Russia’s multi-million euro nuclear exports untouched by EU sanctions

Credit: Shutterstock
The Cruas nuclear power station in Ardèche, France.

“Russian nuclear terror requires a stronger response from the international community [including] sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry and nuclear fuel.” Those were the words Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted in August, after the shelling of a nuclear power plant in the country.

Since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the European Union has passed multiple sanctions packages aimed at hurting the Russian economy and reducing its ability to finance the war. Sanctions have targeted personalities, products of all kinds, and of course, fossil fuels. But so far, nuclear sanctions were always left out.

On Wednesday 28 September, history repeated itself once again. The European Commission proposed another sanction package against Russia, the eighth since the beginning of the invasion. It includes additional trade restrictions and an oil price cap for third countries. But still nothing on nuclear cooperation with Russia and imports of Russian uranium, even if many called for it. 

The European Parliament itself backs the idea to sanction Russian nuclear power calling for “an immediate full embargo on Russian imports of oil, coal, nuclear fuel and gas” and asked to “terminate collaboration with Russian companies on existing and new nuclear projects, including in Finland, Hungary and Bulgaria, where Russian experts can be replaced by Western ones, and to phase out the use of Rosatom services.”

On Friday 23 September, days before the Commission’s proposal, five EU countries – Poland, Ireland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – suggested a ban on cooperation with any nuclear activities with Russia. Germany has also supported a uranium ban behind the scenes.

German state secretary Sven Giegold confirmed this to IE: “We would have liked to end the dependency from Russia on all energy resources, which includes, of course, uranium. So we have proposed this several times, but we have to accept that unfortunately, sanction decisions are taken unanimously,” he said, adding that the German coalition government wants to scrap unanimity in several EU decision-making areas.

Although some national delegations see the German focus on uranium as tactical, knowing there is no chance of it being approved, because of the unanimity requirement. “Uranian was often presented in a tactical way, to show the others that they also have their weaknesses”, a Council diplomat told IE, “as Germany has been accused of being too soft on gas sanctions.” 

On Wednesday 5 October, the ambassadors of the Member States to the EU approved the eighth wave of sanctions against Russia, which was adopted the following morning by written procedure.

Credit: Greenpeace
A Russian uranium shipment in Dunkirk, France on Monday 13 September 2022. 

Europe’s dependency 

The reason for this resistance can be explained in one word: dependence. So far, an import ban on uranium or other sanctions on the Russian nuclear energy sector has only been discussed in EU circles, but never formally proposed.

“The European Commission never proposed it because the impact would be stronger for some Eastern member states, that are heavily dependent on Russian infrastructure and technologies, than for Russia itself,” one diplomatic source told Investigate Europe.

According to Ariadna Rodrigo, an EU sustainable finance campaigner at Greenpeace, the main resistance came from Hungary and Bulgaria. “The country that is the most forceful against [a ban on nuclear import from Russia] is Hungary,” she told Investigate Europe. “Hungary is building two nuclear reactors with Russian loans.”

She added: “If EU governments are serious about stopping war, they need to cut the European nuclear industry’s umbilical cord to the Kremlin and focus instead on accelerating energy savings and renewables. Ignoring the nuclear trade leaves a hole in EU sanctions so big you could drive a tank through it.” 

How big is that hole? In economic terms, the EU countries paid around €210 million for raw uranium imports from Russia in 2021 and another €245 million from Kazakhstan, where the uranium mining is controlled by Russian state-owned company Rosatom.

Raw uranium imports from Russia to EU utilities were 2358 tonnes last year, almost 20% of all EU imports. Only Niger (24.3%) and Kazakhstan (23%) were bigger uranium trade partners, according to the 2021 annual report from the EU body, Euratom Supply Agency.

While nuclear power generates around one quarter of all electricity in the EU as a whole, the share amounts to over 40% in Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, and over 70% for France, according to EU figures.

The dependency on Russian nuclear fuel is highest in Eastern and Central Europe, where 18 nuclear power plants were designed by Russia and rely on Russian technologies and services, as well as fuel elements provided by Rosatom. More precisely, they are in two reactors in Bulgaria, six in Czech Republic, two in Finland, four in Hungary and four in Slovakia.

“There are European nuclear companies that work closely with Rosatom, the only Russian nuclear company,” Rodrigo from Greenpeace adds. “Rosatom provides Europe with technology, uranium and services. It’s so entrenched, so linked, that cutting that tie is seen as very dangerous for the nuclear industry.”

In August, the government in Hungary surprised its EU neighbors by moving ahead with the construction of two more Russian nuclear reactors that have been planned for several years.

