Russia's nuclear diplomacy binding emerging markets to the Kremlin

Russia's nuclear diplomacy binding emerging markets to the Kremlin
Uranium is the new gas. Like Gazprom before it, Rosttom is successfully binding countries from the global south to Moscow using nuclear technology and long-term uranium supply contracts. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 14, 2024

 Currently, Rosatom controls approximately 70% of the world export market for the construction of nuclear power plants where emerging powers in the global south are trying to boost their energy production and turning to Moscow for nuclear power plants and fuel.

President Joe Biden signed into law a ban on Russian enriched uranium on May 13, the White House said. The ban on imports of the fuel for nuclear power plants begins in 90 days, although it allows the Department of Energy to issue waivers for US companies that can’t source uranium from anywhere but Russia. Russia accounts for about 24% of the enriched uranium used by US nuclear power plants.

The law also unlocks about $2.7bn in funding in previous legislation to build out the US uranium fuel industry. Last December the US together with Canada, France, Japan and the UK collectively pledged to invest $4.2bn to expand enrichment and conversion capacity of uranium to break Russia’s stranglehold over enriched urainium supplies.

"Today, President Biden signed into law a historic series of actions that will strengthen our nation's energy and economic security by reducing, and ultimately eliminating, our reliance on Russia for civilian nuclear power," Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said in a statement, Reuters reports. 

"This new law re-establishes America’s leadership in the nuclear sector. It will help secure our energy sector for generations to come. It will jumpstart new enrichment capacity in the United States and send a clear message to industry that we are committed to long-term growth in our nuclear sector,” Sullivan added. 

Russia has become a major supplier of these nuclear energy-related technologies for countries in the Global South. Like Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas champion, before it, Moscow is now using Rosatom as a diplomatic tool to garner support and exercise control over Global south countries – what the literature calls “international clientelism”. And the results have been seen in the various UN votes to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine where Russia has managed garner support and abstentions from its global south partners.

Rosatom has won numerous tenders for the sale of reactors, positioning itself as a leader in terms of the number of nuclear reactor construction projects executed simultaneously, with 3 units in Russia and 33 abroad in various phases of execution.

Likewise, it controls approximately 20% of the world market for conversion and enrichment-related materials – a business it dominates – making it an irreplaceable partner, including for Western powers.

There has been talk of banning imports of Russian nuclear fuel to Europe and the US, but in practice both remain heavily dependent on Russian nuclear fuel and are unable to cancel their imports – despite the rhetoric to cut off supplies.

Centrus, the largest nuclear energy company in the United States, recently announced its intention to petition relevant government agencies to exempt it from a newly proposed ban on Russian enriched uranium imports – the so-called yellow cake uranium. The company said that the ban on Russian uranium imports is unworkable.

The problem is that the US can enrich its own uranium, or anyone else’s. Nuclear power plants account for 29% of all power stations in the States, yet the country produces almost no fuel for them. Recently, the US reported that it had managed to produce 90 kg of enriched uranium for the first time, and by the end of the year, this figure is expected to reach one tonne per annum. However, that is still nearly 700 times less than what is currently imported from Russia.

Russian Ambassador in Washington Anatoly Antonov answering a question from the media said: "The Administration continues its stillborn policy of inflicting strategic economic defeat on us. The current attack - not only on Russia, but also on the world market for uranium fuel used in nuclear power plants - leads to new shocks in international economic relations. The delicate balance between exporters and importers of uranium products is under threat," he said.

According to the ambassador, "Washington lacks enough national enrichment capacity and so is harming its own economy. Moreover, the financial losses for the United States will be much greater than for Russia. However, the main thing for local strategists is to harm our country," Tass reports. 

A new law, approved by the Senate, calls for an immediate ban, but includes a system of waivers for anyone that wants them until January 2028 if it serves the "national interests" of the States. Likewise, Europe has no uranium nor refineries. Countries that do have raw uranium like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, lack significant enriching capacity and rely on Russia to produce the yellow cake.

As nuclear power plant (NPP) deals come with 60-year long fuel supply deals, uranium has become the new gas. Since 2023 Rosatom has been the exclusive supplier of products related to enriched uranium for Brazilian nuclear facilities. This historic agreement is the first long-term partnership with Brasilia, replacing previous imports from Canada and European consortia.

