USA Politics Briefing

What’s the real story behind Hillary Clinton, Russia, and uranium?

Putting it in perspective

In 2010, a Russian nuclear agency purchased a controlling interest in Uranium One, a Canada-based mining firm. US officials, including the State Department under Hillary Clinton, reviewed the deal.

Uranium One and Anfield's Shootaring Canyon Uranium Mill facility sits outside Ticaboo, Utah on Nov. 13, 2017. In 2010, a Russian nuclear agency purchased a controlling interest in Uranium One, a Canada-based mining firm. US officials, including the State Department under Hillary Clinton, reviewed the deal.
George Frey/Reuters
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President Trump calls it the “real Russia story”: allegations that as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved the sale of 20 percent of US uranium supplies to Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company.

The sale was greased by $145 million in contributions to the Clinton Foundation from Canadian executives who benefited from the sale, according to these allegations.

Prosecutors at the Justice Department are now reportedly considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into the transaction. Here is a look at some of the details of the case.

Q: Who bought what here?

In 2010, Rosatom, a state-controlled agency that runs all aspects of Russian nuclear power, purchased a controlling interest in a Canadian mining company named Uranium One. This firm then owned, and still owns, uranium mining rights in the United States.

At the time, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission noted that amount of American uranium involved equaled about 20 percent of the “in-situ recovery production capacity” in the country. Since then, the opening of new capacity by other firms has reduced that figure to about 10 percent, according to a lengthy investigation of Uranium One assets by The Washington Post. And the US is far from the Saudi Arabia of uranium – in 2016, the US accounted for about 2 percent of world uranium extraction.

For Rosatom, the key aspect of the Uranium One deal might have been the latter firm’s large uranium mine holdings in Kazakhstan, a nation once part of the Soviet Union.

Q: Is uranium a key national resource?

Yes and no. It is crucial to some manufacturing processes, and to the production of nuclear power, which generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Under US regulations Uranium One is not supposed to export US produced uranium.

Uranium production is not important to nuclear weapons, however, for either the US or Russia. Both countries have thousands of decommissioned warheads and stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. In fact, under a program named Megatons to Megawatts, which expired in 2013, Russia sold blended-down, formerly weaponized uranium to the US to use in civilian reactors. At one point earlier this decade, fuel produced from old Soviet warheads was producing about 10 percent of US electricity.

Q: Did the US government approve the Rosatom purchase? 

Due to the sensitivity of Rosatom’s investment in Uranium One, the deal had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States. This body consists of nine senior US officials, including the secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Energy, the attorney general, and two White House representatives. They unanimously OK’d the transaction in 2010.

Under the Treasury Department regulations that established the Committee on Foreign Investments, it can either approve a deal or recommend that it be blocked. The power to actually stop a sale rests in the Oval Office, according to the regulations. Only the president – in this case, President Obama – has the authority to suspend or prohibit a covered transaction.

Q: Where do contributions to the Clinton Foundation come in?

The Clinton Foundation received $145 million in pledges and donations from original investors in Uranium One, prior to its sale to Rosatom. Furthermore, these donations were not disclosed at the time they were made, according to a 2015 story in the New York Times. (The Times story was based in part on research by Peter Schweizer, a former fellow at a conservative think tank and author of the controversial 2015 book “Clinton Cash.”)

Former President Bill Clinton also received $500,000 for speaking at a Moscow conference organized by a Russian investment bank after the Rosatom-Uranium One deal was announced, but before it passed muster with the US Committee on Foreign Investments, according to the Times story.

Most of the $145 million in Clinton Foundation donations came from one person, a major Uranium One investor named Frank Giustra. Mr. Giustra has said that he sold all his shares in Uranium One about 1-1/2 years before Mrs. Clinton became secretary of State – and three years before Rosatom and its Russian cash came calling.

There is no direct evidence of a quid pro quo between Clinton and Uranium One backers. As one of nine members of a US committee weighing the deal, it was not within Clinton’s power to approve the deal on her own. There is no evidence Clinton was even informed of the prospective deal while she was secretary of State. While cabinet heads make up the committee, that is a nominal position. As often the case in government, subordinates go to the meetings and do the work.

Q: Why is this coming up again?

Mr. Trump has continued to raise the issue as he pushes back against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In mid-October Trump told reporters in the Oval Office the Uranium One deal is the “real Russia story. Not a story where they talk about collusion and there was none.” 

In addition, the Senate Judiciary Committee has launched an investigation into the case, after The Hill published stories about Russian nuclear officials engaging in fraudulent behavior in the US around 2009.

According to The Hill, the FBI did not inform the Committee on Foreign Investments of its scrutiny of this behavior prior to the Uranium One decision. Right now there’s no evidence it was linked to the Rosatom deal, however. And perpetrators have already been prosecuted: in 2015, the Russian nuclear industry’s point man in the US, a director of a subsidiary of Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation named Vadim Mikerin, was sentenced to 48 months in prison for money laundering.

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