Under lash of new sanctions, Moscow threatens to upend nuclear power trade with US

HEU LEU header Shipments in the Megatons to Megawatts program. (Photo: USEC)

In a sign of worsening relations between Moscow and Washington, a draft bill before State Duma, the lower house of Russian parliament, would ban all trade between Russia’s state nuclear monopoly Rosatom and US nuclear power companies, the Plants news agency has reported.

The bill was submitted jointly by a number of Duma factions and Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma’s chairman Vyacheslav Volodin. It could be considered and possibly adopted during the next State Duma session this week, according to information on the State Duma website.

Volodin himself has been personally targeted by US sanctions since 2016, when he was identified as a member of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and had his US-side assets frozen in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. He was similarly targeted by European Union-side travel restrictions and sanctions.

His nuclear sanctions bill comes in response to sanctions the Trump administration imposed against 24 Russian top businessman and government officials on April 6.

In addition to freezing trade with the US nuclear power industry, the bill would impose similar trade restrictions on software, hardware, pharmaceutical and farm products from the US to Russia, as well as bar US companies from participating in the privatization of state-owned assets in Russia, said Platts.

The bill provides for similar restrictions to be imposed on other countries that should they join the United States in levying sanctions against Russia.

Sergey Mironov, chairman of the State Duma fraction A Just Russia, said in a statement on the State Duma website Friday that the ban on civilian nuclear trade is among the most important aspects of the bill.

Rosatom has several projects with US companies. TVEL, Rosatom’s nuclear fuel division, signed a contract in April 2016 to supply test batches of its TVS-K fuel assemblies at pressurized water reactors in US. Delivery of that fuel was slated to begin early 2019, according to information on Rosatom’s website.

Still, it remains unclear how deep a strike at US-Russian nuclear trade such a freeze would represent. The most significant nuclear exchange between Russia and America, known as the Megatons to Megawatts program, ended in 2013.

Under this exchange, which was signed between Moscow and Washington in 1993, the United States purchased low-enriched uranium produced by blending down high-enriched weapons uranium, which was found to be in excess of Russian nuclear weapons needs.

The program, which converted 500 tons of weapons grade high-enriched uranium – or enough uranium for 20,008 nuclear warheads – into 15,000 tons of civilian grade nuclear fuel for use in America’s civilian reactors.

The US Department of Energy famously reported that Russian weapons materials powered one in every ten lightbulbs in the country over the program’s 20-year duration. By the time the agreement was completed, it hailed as the most successful disarmament program ever, turning a $17 billion profit for Moscow in the process.

Still, many in Moscow grew to resent it, and shortly after Putin came to power in 2000 Rosatom began to complain that it was being forced to sell it’s uranium on the cheap to the United States.

As soon as the program was dissolved Rosatom was keen to sign fuel import deals with the United States that purchased uranium at world market prices.

Once such deal, with the United States Enrichment Corporation, was for $2.8 billion worth of imports over a period of 10 years. Rosatom signed a number of other nuclear suppliers in the US as well, but it remains sketchy as to whether any of these deals ever amounted to what Moscow netted under the weapons destruction agreement.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no