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The Rosatom Exemption: How Russia's State-Run Nuclear Giant Has Escaped Sanctions

The cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. (file photo)
The cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. (file photo)

Europe has grappled with how to end its Russian energy addiction more than ever since Vladimir Putin launched his country's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

The executive body of the 27-nation European Union agreed a plan in May to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas by two-thirds by the end of the year, with a total phaseout of all Russian fossil fuel planned by the end of 2027. Coal, already on the outs in much of the bloc, will be banned by August.

But absent from sanctions, let alone discussion, is Rosatom, the Russian state-run nuclear power giant, despite a written appeal in the early days of the invasion from Ukrainian activists and NGOs to blacklist the company and ban nuclear fuel imported from Russia.

Brussels is not alone. When U.S. President Joe Biden announced a U.S. ban on Russian oil, natural gas, and coal imports in March, there was no mention of Rosatom. The Biden administration reportedly considered sanctioning Rosatom but backed off after nuclear industry lobbying and Biden's plans to include nuclear power as part of the transition to clean energy, Reuters reported.

Operators work at the control hall in block three of Bulgaria's only nuclear power plant in Kozloduy.
Operators work at the control hall in block three of Bulgaria's only nuclear power plant in Kozloduy.

Rosatom's footprint is deep in the global reactor and nuclear fuel business. That type of economic sway may explain why Russia's nuclear industry "has managed to stay out of the limelight" during talk of sanctions, explained Oksana Ananyeva, an energy-policy analyst at the Ukrainian NGO Ekodia, one of the signatories of the March appeal addressed to Biden and EU leaders.

"One of the reasons for that is certainly the heavy reliance on uranium and nuclear fuel as most of the 32 countries that use nuclear power rely on Russia for some part of their nuclear fuel supply chain," Ananyeva told RFE/RL.

The Numbers

Russian nuclear power radiates far beyond its borders. Of the 439 nuclear reactors in operation around the world in 2021, 38 of them were in Russia, an additional 42 were made with Russian nuclear reactor technology, and 15 more under construction were being built with Russian technology, according to a study published on May 23 at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

Russia is also a source of uranium, the key ingredient in nuclear fuel. Europe gets some 20 percent of its uranium from Russia. The United States relies on Russia for 16 percent of its uranium, with another 30 percent from two of Moscow's close partners, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Russia owned 40 percent of the total uranium conversion infrastructure in the world in 2020 and 46 percent of the total uranium enrichment capacity in the world in 2018, according to the Columbia University report.

An EU Rethink On Nuclear Power?

In recent years, Rosatom is reported to have been part of nuclear-power industry lobby efforts to convince the EU to embrace nuclear as the bloc considers how to move faster to cleaner forms of power. According to Greenpeace, new EU nuclear capacity could be worth an estimated 500 billion euros ($521 billion) of potential investment.

The EU is scrambling to meet a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 to prevent catastrophic global warming. Part of that process is defining what is and what isn't a climate-friendly investment. Leaders in Brussels are seeking approval from EU countries and the European Parliament to include nuclear energy as a sustainable investment in its "taxonomy" policy for labeling green investments.

Greenpeace activists protest in front of the Rosatom headquarters in Moscow.
Greenpeace activists protest in front of the Rosatom headquarters in Moscow.

Rosatom has been accused by Greenpeace of using lobbying connections, which the environmental NGO describes as "reminiscent of nesting Russian dolls," to press for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the taxonomy of sustainable investments, much like Russian energy firms Gazprom and LUKoil have done to include fossil gas.

In a report released on May 17, Greenpeace said its research had uncovered that Russian energy companies, including Gazprom, had met with EU commissioners and senior officials either directly or through subsidiaries and lobby groups at least 18 times since the European Commission published its action plan on sustainable finance in March 2018.

Beyond fuel, Rosatom is hoping to build new nuclear reactors, which are the core of its business. Hungary, heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil, has voiced opposition to proposed EU bans on Russian energy. It also has plans with Rosatom to build new reactors at its Paks nuclear power plant.