A government spokesperson told Investigate Europe: “It is also worth noting that the Hungarian government has also successfully fought for an exemption for nuclear energy-related activities. Thus, not only services and products necessary for the operation of existing nuclear power plants, but also specifically for the construction of new reactors, were included among the exemptions. This was important because the construction of the two new units of the Paks nuclear power plant is one of the most important cornerstones and guarantees of Hungary’s long-term energy security, and the nuclear power plant now in operation is responsible for 50% of Hungary’s electricity production and 34% of Hungary’s electricity consumption. It is also important to underline that no institution involved in nuclear energy cooperation and research and development has been included in the sanctions list.”

The role of France

Many governments, first and foremost the French, have pushed for Germany to break their dependence on Russian natural gas. But its own dependency on Russian uranium is shrouded in silence.

France imports on average around 20% of the needed raw uranium from Kazakhstan, where the uranium mining is controlled by Rosatom, according to Le Monde.

Green MEP Michèle Rivasi, a strong opponent to nuclear energy, exemplifies the French-Russian nuclear connection with Henri Proglio, the former CEO of EDF, the French semi-public main electricity company, who sits on the international advisory board of Rosatom.

”If Macron had asked Proglio to resign, he would have done so of course,” she told Investigate Europe. French dependence is not only on uranium imports, but also on nuclear waste treatment and many other activities, she said.

MEP Christophe Grudler, a member of Renew Europe, supports the exclusion of nuclear activity from the EU sanctions. In his view, one cannot impose sanctions against Russian gas (there is no embargo planned yet, unlike for crude oil) and then against Russian uranium. Unless if we want a general blackout, he says.

“If we open several fronts, hitting gas and nuclear, we will have a serious energy problem,” Grudler told Investigate Europe. 

“We must not forget that the nuclear business is not only about the power plant. “It is also about steam turbines. One of the world’s leading players, if not the leading one, is the French technology [company] Arabelle. However, we should not forget that two thirds of the turbines are sold… to Rosatom.”

According to some French media reports at the start of the year, Rosatom was set to acquire a 20% stake in GEAST, the manufacturer of the Arabelle turbine for nuclear power plants.

Meanwhile, a French diplomatic source told Investigate Europe: “Civil nuclear power is not affected by the sanctions. The Member States did not consider it to be a relevant area for putting an end to Russian aggression against Ukraine. France ensures strict compliance by economic actors with all European sanctions adopted against Russia.”

The need to diversify sources of supply

But at least one of the nuclear-dependent countries seems open to sanctions on Russian nuclear activities: Finland. In one of the meetings among EU ambassadors, in May, during discussions about the sixth sanction package, the issue of sanctioning the nuclear energy sector also came up. In those discussions, Poland, Germany, Austria, Estonia and Lithuania supported the idea, while Finland was open to the proposal, according to a diplomatic report from the meeting from one national delegation.

Another diplomatic source close to the discussions indicated that the issue is about the need to adapt, which can only be done in the long term: technologies need to be adapted, engineers need to be trained, sources of supply need to be diversified.

If sanctions on Russian uranium were to be integrated, then they would have to be coupled with very long implementation times for them to be acceptable to all member states. “So long that it would have been ridiculous,” the source said.

In its annual report, the Euratom Supply Agency noted: “So far, nuclear fuel and services have been exempted from sanctions but the situation could evolve.” While the report recommendations added: ”Ideal security of supply means at least two alternative suppliers for each stage of the fuel cycle, and whenever possible at least one EU supplier.”

Meanwhile, the “REPower EU” initiative, which aims to end Europe’s reliance on Russian energy, states: “Diversification options are also important for Member States currently dependent on Russia for nuclear fuel for their reactors serving either power generation or non-power uses.” 

This requires “working within the EU and with international partners to secure alternative sources of uranium and boosting the conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication capacities available in Europe or in EU’s global partners.”

According to the World Nuclear Association, a pro-nuclear organisation supported by the industry, strategies are being put in place to reduce the independence of Russian routes.

“The transport route for uranium from Kazakhstan [around 45% of world supply of uranium] has been a topic of interest for many, given this is mostly shipped to western convertors via St Petersburg,” spokesperson Henry Preston told Investigate Europe.

“Kazatomprom [the largest Kazakhstan supply company] had already developed an alternative trans-Caspian international transport route which completely excludes Russian territory. Additionally, there are routes east of Kazakhstan through China.”.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some EU companies have chosen to halt imports. One example is Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, which decided on 24 February, the day of the invasion, to stop all uranium imports from Russia for the time being and replace them with imports from Canada and Australia.

European decoupling from Russian uranium and Russian nuclear know-how is likely to happen very gradually. In the meantime, Europe will continue to feed Russia’s finances, while adopting sanctions to drain the Kremlin’s treasury.

Contributions: Attila Kalman
Editor: Chris Matthews
Graphs: Marta Portocarrero