Why Russia’s Nuclear Sector Is Safe From Sanctions
The United States must recognize that the one-world model of civilian nuclear cooperation is coming to an end.
Ukraine, supported by Lithuania and Poland, recently doubled down on its campaign to sanction Russia’s nuclear sector in the same way as oil and gas, which have already been embargoed. With a high-profile lobbying campaign underway in Brussels to include nuclear in the next “sanctions package,” the tenth to date, Western officials are feeling pressure to choose sides.
Though the Biden administration has long been tempted to sanction Rosatom, a state-owned Russian nuclear energy corporation, along with Moscow’s other energy exporters, nuclear has been conspicuously absent from all sanctions lists. There is little agreement among the United States and its allies on the wisdom of the move and the risks associated with going nuclear in the sanctions war. Hungary and Bulgaria say that the consequences would be devastating and they would veto any proposed EU measure targeting Rosatom.
Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, when the Soviet army in Afghanistan was killing thousands daily, the United States and its allies visited sanctions on almost everything from gas pipelines and credit facilities to grain exports to the USSR, but civil nuclear cooperation was never affected. Westinghouse and Siemens continued to rub elbows with the Russians in Finland on the construction of the Loviisa nuclear power plant; France kept importing the bulk of its enriched uranium from Soviet Russia. Nuclear cooperation never stopped—and for good reason.
The imposition of sanctions in international politics must always be weighed against the implications of an adversary’s potential response. When it comes to the oil price cap plan, the downsides are few: The Kremlin has limited room to maneuver, and the expected countermeasure of a price floor for Russian oil is unlikely to change much for the global oil market.
But nuclear is a different kettle of fish altogether. The degree of interdependency is much higher, and so are the risks of interruptions in global supply chains. The consequences could extend well beyond the immediate economic impact and lead to catastrophic repercussions, including compromising nuclear safety. In addition, since Rosatom is a dominant global player accounting for about half of the world’s new nuclear build exports and about one-third of the nuclear fuel market, Moscow understands that its countersanctions would impose devastating impacts on the U.S. and European nuclear energy sector.
The Russian Federation still supplies 14 percent of America’s enriched uranium consumption (down from 20 percent a decade ago, which translated into 10 percent of America’s electricity generation). Moreover, Russia has a de facto monopoly when it comes to providing the high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) that is critical for fueling 9 out of 10 advanced nuclear reactors currently under development in the United States and funded by the U.S. government. The American nuclear industry has secured bipartisan support and billions in public funds to cut uranium dependency on Russia, but it is likely to take years to have all the technology in place and enrichment facilities up and running. In Europe, Rosatom’s share is almost one-fourth in some countries, such as Belgium, which is dependent on Russia for as much as 40 percent of its uranium imports.
Exposure to Russia is even more significant when it comes to the nuclear fuel fabrication sector. Reactor fuel assemblies are sophisticated devices, full of proprietary technological features and an almost decade-long lead time in testing and licensing. While American and French vendors can, in theory, replace Russia in fuel fabrication for newer, Russian-designed VVER-1000 reactors, the French supplier will have to rely on its joint venture with Rosatom, a plant in Lingen, Germany, which is likely to be affected too should sanctions be imposed. Older Soviet-built VVER-440 reactors, which are commonplace throughout Eastern Europe and are scheduled to retire in the next 10 years, are entirely dependent on Russia’s fuel supply.
Should Rosatom cut nuclear fuel supplies for the VVER-440, it would, once the current stock of fuel was used up, bring power generation to a halt on all nuclear reactors in Slovakia and Hungary, half of the reactors in the Czech Republic, and 23 percent in Finland. Hungary and Slovakia would consequently face a drop in their electricity generation by about 25 percent, the Czech Republic by 15 percent, and Finland by 7 percent. Attempts to replace the Russian supplies with undertested alternatives could jeopardize the safety of the reactor core.
Worse still, beyond the nuclear fuel sector, only the Russians are currently supplying several vital isotopes to the world market, and it would take almost a decade to replace them. For instance, a deficit of Cobalt-60 (Co-60), which is used for radiation therapy as well as in medical sterilization, industrial x-ray welding seams, and food irradiation, would likely result in thousands of premature deaths across the world every year. Interruptions in the supply of Actinium-225 and Tungsten-188 would hamper the adoption of the most cutting-edge and efficient cancer treatment procedures, leaving tens of thousands of cancer patients untreated. The lack of Russian supplies of Californium-252 would cause further delays in the launching of the new French nuclear reactors designed to be used as initiators of chain reactions.
The Kremlin has so far refrained from using Russia’s leverage in the nuclear energy sector to respond to earlier Western energy sanctions, but direct sanctions on the nuclear front, even the most symbolic ones, could provoke President Vladimir Putin to fall back on his country’s civil “nuclear option.”
Unlike oil and gas, which are the main source of Russia’s tax receipts and, therefore, its main means of sustaining its military aggression in Ukraine, the drop in Rosatom’s export revenues from nuclear sanctions would be a paltry $1-3 billion, less than 0.5 percent of its energy exports. By contrast, the cost of a possible Russian uranium embargo and the severing of nuclear supplies in the United States and Europe could easily exceed $100 billion
The United States must recognize that the one-world model of civilian nuclear cooperation is coming to an end. America should adopt a comprehensive national program to ensure systemic self-sufficiency in the nuclear industry—from mining to fuel to isotopes—not just subsidies for the creation of our own uranium enrichment facilities, as is the case now, but in all areas over the next ten to twenty years.
Even if the Ukraine conflict were to be resolved by then, Russia’s unpredictability and hostility to the West, as well as peer competition with China, will persist or even exacerbate. As future conflicts unfold, the United States and Canada should address the vulnerabilities of themselves and their allies in the vital nuclear technology industry.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the associate dean of the College of Public Affairs and past executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.
Image: Shutterstock/Shag 7799.