After meeting Rosatom's chief executive in Istanbul on May 5, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in a statement that the planned construction of the two new blocks at Paks served Hungary's strategic interests.

Szijjarto said the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority was reviewing the requests for permits submitted by Rosatom and once these are approved the project could enter its next phase.

The project, awarded in 2014 without a tender to Rosatom but plagued by delays, has often been cited as a sign of warm ties between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Putin.

While Hungary appears to be going ahead, Finland has announced it is pulling out from its planned reactor project with Rosatom. On May 2, the Finnish-led consortium Fennovoima said it had scrapped a contract with Rosatom citing delays and increased risks due to the war in Ukraine.

Rosatom, which owns a 34 percent stake in the consortium through a Finnish subsidiary, said on May 6 that it will demand compensation for the "unlawful termination" of the contract.

Europe's Dependence

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also eroded some of the cooperation deals Rosatom has with other nuclear giants.

The German multinational Siemens recently told the country's Tageszeitung newspaper that it condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine and had halted "all new business" within Russia but would honor already-commissioned nuclear projects with Rosatom.

An operator of the third reactor at Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant checks the terminals in the reactor's control center.
An operator of the third reactor at Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant checks the terminals in the reactor's control center.

RFE/RL reached out unsuccessfully to Siemens for comment.

The French nuclear conglomerate Framatome has so far refused to end its cooperation with Rosatom. In December 2021, Rosatom and Framatome announced the signing of a "strategic cooperation" agreement to expand efforts to develop nuclear fuel and technologies.

And while more than 1,000 Western firms have either suspended or ended operations in Russia due to Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Framatome doesn't appear ready to join them.

"The agreement announced last December is still in place, but Framatome is carefully monitoring the situation in Russia and the evolution of the sanctions," said Sharon Sinclair, a spokeswoman for Framatome, in an e-mail response to RFE/RL.

Rosatom's position in the European nuclear market, at least, is routinely overstated, argued the leading European nuclear industry lobbying group.

People stage a protest against the Belgian Tihange nuclear power station.
People stage a protest against the Belgian Tihange nuclear power station.

"According to the Euratom Supply Agency, 18 power plants out of the 103 in the EU, representing around 10 percent of EU gross nuclear electricity capacity, are dependent on supply of Russian fuel," said Nucleareurope in a statement to RFE/RL.

"These concern some operators in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia and one operator (out of two) in Finland. To be more specific, this fuel is for the Russian VVER-440s and VVER-1000s reactor technology, which exist in many of these countries as part of a shared history with the former Soviet Union," Nucleareurope noted.

Washington has pledged to help the Czech Republic diversify fuel for its six Russian-designed reactors. U.S.-based Westinghouse and Framatome are due to start supplying nuclear fuel to the Temelin nuclear power plant in 2024, CEZ, the majority Czech state-owned utility, announced in April.

Westinghouse has signed a deal with Ukraine to supply fuel to all four of its nuclear power plants, reports said earlier this month.

The Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary.
The Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary.

The agreement also increases the planned number of new nuclear reactors Westinghouse could build in Ukraine to nine from an earlier five, and the company has pledged to establish an engineering center in the country.

In 2021, Westinghouse signed a fuel-licensing agreement with Bulgaria's Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant in what was described as a major step forward in Bulgaria's energy supply diversification.

Slowly but surely, the share of nuclear fuel in Europe is dropping, noted Ananyeva in e-mailed remarks to RFE/RL.

"Out of 13 EU countries that operate nuclear power plants, only three -- Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary -- are using solely Russian fuel for all their nuclear power production," energy policy analyst Ananyeva explained.

"Two other countries -- Finland and Czechia -- successfully diversified fuel supplies by using fuel produced by Westinghouse, so Ukraine is not the only country leading by example in this case."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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