The World’s Addiction to Rosatom
On 24 August, Canada imposed additional sanctions on subsidiaries of Rosatom, Russia's main state-owned nuclear corporation. At the same time, companies and governments around the world are in no hurry to sever their close ties with the Russian nuclear monopoly. Earlier this year, in February, the UK imposed sanctions on certain Rosatom officials. Each time the EU prepares a new package of sanctions, Ukraine insists on including restrictions on Rosatom, and each time such sanctions are postponed and remain the subject of cautious discussions.
And there is an explanation. Rosatom is the cheapest producer in the world, supplying about a third of the enriched uranium needed for 92 reactors in the United States. A dozen countries in the world are completely dependent on Russia for their enriched uranium supplies.
In Europe, utilities that generate electricity for 100 million people are also dependent on the Russian corporation. 20% of the EU’s uranium comes from Russia and another 23% from Kazakhstan, where Rosatom is the main player in the nuclear energy market.
The imposition of sanctions and the rejection of Russian uranium remain sensitive issues for the global nuclear industry.
The strategy of Russia’s state-owned corporate monster Rosatom is painfully reminiscent of a similar strategy pursued by the giant Gazprom. Having gained a monopoly and ‘hooked’ customers with cheap and non-alternative services, Russian companies are gradually trying to establish control over their client countries. Previously it was gas and oil, now it is enriched uranium and other goods and services related to nuclear energy.
Russia dominates the global nuclear market, controlling 40-45% of uranium ore mining, uranium enrichment and low-enriched uranium production.
In 2020, the total value of projects and orders outside Russia was $138.3 billion, with 36 power units abroad in Rosatom’s portfolio. In 2021, Rosatom will be the third largest supplier of uranium in Europe, accounting for 20% of the total.
Rosatom controls the nuclear energy market in Europe.
In the five countries of the European Union, each of the 18 reactors was built by Russia.
Nuclear trade creates an extensive network of financial and technical cooperation and relationships, first purely commercial, then diplomatic and political.
Russia’s entry point into a new market is a favourable price offer. Nuclear power is expensive, so Russia typically offers favourable loans and payment deferrals, with long-term contracts for plant maintenance, training of personnel and operators, and fuel supply.
Every time the Kremlin nuclear giant Rosatom ‘agrees’ to build a new reactor, it gains not only cash flow but also political leverage – potentially for decades.
“This is part of the great-power competition that we’re in right now,” says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear-power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. Russia’s leaders “see nuclear trade as a way to bolster alliances.”
Countries traditionally dependent on Russian supplies, such as the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, have tried to diversify. However, long-standing contractual obligations and technical nuances make diversification slow and difficult.
This dependency also makes existing and future nuclear power plants around the world vulnerable to a cessation of enriched uranium sales by Russia, which analysts say is a likely strategy by the Kremlin, which is adept at using energy as a geopolitical tool.
According to the World Nuclear Association, an international organisation that aims to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy as a reliable source of energy, around 60 power reactors are currently under construction in 15 countries, including China, India and Russia.
The vast majority of them are in Asia. Some of them are being built by Russia. At the same time, the Kremlin is announcing ambitious plans for new units in Russia.
Nuclear power capacity is growing steadily around the world. Today, there are about 440 nuclear reactors in operation in 32 countries and Taiwan, with a total capacity of about 390 GW. In 2021, they will generate 2,653 TWh, about 10% of the world’s electricity.
According to the OECD International Energy Agency (IEA) scenario, total nuclear power capacity will reach 19,792 GW by 2050, with facilities located in Asia, mostly in India and China. In this scenario, the contribution of nuclear power to global electricity generation will be about 8.5% in 2050.
Financing the war
During the year of full-scale war, Russian nuclear exports increased, sharply, by more than 20%. Purchases by members of the European Union reached their highest level for three years.
Russia's nuclear energy exports continue to grow despite tens of thousands of Western sanctions. Moreover, Russian nuclear exports have managed to avoid economic restrictions.
Getting rid of the critical dependence on Gazprom turned out to be easier than distancing itself from Rosatom.
From Egypt and Iran to China and India, Russian companies are thriving, earning billions to finance the war.
According to Russian customs data obtained through a third-party commercial trade data provider, Russia has exported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of nuclear-related goods and materials since the start of the war in Ukraine.
The United States alone, which this year imposed sanctions on Rosatom's subsidiaries and affiliates, bought $1 billion worth of nuclear fuel from the Russian monopoly in 2022.
After all, Russian fuel produces more than half of the emission-free energy in the United States.
This is one of the most significant cash flows from the US to Russia, and there is no end in sight. Payments for enriched uranium are made to subsidiaries of Rosatom and diverted to military spending within Russia.
The money earned by Rosatom provides raw materials, technology and equipment for Russian defence companies, as well as fuel for missiles fired at Ukraine.
Experts believe that the United States’ reliance on nuclear energy will increase as the country seeks to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. At the same time, no US company is enriching uranium.
The Megatons to Megawatts programme, also known as the US-Russia Agreement on the Purchase of Highly Enriched Uranium or the Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the United States of America on the Disposition of Highly Enriched Uranium Extracted from Nuclear Weapons, was concluded on 18 February 1993.
Under this Agreement, Russia agreed to supply the United States with low-enriched uranium (LEU) derived from highly enriched uranium (HEU), which turned out to be in excess of Russian defence needs. The United States agreed to purchase fuel from low-enriched uranium. This provided the United States with cheap fuel and Moscow with cash, and was perceived as a gesture of de-escalation.
But in 30 years, the United States has completely stopped enriching uranium, and Russia has become a global monopoly.
Monopolist – terrorist
The state-owned Rosatom Corporation is also responsible for an unprecedented act of nuclear terror – the seizure of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia NPP. In early 2022, the Russian military occupied the ZNPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. The plant was mined and the sensitive facility was turned into a warehouse for ammunition and military equipment. In violation of international norms and rules, without the appropriate licences, permits and approvals, representatives of the Russian state corporation Rosatom arrived at the ZNPP and effectively seized control of the nuclear power plant.
“Rosatom employees are directly involved in the occupation of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and are performing the functions of control and management of this nuclear power plant,” the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine said in an appeal to the parliaments of all foreign countries, the European Parliament and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“We can’t be held hostage by nations that don’t have our values, but that’s what’s happened,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy Committee.
The RUSI report states that Russia's military activities in Ukraine have led to serious threats to the safety and security of Ukraine's nuclear infrastructure and that there are strong grounds to believe that Russia has violated the protections afforded to nuclear power plants under international humanitarian law (IHL).
Given the projected global increase in the number of nuclear reactors over the coming decades, it is likely that this will not be the last time that nuclear power plants are at the centre of a military conflict. If Rosatom goes unpunished, it will open a Pandora’s box of nuclear blackmail.