Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian nuclear exports have skyrocketed, boosting the Kremlin's revenue and strengthening its influence over a new generation of global buyers, while the US and its allies avoid imposing sanctions on the industry. Sales of Russian nuclear fuel and technology abroad grew by more than 20% in 2022, according to data compiled by Britain's Royal United Services Institute. Purchases by members of the European Union rose to their highest level in three years.
This is due to the fact that nuclear trade is built on long-term relationships of many parties. This includes large upfront costs: Russia usually provides credit and long-term agreements to maintain stations, train their operators and replenish fuel supplies. Such financial and technical cooperation can also strengthen diplomatic ties, writes Bloomberg.
The task is made easier by the lack of competition. Russia continued to invest in the production of nuclear fuel and technology after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even as the industry atrophied elsewhere in the world.
This is one of the reasons why the US and its European allies, which have been considering imposing sanctions on Russian nuclear companies since the beginning of the war, have not followed through. They fear that cutting off their own nuclear industry from Russian supplies would be too painful economically.
Rosatom supplies about a fifth of the enriched uranium needed for 92 reactors in the US. In Europe, companies that generate electricity for 100 million people depend on the company, according to a Bloomberg publication.
Rosatom supplies about a fifth of the enriched uranium needed for 92 reactors in the US
According to Bloomberg, NATO members including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia continued to buy fuel from Rosatom in 2022, despite requests from Ukraine to stop trading after Russia seized Europe's largest power plant, the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant. In February 2023, Ukraine imposed sanctions against Rosatom and called on other countries to follow suit.
“Rosatom receives billions of dollars every year from its business abroad,” says Petr Kotin, president of the Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom. “The money they receive goes to finance the war.”
But even in Ukraine, the nine reactors still under Kyiv's control are running on stockpiled Russian fuel. For the transition to Westinghouse Electric Co. It took years of planning with the support of US consultants, Kotin says, and full diversification will only be possible in three to four years.
Countries such as Bulgaria, Finland and Slovakia have also announced plans to switch suppliers. But this did not prevent Rosatom from expanding its presence in Europe. Hungary is providing assistance for two new reactors, the construction of which was given to Rosatom without a public tender. Russia covers 80% of the cost with a €10 billion loan. By the time it is completed in the next decade, the project will be one of the largest foreign investments in Eastern Europe. Hungary is among the EU countries opposing the inclusion of nuclear fuel in the bloc's sanctions, while other countries such as Poland, Germany and the Baltic states support the idea.
Rosatom chief Alexei Likhachev said this month that the company is in talks with about 10 countries on new projects, and three or four are close to signing government-to-government deals. In all the countries where Rosatom is already building nuclear power plants, "everything is going according to plan," he said.
In India, which has been under Western trade restrictions since a nuclear test in 1974, Russia is supplying nuclear fuel and building two reactors scheduled to start up in 2025. In China, last year Rosatom provided more than $375 million worth of fuel for a reactor that the US Department of Defense says could replenish Beijing's nuclear weapons stockpile.