July 26, 2022

Europe’s Nuclear Energy Vulnerability

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
A participant is seen at the stand of Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom during the Russian Energy Week International Forum in Moscow, Russia October 13, 2021.
A participant is seen at the stand of Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom during the Russian Energy Week International Forum in Moscow, Russia October 13, 2021.

While a ban on Russian oil and gas is being actively discussed in the EU and US, there is no such conversation about the civil nuclear energy supply chain from Russia to Western countries. Rosatom’s supply and construction contracts in Europe have so far allowed it to avoid sanctions. Europe’s energy conversation will also need to include its dependence on Russia’s nuclear capacity.

Russia’s brutal and unjustified aggression against Ukraine finally shattered the illusion of some Western governments that dialogue with Moscow was possible and made clear that dependency on Russia as a source of energy had left the European energy system vulnerable to geopolitical shifts.

Russia’s dangerous military actions have seen nuclear power become entangled in the conflict. For weeks, the world watched helplessly as the Russian army occupied Chornobyl and shelled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP), the largest in Europe, without concern for radiation leaks that could spread throughout Europe. Thanks to the efforts of the Ukrainian Army the situation in Chornobyl is largely under control, but Zaporzhzhia, a location that would be highly dangerous to counter attack, has been used by the Russian army to launch artillery.

Nuclear Energy as Leverage

These episodes show that civil nuclear capacity can be a military target. But it can also be a geopolitical tool for leveraging influence. In the ICDS report “Hybrid Atoms: Rosatom in Europe and Nuclear Energy in Belarus,” we expressed many concerns about the inclusion of nuclear energy in the Russian geopolitical toolbox and drew attention to the strong links between the construction, maintenance, and fuelling of NPPs and national and international security risks. Some of these concerns have been validated by recent events.

Since 2007, state controlled Rosatom has worked with support from the Kremlin to build a competitive advantage in the nuclear energy sector. Today, it leads the global nuclear energy market, providing technical expertise, enriched fuel, and equipment to nuclear reactors around the world. However, despite the Kremlin’s direct control of Rosatom affairs, it has not been included in the sanctions imposed by the EU and US in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. This hesitation may be attributed to Rosatom’s role in the nuclear supply chain – states on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean depend heavily on Rosatom for uranium and enriched nuclear fuel.

The situation in Europe is worse. While some European NPPs work with a range of suppliers, plants located in Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Finland operate Russian-designed reactors that have only one supplier – TVEL, owned by Rosatom. This dependency has allowed Rosatom to avoid sanctions and to be one of the few Russian companies still allowed to operate on European soil (e.g. with “special flights” to Slovakia to deliver fuel).

While the EU has generally shown strong and unified support to Ukraine, its response in the gas, oil, and nuclear energy fields has been fragmented due to the lack of a clear mandate, a limited capacity to counter pressure and hybrid threats, and the different stances of individual states. For example, while contractual mitigation measures taken by Finland allowed it to cancel the Hanhikivi-1 reactor project, Hungary elected to continue its Russian loan-financed deal with Rosatom to build two new reactors in the Paks plant. Regarding fuel supplies, the European Commission is helping the Czech Republic, Finland, and Bulgaria to follow Ukraine’s example of using Westinghouse compatible fuel, while Slovakia and Hungary remain hostage to TVEL supplies due to their use of older nuclear reactors (VVER-440). It will take many years to manage their transition, but as yet, neither country has publicly committed to change suppliers.

Outside the EU and US, Rosatom’s influence continues to increase, with China and India among its fastest-growing operations. At the EU’s eastern border in Belarus, Rosatom operates the Astravyets NPP, which poses several hybrid threats to neighbouring countries. Turkey has not taken a position against the company and retains a contract for the construction of the Akkuyu plant, expected to be ready in 2025.  This follows a Build-Own-Operate (BOO) model in which Russia will fully finance, construct, own, operate, and maintain the plant, making Turkey highly dependent on a company deemed strategic by Russia’s regime and instrumental in its geopolitical ambitions

Avoiding Security Spill Over

There is no doubt that Rosatom plays an important role in Russian foreign policy. Despite western governments belated recognition of their vulnerabilities with regard to Russian energy supply, Rosatom will likely retain most of their nuclear-related commercial agreements in the short-term and remain a strong player in the global nuclear market. In the longer-term, however, the EU and US sanctions on Russia could affect its ability to compete in the global market. If isolated, Russia will lose the Western collaboration necessary to produce essential components, while its diminished capacity to offer generous loans and direct support in the form of state diplomacy could mean an overall loss of quality and reduced funding for the hi-tech industry.

Russia’s dominant position in the nuclear field has so far kept Rosatom free from sanctions and the risk remains that Russia could further exploit Europe’s fragmented response for military or political purposes in its war in Ukraine. It is time for RepowerEU to establish a broader operational framework on energy issues. This will also have to consider national and regional security aspects, including hybrid threats, and will need to put in place measures to avoid spill over effects from all energy sources, nuclear included.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).