Energy 6 March, 2023 9:30 am   
COMMENTS: Kacper Szulecki

Szulecki: NATO should look into the West’s dependence on Russia in the nuclear sector (INTERVIEW)

3AFDBDD7-4CAD-EC42-99EA-DA7F549D8A82-min-1536×1024 The Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary. Picture by Wikimedia Commons

Some experts argue that dependence on Russia in the nuclear sector is not a big problem due to the nature of this sector, but NATO countries should take a closer look – says professor Kacper Szulecki from the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs in an interview with Recently, Nature Energy published an article, co-authored by you, about the scale of Russia’s international involvement in the nuclear sector in the context of the war in Ukraine. What are the conclusions of your research?

We were motivated to take a closer look at what Rosatom and its daughter companies were doing at the international arena by the fact that after Russia had invaded Ukraine, a lot was said about Europe’s dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal, but there was little talk about the nuclear sector, despite the fact that Rosatom is the biggest player in the world in this sector. Some European Union countries use Russian technology and buy fuel, which, if you consider the entire supply chains are 20-40 percent dependent on Russia. This is a big problem that has been overlooked until now. We think these dependencies are important and need to be talked about.

In fact, Rosatom is most active outside Europe, in developing countries. In the context of the war in Ukraine, we see a rift between NATO states and the countries of the global south. These differences will only grow, and Rosatom is a very important element of Russian energy diplomacy and part of Russian soft power.

How do Rosatom’s actions translate into the expansion of Russian influence?

Rosatom boasts of formalized cooperation with 54 countries around the world. According to our findings, if you look only at the actual contracts that were not terminated after the invasion of Ukraine, there are 73 projects in 29 countries. This is still a lot and it makes Rosatom the leader in the global nuclear market.

Rosatom works closely with the Russian Foreign Ministry and is undoubtedly the most global actor in Russian energy diplomacy. That shouldn’t be surprising. Until recently, gas trade, that is, until the full commercialization of LNG, was limited to the close neighborhood, where pipelines could reach. Meanwhile, nuclear technology can be sold all over the world – in Africa, South Asia, South America. The countries from these regions would not be able to build nuclear power plants themselves, because they do not have the experience, know-how, financial resources.

Enter a good uncle from Moscow who says: we will arrange everything for you. If you can’t afford it, our banks will offer you loans. If you don’t have engineers, we will train them, let them come to Moscow or St. Petersburg and grant them scholarships, or we will send our own. The money will come from selling the power from the reactors, once they are built. These are long-term dependencies. The positive image of Russia as a technically advanced country that supports global development is a legacy of the Soviet Union, which had such an opinion in the global south. Rosatom builds on this positive legend. Rosatom’s contracts do not contain clauses on human rights or corruption, so colloquially speaking, the Russians do not make problems. This suits many developing countries that need energy to grow their economies and it seems sensible to understand their situation. However, there are many security implications behind ties with Russia. Your paper mentions the “safety taxonomy”. What’s it all about?

We tried to show how different forms of dependence create different types of security threats. The starting point was a dispute in the literature on the nuclear sector, in which, on the one hand, we have researchers who maintain that Rosatom is a self-profit company, a rational business actor, or at most an element of Russian soft power, and on the other hand, voices saying that it is another and very dangerous “energy weapon”. We say that these are not mutually exclusive answers, just two poles between which there is a whole spectrum of dependencies and political tools that Moscow can – but does not have to – use.

Let’s look at extreme examples. In Turkey, the Akkuyu power plant is being built, Rosatom is building four WWER V-509 reactors there. It is built on the basis of an innovative business model – BOO – build, own, operate. Rosatom will not only build a nuclear power plant, it will also be its operator, Russian staff will work there. Experts on security rang the alarm that Turkey is a member of NATO, and if you treat a nuclear power plant as an extraterritorial piece of critical infrastructure in the hands of a third country, this is an open invitation to hybrid actions. This power plant is expected to supply up to 10 percent of power in Turkey. If it were to suddenly shut down, citing even “unexpected glitches” as in the case of Nord Stream, it would put Turkey at risk of a blackout.

An important part of our article includes an analysis on such hard dependencies affecting all countries where reactors built or operated by Rosatom are located. We drafted a hypothetical scenario, assuming that all current Rosatom projects come to fruition and based on estimates of the growth in electricity production in different regions according to the International Energy Agency, we show how much of the energy in national systems will be produced by these reactors in 2040. Hungary and Slovakia are at high risk, but Armenia is particularly at risk.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the activities of Russian energy diplomacy as part of which nuclear research centers are being created. This actually poses no threat to the energy system, and therefore until the war in Ukraine, most experts would shrug their shoulders. However, we point out that – if there are trained engineers, invited to Russia, they can potentially become agents of pressure. It doesn’t have to mean that they join the intelligence services. Lobbying and espionage can be fluid categories. NATO countries should keep an eye on this activity, because the last year has taught us that if only there is a hypothetical risk of a threat, it can unexpectedly come true.

New Western sanctions could include the Russian nuclear sector, but this is not the case. A representative of Euratom said in an interview for that we needed another seven years to become independent of Russia and impose sanctions on this sector.

A good example is the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, which have switched from dependence on Russian fuel to Westinghouse fuel. Fuel is not easy to replace for technical reasons. The dependence of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary or Spain on Russian fuel is a topic for the European Union to take up. If the nuclear sector is to be an element of energy security rather than a source of potential threats in the long term, Europe must rely on its own capacity to produce fuel. Since France has such capabilities, it would make sense for it to put pressure on, e.g. Slovaks and Hungarians to abandon Russian fuel and switch to European deliveries.

When it comes to sanctions, we must first ask ourselves what we want to achieve with them and how to plan them so that they hurt the aggressor more than ourselves. Does the European Union want to undermine Rosatom’s global involvement or not? Rosatom provides a lot of revenue to the Russian budget, it is an important element of foreign trade, so we should consider whether to impose sanctions on it and its subsidiaries, and expect it from our partners outside the EU. It is difficult to say to what extent the European Union is able to enforce this from countries that have a much more positive attitude towards Russia than we do.

Where is Poland in all of this? In 10 years Warsaw wants to have its own nuclear power plant built in cooperation with Westinghouse, which is helping Ukraine move away from Russian fuel.

The scale of cooperation with Russia is minimal in Poland, it concerns only research reactors. Due to the fact that the Polish nuclear sector is not here yet, it is possible to avoid threats from Russia, because the technology according to government plans will come from a country that is our ally. Rosatom was never considered. The U.S., in turn, is working hard to create supply chains independent of Russian influence.

However, it is worth mentioning that the contract for the Polish NPP is Westinghouse’s first international deal in years. If you compare this with the Rosatom project portfolio that we studied, it shows how much the Western countries gave the field to Russia and then to China. It is very possible that Rosatom even without sanctions would not be able to meet all orders, but whether Europe and the United States can simultaneously reduce Russian dominance in this sector and increase their own presence on the market remains an open question.

Interview by Wojciech Jakóbik