Russia and world nuclear energy

Oil, gas, coal. So far, these are the most talked about energy carriers and the ones that give Russia the opportunity to exert the greatest influence on the West. Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the import of these raw materials has come under some of the sanctions of the EU, Great Britain, the United States and other Western countries. Most countries themselves decided to limit the import and use of Russian resources.

The shooting in the Zaporizhia NPP area in recent days, it has turned its attention to another dependency – that of nuclear fuel. The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky demanded that the West stop its imports from Russia for this sector as well. However, this appears to be a very complex task, both in terms of importing uranium and nuclear reactors, as well as the parts needed to support Russian facilities operating in Western countries.

However, what is Russia’s role in the global cycle of nuclear energy production. Here are a few aspects of it.

It’s not just mines and deposits

Russia is among the top five countries in terms of uranium deposits. The country has approximately 486,000 tonnes or about 8% of world reserves.

According to 2019 data. Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Russia and Namibia are the countries with the most uranium deposits. It is this raw material that is at the beginning of the nuclear energy production process.

Despite the large deposits, Russian extraction of the valuable resource is relatively low. In 2021, only 5% of the uranium used on a global scale came from mines in Russia.

However, mining is only one part of the nuclear energy production process. Raw uranium cannot be used as fuel in plants. It must be processed into uranium concentrate, transformed into gas, and later enriched. This is precisely the advantage of Russia.

In 2020, only four nuclear fuel reprocessing plants were operating worldwide – in China, France, Canada and Russia.

It is Russia that is the biggest player and has 40% of the world’s uranium processing infrastructure. This puts Moscow in first place in the production of gas processed uranium (uranium hexafluoride).

The same goes for uranium enrichment, which is the next step in the cycle. According to data from 2018, the capacity here is also distributed among only a few countries, and 46% of it is again for Russia.

This makes Russia a major supplier of uranium and enriched uranium. According to the latest available data, in total, the EU countries buy from Russia about 20% of the natural and 26% of the enriched uranium they use. For the US, the percentages are 14 and 28, respectively. The data is for 2021.

What types are nuclear reactors

Nuclear reactors from Russia are known as VVER (abbreviated from Water-water energy reactor or Water-water energy reactor). The development of these reactors, which use water as both a coolant and a moderator, dates back to the time of USSR. There are several models of VVER reactors (such as VVER-440 and VVER-1000) that are distinguished mainly by their power. Four reactors of the first type used to operate at the Bulgarian plant in Kozloduy, and two reactors of the second type are still operating.

Currently, similar reactors are active in 11 countries, among which, in addition to Bulgaria, there are also the Czech Republic, Hungary and Finland. Also in other places like Egypt, Turkey and Argentina, similar reactors are currently being built, or at least planned to be built.

Russia is considered a world leader in terms of exporting technology for the development of nuclear power plants. Between 2012 and 2021 Rosatom construction of 19 reactors began, 15 of which are intended for export. This is well ahead of the next on the list China, France and South Korea. During the same period, for example, China started the construction of 29 reactors, but only two of them are intended for overseas use. France and South Korea are building two and four reactors respectively for other countries.

Where does the fuel for the reactor come from?

Reactors run on nuclear fuel, and often it is precisely specified for the reactor in question. Here comes the next level of dependence of some countries on Russia. Although there are several suppliers in the world, currently only the Russian “TVEL” is an authorized supplier of fuel for the reactors VVER-400.

This means that countries that rely on Russia for supplies could be put at risk of a temporary disruption or reduction in the volume of work at their plants. This is the case with four reactors in Slovakia and two in the Czech Republic. Fifth and sixth reactors of Kozloduy NPP” are from the series VVER-1000 and the risk for Bulgaria is not so great.

The American one Westinghouse is looking for alternative supply options for the VVER-400, but has not yet received a license. At the same time, there are concerns that supplies from the US could be more expensive, and it is unclear how Westinghouse will process the nuclear waste.

Russia also provides uranium with an enrichment level of the isotope uranium 235 between 5 and 20% (known as HALEU). This is a type of fuel that is used in more advanced reactor designs, such as those in the US.

According to the US administration, which is responsible for nuclear energy, access to HALEU is key to the development of reactors in the country. This fuel is currently in limited supply in the US, and Washington is looking for opportunities to explore and develop supply points. At the moment, the only supplier that can provide the necessary quantities is the Russian one Tenexwhich is a subdivision of the state “Rosatom”.

The only Bulgarian nuclear power plant is also preparing to switch to Russian nuclear fuel. Currently, Kozloduy NPP is completely dependent on Russia, from where it only imports fuel.

“Our goal is to have one of the reactors running on Westinghouse fuel in mid-2024,” the former energy minister said in March. Alexander Nikolov. According to the information of Free Europe, however, work on this issue is not accelerated.

How Russia seeks and finds new markets

The sale of nuclear technology is one of the things that Russia tries to use to exercise its soft policy. One of the reasons for the interaction of various countries with Moscow is that a complete package of services in nuclear energy can be obtained from it. The Russian side can not only build the reactor and supply the fuel, but also train local specialists, help with security issues, run scholarship programs and re-store nuclear waste.

In fact, however, the most serious means is the offer of attractive loans. Usually they are related to state funds and represent about 80% of the total construction cost. For example, Russia borrowed 10 billion dollars on Hungary11 billion per Bangladesh and 25 billion per Egypt to expand or build nuclear power plants.

While 11 countries have operational or already planned Russian nuclear projects, Moscow has signed a total of 30 memoranda for such capabilities, mainly with countries in Africa.

Many experts warn that African countries are not ready to go nuclear, but Russia rejects the security-based arguments and counters them with the growing need for electricity. Countries in Africa are the largest bloc of voting member states in the UN, which gives Russia leverage in the organization.

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