Russia’s grip on nuclear-power trade is only getting stronger
Bloomberg February 14, 2023
Russia’s nuclear exports have surged since the invasion of Ukraine, boosting the Kremlin’s revenue and cementing its influence over a new generation of global buyers, as the U.S. and its allies shy away from sanctioning the industry.
Exclusive trade data compiled by the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute show that Russian nuclear fuel and technology sales abroad rose more than 20% in 2022. Purchases by European Union members climbed to the highest in three years. From Egypt and Iran to China and India, business is booming.
The trade brings in plenty of money already, but that’s not the full measure of its importance. Every time the Kremlin’s nuclear giant Rosatom PJSC agrees to build a new reactor, it locks in cashflows — and political clout — for potentially decades ahead.
Atomic commerce creates relationships that last. It involves large upfront costs — with Russia usually providing the credit — and long-term agreements to service plants, train their operators and replenish fuel. That kind of financial and technical collaboration can strengthen diplomatic ties too.
“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.”
The task is made easier by a dearth of competition. Russia continued investing in nuclear-fuel and technology manufacturing after the Soviet Union collapsed, even as the industry atrophied in other parts of the world.
That’s one reason the U.S. and its European allies — who’ve been weighing sanctions against the Russian nuclear company since early in the war — haven’t followed through. The concern is that shutting off their own nuclear industries from Russian supplies would be too economically painful.
Rosatom provides about one-fifth of the enriched uranium needed for the 92 reactors in the U.S. In Europe, utilities that generate power for 100 million people rely on the company.
The RUSI data is sourced from a third-party commercial provider and based on Russian customs records, says Darya Dolzikova, the think tank’s sanctions analyst. She says the figures are incomplete and don’t capture business with sanctioned countries like Iran. Numbers were validated where possible by comparing them with publicly available export information.
“Nuclear energy projects have very long timelines, so it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions,” she said. “But the data does point to a prioritization of markets that may be reticent to sanction Russian nuclear energy exports or entities.”
The figures show NATO members including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia continued to purchase Rosatom fuel last year, amid Ukrainian pleas to shut down the trade after Russia hijacked Europe’s biggest power plant.
“Rosatom receives billions of dollars every year from their business abroad,” says Petro Kotin, the president of Ukraine’s nuclear utility Energoatom. “The money that they’re receiving is financing the war.” Ukraine imposed sanctions on Rosatom this month, and urged other nations to follow suit.
Even in Ukraine, though, nine reactors still under Kyiv’s control rely on stockpiled Russian fuel. It’s taken years of planning, aided by U.S. advisers, to make the switch to Westinghouse, says Kotin, and full diversification won’t be possible for another three or four years.
Countries like Bulgaria, Finland and Slovakia have announced plans to swap suppliers too. That hasn’t prevented Rosatom from expanding its European footprint.
Hungary is providing aid for two new reactors that were awarded to Rosatom without public tender. Russia is covering 80% of the cost with a 10 billion euro loan. By the time construction is completed next decade, the project will be one of Eastern Europe’s biggest foreign investments. Hungary is among the E.U. countries opposed to including nuclear fuel in the bloc’s sanctions, while others such as Poland, Germany and the Baltic nations support the idea.
The data obtained by RUSI show that fuel supplies for aging reactors in former Soviet satellites accounted for almost two-fifths of Rosatom exports since 2019. But its fastest-growing markets lie further afield.
“This is a geostrategic not a commercial technology,” says Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “By providing state financing, Russia can take financial risk away from countries.”
Rosatom chief Alexey Likhachev said this month that the company is in talks with about 10 countries on new projects, and three or four are close to signing inter-government deals. In all the countries where Rosatom is already building nuclear plants, “everything is on track,” he said.
Rosatom isn’t handicapped by nonproliferation rules imposed by the U.S. Department of Energy. In India, under western trade restrictions since testing a nuclear weapon in 1974, Russia supplies nuclear fuel and is building two reactors scheduled to open in 2025. In China last year, Rosatom provided more than $375 million worth of fuel for a reactor that the U.S. Department of Defense is concerned could bolster Beijing’s nuclear-weapons stockpile.
South Africa, which has gotten visits from top U.S. and Russian officials in the past few weeks, is a good example of the strategic dimension of atomic trade.
In the only African nation currently operating nuclear-power reactors, the government last month allowed a pact with the U.S. — which gave it access to fuel in exchange for nonproliferation guarantees — to expire. That’s opened yet another door for Rosatom.
“They had a lot of hope in the past to do in South Africa what they are doing in Egypt and Turkey, but on a bigger scale,” says Hartmut Winkler, an energy researcher at the University of Johannesburg. “Rosatom is keen for contracts that give them influence, especially in countries that proclaim neutrality when it comes to Ukraine.”