Putin’s uranium self-enrichment

How dependent is Europe on the Russian nuclear sector?

The below is the second half of the Öko-Institut blog entry — “Energy policy in times of the Ukraine war: Nuclear power instead of natural gas?” — looking at Europe’s reliance on the Russian nuclear sector. Read the full blog article.

By Anke Herold, Dr Roman Mendelevitch and Dr Christoph Pistner

Europe is heavily dependent on Russia for nuclear energy as well, perhaps to an even greater extent than for gas. The main sources of uranium imports into the EU in 2020 were Russia (20%), Niger (also 20%), Kazakhstan (19%), Canada (18%), Australia (13%) and Namibia (8%). Just 0.5% of the uranium used in the EU comes from the EU itself. 

However, this apparent diversity of sources is deceptive. Russia has a close relationship with Kazakhstan, while the mines in Niger belong to Chinese state-owned companies, as do two of the three largest uranium mines in Namibia. The third Namibian mine is largely Chinese-owned. 

In other words, in 2020, only 31% of uranium imports into Europe were supplied by firms that are not owned by totalitarian regimes. It follows that here too, Europe has placed itself in a position of high import dependence.

Around 25% of uranium enrichment and some processes in fuel rod fabrication for the EU take place in Russia. Many Russian-designed reactors source their fuel rods largely from the Russian company TVEL – now part of Rosatom – on the basis of long-term supply contracts that run for 10 years or more. 

The Loviisa nuclear power plant in Finland is heavily reliant, like many others, on fuel rods supplied by Russia. (Photo: Thomas Gartz/Wikimedia Commons)

There are Russian-designed nuclear reactors in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia. The 16 older pressurised water reactors, type WWER-440, are totally dependent on TVEL for fuel rod fabrication. These older reactors can be found in Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. 

Even the Euratom Supply Agency itself identifies this dependence as a significant vulnerability factor. The operators are dependent on imports of Russian technology. 

The Western European nuclear power plants are also far from being independent. The French company Areva collaborates with TVEL in order to supply fuel rods for seven reactors in Western Europe, including the Loviisa nuclear power plant in Finland. 

As recently as December 2021, the French nuclear company Framatome signed a new strategic cooperation agreement on the development of fuel fabrication and instrumentation and control (I&C) technologies.

The Russian fuel rod manufacturer TVEL was also keen to enter into fuel rod production at the factory in Lingen, Germany, which currently belongs to the French company ANF. Lingen supplies fuel rods to British, French and Belgian nuclear power plants. The German Federal Cartel Office approved the venture in March 2021, whereupon the Federal Economics Ministry conducted an open-ended review until the end of January 2022. 

On the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ministry announced that the Rosatom subsidiary TVEL had withdrawn its application. In Germany, the Rosatom Group also owns a subsidiary, NUKEM Technologies, which specialises in the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, decontamination, waste management and radiation protection. In Germany, it plans and constructs storage facilities for radioactive waste and is involved in decommissioning the Neckarwestheim and Philippsburg nuclear power plants.

The Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant in Germany is being decommissioned by a Russian company. (Photo: Felix König/Wikimedia Commons)

So Putin manoeuvred the European nuclear industry into a position of dependence on Russia long ago, and he himself earns income from the decommissioning of the German nuclear power plants. 

The only difference is that while this dependence on gas has been widely discussed, the same cannot be said of the nuclear industry. And yet the EU member states have no intention of ending this nuclear dependence. 

In the relevant Council Regulation of 15 March 2022, civil nuclear-related activities were excluded from the definition of the energy sector and are therefore, quite explicitly, not covered by the prohibition on investments in the Russian energy sector. 

Although practically 100% of the EU’s uranium is imported, as is most of the fuel rod supply, the EU classes nuclear energy as “domestic” production because fuel rods can easily be stockpiled.

Here, we see a similar Orwellian use of language as in the EU Taxonomy, which describes nuclear energy as a technology which does not cause significant harm to the environment.

As the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on 18 March 2022, even the EU’s flight ban on Russian aircraft was lifted for a delivery of nuclear fuel into Slovakia.

So our conclusion on this topic is that as regards nuclear energy too, the dependence on Russia must be drastically reduced. Supply security with no dependence on totalitarian regimes requires a substantial reduction in nuclear energy use in Europe.

Read the full blog.

Headline photo of German protest against Rosatom by Uwe Hiksch/Creative Commons.

The views expressed in articles by outside contributors and published on the Beyond Nuclear International website, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Beyond Nuclear. However, we try to offer a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives as part of our mission “to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future”.

%d bloggers like this: