US university report argues for sanctioning Russia’s nuclear supply chain

radioactive symbol Radiation symbol. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

As numerous countries in the west consider taking aim at Russia with energy sanctions over Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, Russia’s dominance in the nuclear energy sector is being overlooked, a paper from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy warns.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags into its fourth month, the European Union has struggled to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel imports ­– the profits of which help fuel Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

But the Columbia paper, authored by Paul Dabbar, a former undersecretary of Energy for Science at the Department of Energy, and Columbia researcher Matthew Bowen, suggests that Russia’s nuclear technology sector should also be the focus of economic boycotts.

From reactor construction to fuel fabrication, Russia occupies a predominant position on world nuclear markets. Of the 439 nuclear reactors operated around the world as of 2021, 38 were in Russia itself and another 42 were built with Russian or Soviet technology.

By the end of last year, Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom was in the process of building 15 more reactors for foreign customers.

Rosatom also dominates the fuel supply to those reactors. Forty percent of the world’s total infrastructure that converts raw uranium to nuclear fuel is owned by Russia. Of that, Russia owns 46 percent of the total uranium enrichment capacity, the Columbia report says.

But Dabber and Bowen write that the West has the technology to counteract the consolidated bulk of Rosatom on the world stage – provided they commit to a long-term strategy to alienate Russian supplies.

“[I]f there is a policy in place to reduce or eliminate Russian involvement in Western nuclear fuel markets, this would almost certainly lead to a realignment in the supply chain,” they write.

But they say such a process should be slow, urging the United States to wean off wean off Russian refinement capacity over “a period of years not months.”

The report points out that uranium conversion facilities in countries like the US, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom could be “enough to replace at least some” of Russia’s capacity should the west turn away from Moscow’s nuclear markets.

But many of these facilities are underused or dormant, meaning it would take time to bring them up to the footing needed to replace Russian supplies.

“More investment in mining, conversion, and enrichment facilities may be necessary to fully extricate Western nuclear fuel chains from Russian involvement,” the report says.  “However, adding sufficient new conversion capacity and enrichment capacity will take years to accomplish.”

To have lasting effect, such an effort would require commitment from western governments to private nuclear corporations not return to Russian stocks should their supplies once again be allowed on world markets.

The reports see more immediate prospects for western nuclear firms in helping to service the world’s fleet of Russian-designed VVER reactors, which the authors suggest can be done by Westinghouse, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania.

Fifteen such reactors are located in Ukraine itself, where Westinghouse has made inroads in supplying fuel to a number of Kyiv’s nuclear power plants. Before the outbreak of war on February 24, Ukraine still relied on Rosatom for more than half of its nuclear fuel needs.

Earlier this month, Petro Kotkin, head of Energoatom, the country’s state nuclear corporation, said Kyiv will build as many as five more reactors with Westinghouse after the war ends.