EC bars Russian uranium: Ban on currency earner undermines Western help for Yeltsin

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AS THE industrial world moves to rescue the Russian economy, the EC is hard at work behind the scenes excluding from its market one of Russia's top hard- currency exports - uranium.

While the EC yesterday held out the prospect of a free trade pact with Russia, Britain and France, who dominate the European uranium market, have in effect blocked Russian exports of high-quality uranium, on the ground that it comes too cheap.

The argument runs that uranium supplies from the former Soviet Union threaten to put the EC's well-protected domestic suppliers out of business. EC officials hint darkly about the danger of giving an unstable Russia too much leverage over Europe's electricity supply.

In an ironic twist, Russia is now being asked to agree to 'market prices' for its nuclear materials and to ensure that the trade is carried out in 'fair conditions' so that the EC's protected suppliers are not driven out of business.

Natural uranium, which is plentiful, is one of the most politically sensitive products in the world, because of the possibility that, reprocessed, it might be used in nuclear weapons. All EC sales must be approved by the Euratom agency, which has moved to restrict sales of Russian uranium, saying it is being dumped at 50 per cent below what Euratom believes is the normal market price of dollars 13 ( pounds 8.50) a pound. Uranium brokers, however, say the true price is around dollars 7 ( pounds 4.60) a pound.

'Massive imports at extremely low prices coming from the CIS republics risk endangering the Community's supply sources, and hence its long-term security of supply,' the EC Commission recently told MEPs who have been trying to persuade it to open up to Russian imports. Brokers and companies that trade in U308 or 'yellowcake' say there is no danger of Russia dominating the market, which has seven producers worldwide.

The EC policy is aimed at propping up the already heavily subsidised French and British nuclear fuel industries. Belgium and Germany, which produce no uranium, have criticised the moves against Russia.

But if Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which want to export 300,000 tons of uranium, are excluded from the EC market, they could turn to newly emerging nuclear countries such as North Korea, the MEPs fear.

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