Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has finally broken its energy spell on Europe. But this crack in Russian energy supremacy offers another valuable opportunity - to dethrone it as the world’s top global nuclear energy exporter.
Responsible nuclear supplier nations will need to act fast and in concert to achieve this objective.
There are three important messages about Russian irresponsibility that democratic nation exporters should now hammer home with potential nuclear energy importers.
First, Russia has so recklessly transcended established national borders and the international order that it cannot be trusted to assure effective nuclear governance around the globe. Its undermining of global nuclear security is underscored by intentionally creating a war zone in a nation with numerous operating nuclear power plants, raising the risk of radiation release.
Second, Putin’s Russia has an acute desire for client state subservience and a willingness to use energy as a political weapon. Potential nuclear customers of Russia should beware the impact on their sovereignty as there typically is a 100-year bilateral relationship that comes with nuclear reactor imports.
Third, energy security is essential for national security. This connection had fallen out of favor as nations walled off energy from security and sought to use it as a commercial means of maintaining peace. But that policy now has failed. Europe already is retreating from the energy insecurity resulting from its overdependence on Russian gas.
Some European nations are contemplating new nuclear plants as both an alternative to Russia’s energy supply and as a way to decarbonize their energy systems. Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic are all moving down this path. But they have rejected Russian technology.
Other EU nations moving forward with new nuclear plants are engaged with Russia but now rethinking that partnership.
Finland is reconsidering its joint nuclear plant project with Russia. It’s president stating that it will be reviewed in light of Russia’s invasion and that “security certainly will be one factor in the review.”
Turkey has a $20 billion agreement with Russia to construct four reactors at Akkuyu. That nation’s president rejected Russia’s Ukraine attack and stated that it is, “contrary to international law [and] a blow to the regional stability and peace.” This position could impact progress on the Akkuyu project.
This opposition to Russia’s international aggression, its bolstering of the energy-national security nexus, and its heightening of concern about who could next be devoured by the Russian energy bear likely will bleed over into non-European nations considering nuclear energy.
This could be an important factor in the international market for smaller reactors. Many of the nations most well suited for these technologies are developing economy countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. They need clean energy for their growing populations and economies.
But these nations are also new to nuclear power operations. They will want and need support systems for the safe and secure operation of these reactors from partners that they can rely upon and trust.
For the most advanced of these small technologies, those that have fuel cycles not based on traditional light-water technologies, there are numerous nuclear governance advancements that will be required to be developed. Safeguards to prevent nuclear proliferation need to be adapted and new nuclear safety and security guidance is needed.
The global community cannot allow Russia to seize control of the system for making these new rules by dominating the emerging small reactor market. That poses an undeniable global security risk.
The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., EU, and other nations are one way of blunting Russia’s potential dominance of the small reactor market. These sanctions will impact Russia’s access to international capital which could curtail its ability to offer new nuclear nations its very generous financing for new nuclear plants.
This attractive financing has been state supported and the most alluring feature of Russia’s nuclear exports. Significantly curtailing this financing will decrease Russia’s advantages.
However, if Russian exports falter it is vital that western nations fill the void and not allow China to climb to the top of the nuclear export market. Trading one authoritarian nuclear supplier for another won’t make the world safer.
Russia has now provided the lever needed to pry away its grip on international nuclear supply. That control is a danger to current and future global security. The question is whether the western nation nuclear exporters can organize themselves to actually seize the advantage in this opportunity and do it quickly.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security