only four in-situ recovery facilities licensed by the NRC in 2010. Currently, there are 10 such facilities, so Uranium One’s mining operations now account for an estimated 10 percent of in-situ recovery production capacity in the U.S., the NRC told us in an email.
As for production, the company was responsible for only about 11 percent of U.S. uranium production in 2014, according to 2015 congressional testimony by a Department of Energy contractor. More recently, Uranium One has been responsible for no more than 5.9 percent of domestic production, according to a September 2017 report by the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Clinton Foundation Donations and Bill Clinton Speaking Fee
Clinton’s role in the Uranium One sale, and the link to the Clinton Foundation, first became an issue in 2015, when news organizations received advance copies of the book “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,” by Peter Schweizer, a former fellow at a conservative think tank.
On April 23, 2015, the New York Times wrote about the uranium issue, saying the paper had “built upon” Schweizer’s information.
The Times detailed how the Clinton Foundation had received millions in donations from investors in Uranium One.
The donations from those with ties to Uranium One weren’t publicly disclosed by the Clinton Foundation, even though Hillary Clinton had an agreement with the White House that the foundation would disclose all contributors. Days after the Times story, the foundation acknowledged that it “made mistakes,” saying it had disclosed donations from a Canadian charity, for instance, but not the donors to that charity who were associated with the uranium company.
The Times also wrote that Bill Clinton spoke at a conference in Moscow on June 29, 2010 — which was after the Rosatom-Uranium One merger was announced in June 2010, but before it was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States in October 2010. The Russian-based Renaissance Capital Group organized the conference and paid Clinton $500,000.
Renaissance Capital has “ties to the Kremlin” and its analysts “talked up Uranium One’s stock, assigning it a ‘buy’ rating and saying in a July 2010 research report that it was ‘the best play’ in the uranium markets,” the Times wrote.
But there is no evidence that the donations or the speaking fee had any influence on the approvals granted by the NRC or the Committee on Foreign Investments.