Much of Russia’s energy exports have been hit by Western sanctions since the country launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with a notable exception — nuclear power.
Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy monopoly Rosatom, which exports and enriches uranium as well as builds nuclear power stations around the world, has been in control of Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region since Russian forces seized it a year ago.
Kyiv has accused Russian forces of turning the complex into a military base and using it as cover to launch attacks, knowing that Ukraine can’t return fire without risking hitting one of the plant’s reactors. Ukraine has also blamed Russia for explosions at the site, including late last year.
Petro Kotin, interim president of Ukraine’s atomic energy company, Energoatom, is worried about the militarization of the plant, but also a significant reduction in the number of qualified staff on site. The Russian press service for the plant told CNN that new employees are being recruited, “which ensures [its] safe operation.”
If anything happens, Energoatom “cannot jump in and actually mitigate any consequences or mitigate any emergency” because Russia controls the territory, Kotin said.
Despite what Kotin described as the rising risk of a mistake or breach of safety protocols at the Zaporizhzhia plant, and repeated calls by Kyiv for sanctions on Rosatom, the Russian company remains largely unscathed, although the United Kingdom sanctioned its top management and several subsidiaries last month, and Finland terminated a power plant deal last May.
Experts say Rosatom remains protected by the vital role it plays in global nuclear power, and the fact it can’t easily be replaced.
The problem is a “Russian doll’s worth of interlocking dependencies,” says Paul Dorfman, chair of Nuclear Consulting Group and a long-time advisor to the UK government and the nuclear industry.
To start with, Rosatom is a key exporter of nuclear fuel. In 2021, the United States relied on the Russian nuclear monopoly for 14% of the uranium that powered its nuclear reactors. European utilities bought almost a fifth of their nuclear fuel from Rosatom. According to Dorfman, the European Union has made little progress since weaning itself off Russia’s nuclear industry.
Rosatom also provides enrichment services, accounting for 28% of what the United States required in 2021.
It has built numerous nuclear plants around the world and in some cases financed their construction. At the end of 2021, almost one in five of the world’s nuclear power plants were in Russia or Russian-built, and Rosatom is building 15 more outside of Russia, according to Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Kacper Szulecki, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International affairs, says the cost of building a nuclear power plant is so high that it can only be financed by governments, and in some cases even they can’t afford it. In those cases, Rosatom has often stepped in, offering credit lines guaranteed by the Russian government and in some cases long-term contracts to provide fuel for or even run the plant.
Szulecki, who co-authored a recent paper on Russia’s nuclear industry, says the most extreme of these kinds of deals is the build-own-operate model. It was first used by Rosatom with Turkey’s Akkuyu power plant, which the corporation is building, fully financing and has committed to operating for its entire lifetime.
Such dependency can trump other considerations. For example, Hungary has been the European Union’s most vocal opponent of sanctions on Rosatom. It is also one of only several EU countries that rely on nuclear energy for more than 40% of their electricity and it has a long-term financing deal with Rosatom to build a nuclear power plant.
Experts say finding new suppliers to replace Rosatom in the global nuclear industry would take years.
That may be why, far from deterring future customers, Rosatom’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia plant has coincided with growth in the company’s foreign revenue. Its Director General Aleksey Likhachev told Russian newspaper Izvestiya in December that overseas revenue was on track to rise by about 15% in 2022 compared with 2021.
For his part, Kotin at Energoatom believes Rosatom is maintaining the equipment at the plant so poorly that the Russian occupation may cause irreversible damage.
If it continues for another year, “then I’m sure we won’t be able to restart this plant,” he said.
Diplomatic efforts to hand the control of the plant back to Ukraine have stalled, Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said on the weekend.
Russia has repeatedly accused Ukraine itself of shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant and, in an email to CNN, Rosatom’s press service for the plant denied there’s heavy military equipment on the site.