These deals come at a time when Rosatom is trying to expand its relations with the BRICS countries to increase its participation in the sale of nuclear subsidies for the production of radioisotopes in these nations and obtain financing from the New Development Bank (previously known as the BRICS bank).

Russia's nuclear exports are booming. One of the biggest new reactors was inaugurated on April 27, 2023, by Turkish President Erdoğan, the Russian built Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, Turkey's first nuclear reactor.

It will begin operation in 2025 with four VVER 1200 pressurised water reactors and will be responsible for around 10% of the total national electricity production. Located in the southern Turkish province of Mersin, the nuclear power plant was also 93% financed by Rosatom.

In North Africa, a region facing rapid population growth and an insatiable hunger for power, Russia has initiated strategic dialogues with countries such as Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, which have signed MOUs with Rosatom.

Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia, also have agreements related to nuclear energy with Rosatom. Russia seeks a diplomatic rapprochement with countries like Nigeria, based on cooperation in uranium exploration and the establishment of a nuclear power plant financed by Russian lines of credit. Moscow has pursued preferential access to the continent's uranium and rare earth mines, as seen in agreements with Tanzania and Namibia.

South Africa is also looking to Moscow as it has been suffering rolling blackouts for years. In 2023, Pretoria decided to boost nuclear energy production, with Rosatom help. However, plans for the creation of new nuclear power plants are facing serious resistance , due to corruption allegations surrounding a previous agreement.

Russia's nuclear diplomacy has also extended to South Asia. India has agreed to the construction of units 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant that has rekindled an old partnership that dates back to the agreements with the Soviet Union.

Likewise, the Russian company operates in Bangladesh, with preparations underway for the construction of the Rooppur nuclear power plant, the country's first nuclear energy facility.

In Sri Lanka Russia is a potential candidate to build nuclear reactors as part of a recently published long-term project to boost local energy production in the country.

In Latin America Russia is seeking greater access to the continent's raw materials markets. Bolivia has signed off on a $450mn contract with Rosatom to the construction of a complex for the extraction and production of lithium carbonate, an essential material for the cooling and containment systems of nuclear reactors. Russia has also expanded nuclear collaboration with Brazil .

Russia's strategic use of nuclear alliances with countries in the Global South not only increases its global influence, but also raises challenges related to technology transfer and economic dependence. These partnerships often rely heavily on Russian technology and funding that bind the client states to Moscow.

Russia and Kazakhstan big nuclear players

Russia has yet to embrace green energy and relies heavily on nuclear power, followed by hydropower.

The Russian Energy Strategy 2030, published in November 2009, envisaged a doubling of generation capacity from 225 GWe in 2008 to 355-445 GWe in 2030.

A revised scheme in mid-2010 projected 1288 TWh demand in 2020 and 1553 TWh in 2030, requiring 78 GWe of new plant by 2020 and total 178 GWe new build by 2030, including 43.4 GWe nuclear. The scheme envisaged decommissioning 67.7 GWe of capacity by 2030, including 16.5 GWe of nuclear plant.

Rosenergoatom is the sole nuclear utility, following consolidation in 2001. In 2009 nuclear production was 163.3 TWh (83.7 TWh from VVER, 79.6 TWh from RBMK and other). It then increased slowly to over 200 TWh in 2018. Before this, nuclear electricity output had risen strongly due simply to better performance of the nuclear plants, with capacity factors leaping from 56% to 76% 1998-2003 and then on to 80.2% in 2009. Rosenergoatom aimed for 90% capacity factor by 2015. In 2006 Rosatom announced a target of nuclear providing 23% of electricity by 2020 and 25% by 2030, but 2007 and 2009 plans approved by the government scaled this back significantly.

Rosatom's long-term strategy up to 2050 involves moving to inherently safe nuclear plants using fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle, especially under the Proryv ('Breakthrough') project. It envisages nuclear providing 45-50% of electricity at that time, with the share rising to 70-80% by the end of the century. The ultimate aim of the closed fuel cycle is to eliminate the production of radioactive waste from power generation.

