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What’s at risk due to Russia’s nuclear power dominance?

The impacts Western-allied countries are facing due to Moscow’s sway over global oil and natural gas markets are real and well understood by now, even if solutions remain difficult. But those nations also face another level of energy risk that has received less attention as the war in Ukraine drags on: Russia’s considerable share of the global nuclear power market.

Western leaders need to immediately consider their exposure to Russian nuclear exports and take steps to reduce it or face another energy shock at the hands of Putin.

There are several segments of the commercial nuclear value chain where a Russian supplier could impact the availability of a reactor in the West to provide power. For nuclear fuel, these include uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. For existing Russian-designed reactors, they include providing unique original equipment manufacturer spare parts and services.

Russia has a significant market share in many of those pieces of the nuclear supply chain through its state-owned nuclear company Rosatom. For that reason, various countries around the world are caught in a challenging situation, including the U.S. They may want to extricate themselves from buying nuclear energy supplies from Rosatom to reduce supply chain risk and to stop sending money to Russia, but at the same time, they currently rely on Russian services and materials to run their reactors. 

As we laid out in a paper last month from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, various U.S. allied countries have Russian reactors in operation or under construction, including Finland, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Ukraine. Those countries are at risk of their Russian-built reactors having operational difficulties or even outages without materials, equipment and services to maintain them. However, various Western manufacturing companies can over time start producing replacements to overcome that supply challenge.

The more critical issue is the uranium fuel supply chain. Since Russia only mines 6 percent of the world’s uranium, it is relatively easy for countries and nuclear power plant owners to secure other global sources of uranium ore. However, Russia controls 40 percent of the global uranium conversion market, where uranium oxide “yellow cake” is converted into uranium hexafluoride — a gaseous form needed for the enrichment process. Natural uranium has a Uranium-235 isotope content of 0.7 percent, and the enrichment process increases the U-235 content to the 3-5 percent needed to run nuclear reactors. And Russia holds 46 percent of uranium enrichment capacity. The vast majority of the 439 reactors around the world require enriched uranium fuel, including all reactors in the U.S. fleet. And while each reactor has varying levels of dependency on Russian enrichment services, in total it is a material exposure.

The stark reality is that if Russia stopped delivery of enriched uranium to U.S. power companies, the U.S. could see impacts on reactor operation possibly this year or next. That could lead to reactor outages, and given nuclear power is over 20 percent of the generation capacity in areas of the country, electricity prices would jump even further than today’s electricity price inflation. There may not be even enough power in those regions to cover demand. Furthermore, if there was any question that Russia might use its energy exports for political purposes, it was made clear this last month when it stopped natural gas deliveries to Poland, Bulgaria and Finland.

The U.S. needs some proactive policy and purchasing action to start to address this situation. For example, a U.S.-based conversion facility that has been idled for years now plans to restart in 2023 at half its nameplate capacity, but it could displace an even greater amount of Russian conversion services with support from U.S. government policy as well as purchases from private power companies. For enrichment, the U.S. government and private power companies could look at strategies to expand U.S. production and technology to replace the Russian supply as quickly as possible.

The three major companies that could expand production are the U.S. private company Centrus, the United Kingdom/Dutch/German-owned company Urenco, and French-owned company Orano. In addition, the U.S. needs a 100 percent U.S. technology uranium fuel chain for nuclear weapons and U.S. Navy reactor activities. The U.S. lost this capacity in 2013 when the last U.S. technology enrichment plant shut down, and the U.S. has been relying on old inventories for military purposes. This is another fragile part of the U.S. nuclear fuel supply chain that should be reviewed for potential rebuilding. Russian leadership in important portions of the nuclear supply chain is another potential global energy sector risk. Policy and private sector investment will be needed to address this challenge, too. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine appears far from over. Moscow’s use of energy as a weapon to inflict pain on Ukraine’s allies may also be in the early stages. Western leaders need to take steps now to address their nations’ exposure to Russia’s hold over the nuclear power supply chain to save their economies from greater energy shocks later.

Matt Bowen Ph.D. is a research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University. The Honorable Paul Dabbar is a former Department of Energy undersecretary for Science and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy.

Tags Nuclear energy in the United States Politics of the United States Russia energy imports Russo-Ukrainian War

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