Europe doubled its import of Russian nuclear fuel for 2023, data say 

Fuel loading at the Dukovany NPP in the Czech Republic. Photo: CEZ GROUP
Fuel loading at the Dukovany NPP in the Czech Republic. Photo: CEZ GROUP

Publish date: March 15, 2024

The European Union doubled its purchases of Russian nuclear fuel in 2023, data from Eurostat and the UN’s international trade service Comtrade show.

A Bellona analysis of cross-border trade operations under the customs code 840130 — the designation for unirradiated fuel assemblies or fuel elements — shows a more than twofold increase in imports of fresh nuclear fuel to EU countries in financial terms.  If EU countries paid a total of €280 million for Russian nuclear fuel in 2022, that more than doubled to €686 million for last year. In physical terms, this represents an increase from 314 tons of nuclear fuel to 573 tons. 

The EU trade figures represent purchases made for 19 Soviet-designed VVER reactors that reside in five member states. These are:  

  • The Czech Republic’s two nuclear plants, the Dukovany, which hosts four VVER-440, and the Temelin plant with its two VVER-1000s;  
  • Slovakia’s Mochovce and Bohunice plants, with their five VVER-440s;  
  • Bulgaria’s two VVER-1000s at the Kozloduy plant;,  
  • Hungary’s four VVER-440 at its Paks plant; 
  • and Finland’s two VVER-440s at Loviisa plant. 

Despite there being no sanctions or bans on nuclear supplies from Russia to Europe, these countries remain highly vulnerable because of their dependence on Moscow for their fuel. 

But over the next 5 years, the market is poised to change significantly, and the increase in Russian imports over recent years might simply reflect the anxieties of EU nuclear operators as they hedge against interruptions that could come from switching suppliers.  

Why did imports grow? 

In its report for 2022, the Euratom Supply Agency already noted that during the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, European consumers of Russian nuclear fuel began to build up stocks in case of future supply disruptions. At that time, the increase in imports was small — within plus ten percent of the pre-war level.  

Obviously, in 2023, this trend only intensified — plus 80 percent — a buyup that was facilitated by the absence of full-fledged sanctions on fuel purchases from TVEL, the fuel subsidiary of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation.  

The Czech Republic, for example, increased Russian supplies by almost twofold — from 90 tons in 2022 to 199 tons in 2023. In recent years, the country has sought to build up its stocks of fresh nuclear fuel — a strategy justified by its dependence on Russian fuel in the nuclear plants that account for 40 percent of its electricity production. This is all the more so in light of Prague’s strained relations with Russia even before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. 

Last year, the director of the Czech Dukovany nuclear power plant noted that his facility had approximately a three-year supply of fuel on hand. In October 2023, the plant completed an expansion of its storage facilities, which can now accommodate almost a five-year supply of fuel.  

It could be that the Czech Republic’s uptick in fuel purchases was synchronized with that expansion— in November and December of 2023, about 80 tons of fuel were imported into the Czech Republic, accounting for about 40 percent of the annual EUvolume of fuel imports from Russia.  

An additional, some 80 of fuel purchased in 2023 above the usual recent volumes correspond to almost a two-year supply of fuel for the four blocks at the Dukovany nuclear plant. 

The largest increase in nuclear fuel imports last year was seen in Slovakia. It nearly tripled from 80 tons in previous years to 229 tons in 2023. As of the beginning of 2024, Slovakia operates five VVER-440 reactors at two nuclear plants — Mochovce and Bohunice.  

Slovakia’s current fuel supply contract with TVEL was signed in 2019 and envisions deliveries from 2022 to 2026, with a possible extension until 2030. In the fall of 2022, fuel loading began at the new Mochovce-3 reactor, the fifth in the country. The delivery of such a large batch of fuel for its first loading may explain the increase in fuel supplies to Slovakia in 2022 — from the usual 50-60 tons in 2019-2021 to 80 tons. 

However, in 2023, Slovakia imported a record amount of fuel — about 230 tons, totaling about €200 million. This volume may include the first loading (about 50 tons) for the construction of the Mochovce reactor number 4, the sixth in the country — a reactor that could be commissioned as early as 2024. But even taking this into account, the amount of fuel Slovakia imported in 2023 could cover the needs of the country’s six reactor units for the next 2-3 years. 

Nuclear power plant operators in the Czech Republic and Slovakia did not respond to Bellona’s requests for information about the volume of nuclear fuel purchases and the availability of reserves. 

About 103 tons of nuclear fuel from Russia were imported to Hungary in 2023 worth more than €124 million, which is comparable to purchases the country made in 2022 in terms of physical volumes (about 104 tons) But the current purchases exceed past years in financial terms — with purchases in 2022 amounting to about €94 million. Moreover, the volume of fuel purchased in 2023 and 2022 exceeds typical nuclear fuel purchases Hungary made over the past 10 years, which ranged from 50 to 80 tons per year.   

