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Europe is on track to kick its addiction to Russian fossil fuels, but can’t seem to replicate that success with nuclear energy a year into the Ukraine war.
The EU’s economic sanctions on Russian coal and oil permanently reshaped trade and left Moscow in a “much diminished position,” according to the International Energy Agency. Coal imports have dropped to zero, and it is illegal for Russian crude to be imported by ship; only four countries still receive it by pipeline.
That’s compared to the bloc getting 54 percent of its hard coal imports and one-quarter of its oil from Russia in 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to turn off the gas taps while the EU turned increasingly to liquefied natural gas deliveries from elsewhere caused the reliance on Moscow to tumble from 40 percent of the bloc’s gas supply before the war to less than 10 percent now.
But nuclear energy has proved a trickier knot for EU countries to untie — for both historical and practical reasons.
As competition in the global nuclear sector atrophied following the Cold War, Soviet-built reactors in the EU remained locked into tailor-made fuel from Russia, leaving Moscow to play an outsized role.
In 2021, Russia’s state-owned atomic giant Rosatom supplied the bloc’s reactors with 20 percent of their natural uranium, handled a quarter of their conversion services and provided a third of their enrichment services, according to the EU’s Euratom Supply Agency (ESA).
That same year, EU countries paid Russia €210 million for raw uranium exports, compared to the €88 billion the bloc paid Moscow for oil.
The value of imports of Russia-related nuclear technology and fuel worldwide rose to more than $1 billion (€940 billion) last year, according to research from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). In the EU, the value of Russia’s nuclear exports fell in some countries like Bulgaria and the Czech Republic but rose in others, including Slovakia, Hungary and Finland, RUSI data shared with POLITICO showed.
“While it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from what is ultimately a time-limited and incomplete dataset, it does clearly show that there are still dependencies on, and a market for, Russian nuclear fuel,” said Darya Dolzikova, a research fellow at RUSI.
Although uranium from Russia could be replaced by imports from elsewhere within a year — and most nuclear plants have at least one-year extra reserves, according to ESA head Agnieszka Kaźmierczak — countries with Russian-built VVER reactors rely on fuel made by Moscow.
“There are 18 Russian-designed nuclear power plants in [the EU] and all of them would be affected by sanctions,” said Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. “This remains a deeply divided issue in the European Union.”
That’s why the bloc has struggled over the past year to target Russia’s nuclear industry — despite repeated calls from Ukraine and some EU countries to hit Rosatom for its role in overseeing the occupied Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and possibly supplying equipment to the Russian arms industry.
“The whole question of sanctioning the nuclear sector … was basically killed before there was ever a meaningful discussion,” said a diplomat from one EU country who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The most vocal opponent has been Hungary, one of five countries — along with Slovakia, Bulgaria, Finland and the Czech Republic — to have Russian-built reactors for which there is no alternative fuel so far.
Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have signed contracts with U.S. firm Westinghouse to replace the Russian fuel, according to ESA chief Kaźmierczak, but the process could take “three years” as national regulators also need to analyze and license the new fuel.
The “bigger problem” across the board is enrichment and conversion, she added, due to chronic under-capacity worldwide. It could take “seven to 10 years” to replace Rosatom — and that timeline is conditional on significant investments in the sector.
While Finland last year scrapped a deal to build a Russian-made nuclear plant on the country’s west coast — prompting a lawsuit from Rosatom — others aren’t changing tack.
Slovakia’s new Mochovce-3 Soviet VVER-design reactor came online earlier this month, which Russia will supply with fuel until at least 2026.
Hungary, meanwhile, deepened ties with Moscow by giving the go-ahead to the construction of two more reactors at its Paks plant last summer, underwritten by a €10 billion Russian loan.
“Even if [they] were to come into existence, nuclear sanctions would be filled with exemptions because we are dependent on Russian nuclear fuel,” said a diplomat from a second EU country.
This article has been updated with charts depicting Russia’s nuclear exports.
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