Tuesday

16th Aug 2022

Interview

Elephant in the summit room — Russia's uranium exports

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The focus of European leaders in Brussels has been on oil and gas for weeks, reaching a climax at the EU summit on Monday (30 May) evening when members finally reached an agreement on a partial oil embargo.

All measures combined would cover 90 percent of all Russian oil imports.

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  • Vladimir Slivyak was awarded the Right Livelyhood Award in 2021, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, for his environmental activism. Other recipients have been Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, and Greta Thunberg. (Photo: Right Livelyhood Award)

"This will have an effect in the longer term, but it's a big mistake to think this will influence the situation now," Vladimir Slivyak, co-founder of Ecodefense, one of Russia's leading environmental organisations since 1989, told EUobserver. "This guy is not going to stop unless Europe cuts all Russian energy."

Slivyak, who has been detained by the Putin regime for his environmental activism in the past, relocated to Germany in the autumn of 2021 due to the escalating repression against all voices critical of the Kremlin.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Slivyak has shifted from ending fossil fuel and nuclear energy in Russia to anti-war protest.

"It's hard to know if we can do anything in Russia," he said. "Right now, all I focus on is telling EU politicians to limit their dependency on Russian fuel."

But while much of the debate has been focused on oil and gas, Slivyak, in a paper published this month, unearthed another energy dependency that is hardly talked about: nuclear fuel.

Russian Uranium

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia currently have old Soviet-built VVER reactors operated on their territory, all entirely reliant on fuel supplied by Russian state-owned Rosatom.

Five EU diplomats disclosed to politico in April that some EU members, including Germany, want to ban uranium imports from Russia.

But the issue of nuclear energy dependency was not raised at the EU summit this week and was also not discussed during the negotiations preceding it, an EU diplomat told EUobserver.

"I can understand that [EU leaders] have been consumed by other issues, banning oil, coal and gas, but nuclear energy dependency seems to be forgotten, and that is not a good thing," Slivyak said.

Moscow's earnings from nuclear fuel exports (about €650m in 2020, according to Rosatom's annual figures) is dwarfed by the country's annual oil and gas revenues. But Rosatom's fuel manufacturing facility has €14.6bn in outstanding orders.

And Slivyak warned the EU has a "different kind of dependency" on Russian nuclear fuel and services, which Putin could use to "blackmail" certain members.

Hungary and Slovakia are dependent on Russian nuclear fuel for half of their total energy use, which only Rosatom can provide.

Slovakia in March already allowed Russian planes carrying nuclear fuel, despite a flight ban.

Hungary is currently planning to construct two new Russian built reactors at the Paks nuclear facility in a €10bn financing deal with the Russian state, further increasing Hungarian dependency on Rosatom which would also be the sole provider of fuel for the first ten years of operation.

"Hungary is already an obstacle," Slivyak said, referring to the Hungarian near month-long obstruction of the oil ban.

"They are in a trap," he said. "This is how it's going to play. Putin started a full-scale war on the European continent. So why would he not block nuclear supplies if it gives him the power to blackmail [EU countries]?"

EU plans

The EU Commission has pledged to help the five EU states that use Russian-designed reactors to find alternative nuclear fuel. But it is only briefly mentioned as part of its RePowerEU-strategy that aims to cut all Russian energy imports before 2027, and it is not clear how the member countries will achieve this.

Slovakia has said it has around two years' worth of Russian nuclear fuel stockpiled. Bulgaria, around two-and-a-half years' worth.

US company Westinghouse has confirmed it is seeking approval from national governments for a replacement fuel that would work in Soviet-designed reactors, starting in 2024 — an estimate Slivyak said is "optimistic" and could take up to five years.

US nuclear fuel is also likely to be expensive and would require a new waste management system, as Rosatom is also responsible for handling spent fuel.

"Even if they do come up with good replacement fuel in time, it will still be used to keep old risky Sovjet reactors in business that do not meet modern safety measures," Sivyak said. "EU leaders should focus on reaching an agreement that will break all dependency on Rusian energy."

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