In response to Bellona’s questions, the operator of the Paks NPP — the MVM Paks Nuclear Power Plant company — confirmed the availability of fuel reserves at the station. Officials there said they have always strive to ensure a secure long-term supply of fuel, which in recent years has meant fuel sufficiency for two years — a factor the company intends to increase. 

In contrast, Finland reduced its imports of nuclear fuel from Russia by almost half —from the usual 37-39 tons to 20 tons. Yet this may owe to delays in the shipment of one of the batches, rather than a deliberate reduction in supplies.  

Overall, Finland’s purchases over the last six to seven years — totaling about 35-40 tons —exceed the annual needs of the two VVER-440 units it operates at the Loviisa nuclear plant. It’s possible that these imports allow for certain fuel reserves, but their size is unknown. 

Unfortunately, data on trade operations with Bulgaria are not available in the databases accessible to us. In response to Bellona’s questions, officials at the Kozloduy NPP refused to provide information on the volume of the plant’s nuclear fuel purchases or as well as the availability of fuel stocks, citing commercial secrecy. But when we consider the number and type of reactors Bulgaria operates, the country’s import of Russian fuel should amount to about 50 tons of fuel per year. Moreover, starting from this year, Bulgaria intends to begin the process of changing suppliers and to receive its first batches of Westinghouse fuel for the fifth unit of its Kozloduy nuclear plant. 

What awaits the market by 2030

Currently, only Hungary has no clear plans to switch from Russian nuclear fuel to alternatives. Beginning in 2024, the Czech Republic plans to receive its first deliveries of Western fuel fabricated by Westinghouse and possibly Framatom, for which the contacts have already been signed. Thus, their accumulated reserves of Russian fuel might be intended to help them survive the challenging period of changing suppliers. 

The operator of Slovak NPPs, Slovenské Elektrárne, in August 2023, signed a contract licensing Westinghouse fuel for its reactors and plans to finish the licensing process by 2026-2027. It should take another year to start new fuel deliveries. Whether this contract will be implemented, however, depends on the government of Robert Fico, whose warm relations with Moscow might scuttle the plans.  

From 2027 to 2030, Finland plans to switch its two Loviisa reactor units from Russian fuel to alternative sources when its current contracts for Russian fuel supplies expire. In response to Bellona’s questions, the operator of the Loviisa nuclear power plant, Fortum Corporation, confirmed that the plant has fuel in stock, but did not specify its volume. Fortum officials additionally told Bellona that discussions on securing fuel supplies form Westinghouse Electric Company have been underway before the war started.  

In November 2022, Fortum and Westinghouse signed an agreement for the design and supply of a new fuel type for the Loviisa power plant. Westinghouse’s fuel development is progressing well, the officials said. In addition to Westinghouse, Fortum is exploring the capabilities of another Western fuel supplier to develop a compatible fuel type for Loviisa. 

When we consider the current contracts spelling out supply changes for most EU nuclear plants, Russian nuclear fuel imports could drop by at least 60 percent compared to 2022 levels by the end the decade —comprising by then only about 70 to 100 tons per year. This means that Russia stands to lose 10 to 15 reactors — with 7 to 9 GW of capacity — as customers within the EU.  

Most likely, the growth in imports in 2022-2023 reflects the desire of buyers to quickly get the volumes of contracted fuel to ensure reserve for the period of changing suppliers and possible difficulties with supplies in the event of tightening sanctions in the nuclear industry or other aggravation of relations between Russia and the EU. 

The Euratom Supply Agency, in response to Bellona’s questions, confirmed that the majority of operators of nuclear power plants with VVER reactors in the EU have intensified efforts to find alternative suppliers and have thus increased fuel imports to head off possible supply disruption over the last 2 years. 

ESA also agreed that purchases under current contracts are, in principle, expected to progressively decrease over the coming years. 

A similar situation is observed in the United States with an increase in purchases of enriched uranium from Russia, which occurs against the background of discussion of a law banning the import of enriched uranium from Russia. At the end of 2023, imports of enriched uranium from Russia to the United States increased to a record level of $1.2 billion, which is 40% more than the volume of imports in 2022. Against the background of rising prices, imports also increased in physical volumes by about 20%, from 588 tons in 2022 to 702 tons in 2023. 

For Rosatom itself, the current increase in uranium purchases in the United States and nuclear fuel in Europe could also be beneficial, as it allows for contracts to be realized more quickly prior to any sanctions Washington or Brussels may eventually adopt. However, this does little for Rosatom in the long run — its EU nuclear fuel market is clearly shrinking, as is the market for enriched uranium in the US.  

These developments in the nuclear fuel market —which often remain hidden — once again underscore the need to increase transparency in the nuclear industry, regardless of the country in which it operates. This is especially so in light of the extensive and long-standing ties many countries have with the nuclear industry of Russia — a country whose political regime engages in aggressive wars and utilizes any tools and opportunities to achieve its goals and pressure its opponents, particularly Western countries. Against this backdrop, the gradual, albeit not rapid, reduction in the EU’s dependence on Russian nuclear fuel is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.