European states will have to detach themselves from Russian nuclear supplies in the long-term if they wish to free their energy supply from all Russian influence.
The European Union has imposed a wide range of sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, and has managed to almost entirely decouple itself from Russia’s gas and oil imports.
There is one part of the energy sector which has remained virtually untouched, however – nuclear.
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Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, is one of the few Russian companies still operating in the EU. This is despite the fact that in January 2023, news broke that Ukrainian intelligence had uncovered documents proving Rosatom had planned to export sanctioned goods to the Russian military.
Using its legal operations in the EU, the company can provide Russia’s arms industry with much needed technology and fuel.
Despite EU efforts to decouple from Russian energy and Ukrainian calls for sanctions on Rosatom, numerous EU members have opposed banning the company, citing supply concerns.
Nuclear energy accounts for about a quarter of the EU’s total energy consumption but is much higher in countries such as Bulgaria and Hungary which rely on Soviet-era reactors. It came as no surprise then that in March 2023 both countries, along with France, opposed sanctions on Rosatom.
Russia’s nuclear grip
Russia’s nuclear industry is immense. The country produces eight per cent of the world’s raw uranium supply and 38 per cent of converted uranium. Additionally, Russia is also home to around 46 per cent of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity.
The EU, in turn, sources 20 per cent of its natural uranium from Russia along with 26 per cent of its enrichment services, according to data from the World Nuclear Association.
The are 18 nuclear power plants in the EU which use Russian designs and rely on Russian imports. All of them would be affected by EU sanctions on Rosatom, which continues to supply fuel rods.
This is especially challenging in countries with a high consumption of nuclear power, such as Slovakia (54 per cent), Hungary (46 per cent), Bulgaria (37 per cent) and Czechia (36 per cent).
Some EU members have admittedly tried more than others. Bulgaria and Czechia have both signed contracts with the American company Westinghouse to replace fuel imports over the next three years.
According to data compiled by Politico, the value of Russian nuclear imports to Bulgaria and Czechia fell by 47 and 26 per cent respectively in 2022.
Bulgaria set out a new energy strategy in January 2023, including plans for two new reactors at its Kozloduy plant and two more for a new plant near the island of Belene. The controversial Belene project has been a bone of contention in Bulgarian politics since initially being proposed 40 years ago. In 2012 the project was formally shelved.
Despite subsequent attempts to revive it by then prime minister Boyko Borissov, the government of Kiril Petkov, briefly in office from 2021-22, froze the project once again due to fears of Russian dependence.
Now, Interim Energy Minister of Energy Rosen Hristov has decided to revive the project once more, this time looking towards American and French companies.
Hungary and Slovakia have not been as forthright in their attempts to move away from reliance on Russia. In August 2022, Hungary even issued Rosatom a permit to construct two new reactors at its Paks Nuclear Power Plant.
In Slovakia meanwhile, a new Russian-designed reactor came online in February. The reactor will be supplied with Russian fuel until 2026. The value of Hungary and Slovakia’s Russian nuclear imports in 2022 grew by 65 and 72 per cent respectively.
The EU’s sanctions hurdle
Ukrainian officials have been urging the EU to put Rosatom on its sanctions list for almost a year now, especially after the company was incriminated in Russia’s seizure of the Zaporizhzhia power plant.
Following a visit to Kyiv in April, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck urged the EU to impose sanctions on Russian nuclear fuel “even if that means a change for the countries that still equip nuclear power plants with Russian uranium”.
“This is not acceptable in any way, it should be clear to everyone that such actions are not a game of hide and seek or a minor violation,” he added, stressing that sanctions are being circumvented via third countries.
Kacper Szulecki, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ Climate and Energy Research Group, tells Emerging Europe that the dependence of the region on Russian nuclear infrastructure and fuel is multifaceted.
“Firstly, there is an infrastructure legacy which may be a source of security threats in itself. Secondly, there are fuel imports which are not easy to handle, it takes time. Lastly, there is the area of personal contacts and potential influences that often goes quite far back and can be exploited in a political context,” he says.
“Fuel dependency is most pressing and energy companies and states will be addressing them. However, we currently see a regional alliance with France aimed at securing a future for nuclear energy in the EU decarbonisation’s plans rather than dealing with Russian security threats,” he adds, noting that current efforts risk diverting attention from the threat of Russian dependence.
The debate has nevertheless become a point of contention among EU partners. Unlike gas or oil, nuclear energy imports are hard to replace. Regardless, European states will have to detach themselves from Russian nuclear supplies in the long-term if they wish to free their markets from all Russian influence.
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