By Dr. Paul Dorfman
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine all its energy exports have been sanctioned – bar nuclear. Dr. Paul Dorfman discusses the operation and consequences of the nuclear industry’s apparent ambivalence to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The problem is a Russian Doll’s worth of interlocking dependencies, with Russia involved in nuclear fuel enrichment and construction beyond its borders financed by ROSATOM – the state nuclear corporation and its many subsidiaries – who offer credit guarantees underpinned by Russian government long-term contracts to provide fuel and even run nuclear plant operations.
ROSATOM has become a leading supplier of nuclear reactors and services through a combination of flexible business models, attractive financial packages, and diplomatic tools. Russia plans to supply fuel for Slovakia’s new Mochovce-3 Russian-designed VVER reactor and supports Hungarian ambitions for new nuclear at the Paks nuclear power plant (NPP), underwritten by a €10 billion Russian loan. This nuclear dependency tactic is reflected in Europe – with Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Finland also relying on Russian nuclear technologies, services, as well as fuel elements.
Meanwhile, imports from ROSATOM-controlled mining and transport from Kazakhstan to EU utilities were 2358 tonnes last year, representing almost 20% of all EU imports. Global imports of Russian enriched uranium also continue to increase.￼ Furthermore, Russia is also providing Egypt with a $25 billion loan for the construction of the El Dabaa NPP and has extended a $11.4 billion loan for the construction of the Bangladesh Rooppur NPP, representing 90% of the cost.
According to the U.K. Royal United Service Institute, ROSATOM and its subsidiaries have exported an unsanctioned $2.2 billion worth of nuclear goods and materials last year, helping to bankroll Russia’s war-machine. In 2022, Europe spent €750 million on Russian nuclear fuel elements, nuclear reactors, and machinery. Meanwhile, circa 20% of fuel used by the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet is currently supplied through enrichment contracts with Russia, who dominate almost 50% of global enrichment capacity.
All things considered, ROSATOM seems to be subsuming the role of Gazprom. As Vladimir Putin says, the state nuclear corporation is not just a big revenue earner for the country, it’s also a major tool of Russia’s foreign policy. Proof of the pudding – ROSATOM sold, financed, and constructed a controversial NPP in Belarus, close to the Lithuanian border, and is building Turkey’s first NPP.
Chinese Whispers, U.S. and European Silence
The fact is that Russia’s nuclear exports have significantly increased since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, benefitting Putin’s otherwise wounded global strategic influence. Alongside Putin’s recent revocation of the nuclear test ban treaty, ROSATOM remains deaf to non-proliferation rules, coincidentally enhancing Beijing’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
Russia has sold billions of its nuclear products to the U.S. and Europe, and this lucrative civilian business model is providing critical funds for ROSATOM’s other major responsibility: designing and producing Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Nuclear’s Amoral Compass
Strategic geopolitical energy and military politics are complex, and real-world issues defy idealistic positioning. Whilst the EU has imposed massive and unprecedented sanctions against Russia in response to the war of aggression against Ukraine, the price cap on Russian crude oil is leaking. And although the U.S. has embargoed Russian fossil fuel, they still import oil products derived from Russian crude refined in other countries.
However, despite the obvious problems of fully implementing sanctions, there’s something deeply troubling about the fact that significant Russian nuclear exports directly contribute to Putin’s war-chest.
It’s astonishing to reflect that, whilst echoing distaste for Russia’s violent aggression in Ukraine, many nuclear corporations are still eager to do business with Russia’s nuclear sector, whose exports continue to expand. This amoral ambivalence damages the reputation of the nuclear industry, provides support for Moscow’s war-making capabilities, and undercuts efforts to bring about a just resolution to the conflict in Ukraine.
Dr. Paul Dorfman is the Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, a Visiting Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, UK, a Member of the Irish Government’s Radiation Protection Advisory Committee and a Former Advisor to UK Ministry of Defence Nuclear Submarine Dismantling Project.