Russia uses about 5500 tonnes of natural uranium per year and about 9% of the world’s deposits. The Federal Natural Resources Management Agency (Rosnedra) reported that Russian uranium reserves grew by 15% in 2009, particularly through exploration in the Urals and Kalmykia Republic, north of the Caspian Sea.

Uranium production has varied from 2870 to 3560 tU/yr since 2004, and in recent years has been supplemented by that from Uranium One Kazakh operations, giving 7629 tU in 2012. In 2006 there were three mining projects in Russia, since then others have been under construction and more projected.

Plans announced in 2006 for 28,600 t/yr U3O8 output by 2020, 18,000t of this from Russia and the balance from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia, though difficulties in starting new Siberian mines and the break with Ukraine makes the 18,000 t target unlikely. Three uranium mining joint ventures were established in Kazakhstan with the intention of providing 6000 tU/yr for Russia from 2007: JV Karatau, JV Zarechnoye and JV Akbastau

The Russian Federation’s main uranium deposits are in four districts:

·       The Trans-Ural district in the Kurgan region between Chelyabinsk and Omsk, with the Dalur ISL mine.

·       Streltsovskiy district in the Transbaikal or Chita region of SE Siberia near the Chinese and Mongolian borders, served by Krasnokamensk and with major underground mines.

·       The Vitimsky district in Buryatia about 570 km northwest of Krasnokamensk, with the Khiagda ISL mine.

·       The more recently discovered remote Elkon district in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) some 1200 km north-northeast of the Chita region.

Russia's first nuclear power plant, and the first in the world to produce electricity in 1954, was the 5 MWe Obninsk reactor. Russia's first two commercial-scale nuclear power plants started up in 1963-64, then in 1971-73 the first of today's production models were commissioned. By the mid-1980s Russia had 25 power reactors in operation, but the nuclear industry was beset by problems. The Chernobyl accident led to a resolution of these problems and a new generation of much safer reactors, the pressurized water VVER reactors.

Kazakhstan has been an important source of uranium for more than 50 years and became the world's largest uranium producer in 2009. Annual production has increased from 2114 tU in 2001 to 24,689 tU in 2016, before decreasing slightly due to low uranium prices. In 2019 production was 22,808 tU, up 5% on the year before, but dropped to 19,477 tU in 2020 due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Production in 2023 was 21,112 tU and National Atomic Company Kazatomprom Joint Stock Company (Kazatomprom) has said it expects 2024 production to be 21,000-22,500 tU.

In July 2006 Russia and Kazakhstan (Kazatomprom) signed three 50:50 nuclear joint venture agreements totalling US$ 10 billion for new nuclear reactors, uranium production and enrichment. The first JV with Atomstroyexport is JV Atomniye Stantsii for development and marketing of innovative small and medium-sized reactors, starting with OKBM's VBER-300 as baseline for Kazakh units. Russia's Atomstroyexport expected to build the initial one.

The second JV with Tenex, confirmed in 2008, is for extending a small uranium enrichment plant at Angarsk in southern Siberia (this will also be the site of the first international enrichment centre, in which Kazatomprom has a 10% interest). It will eventually be capable of enriching the whole 6000 tonnes of uranium production from Russian mining JVs in Kazakhstan. See Fuel Cycle section below.

Enriching uranium

Most of the about 500 commercial nuclear power reactors operating or under construction in the world today require uranium 'enriched' in the U-235 isotope for their fuel, the World Nuclear Association reports.

“The commercial process employed for this enrichment involves gaseous uranium in centrifuges. A process based on laser excitation is under development. Prior to enrichment, uranium oxide must be converted to a fluoride so that it can be processed as a gas, at low temperature. From a non-proliferation standpoint, uranium enrichment is a sensitive technology needing to be subject to tight international control. In recent years there has been a significant surplus of world enrichment capacity,” the World Nuclear Association says.

Uranium consists mainly of two isotopes: U-235 and U-238. While natural uranium is predominantly U-238, it is the less abundant U-235 isotope, making up only 0.7%, that is used for the fission process in nuclear reactors, which releases significant energy in the form of heat.

To be usable in most of today's nuclear reactors, particularly light water reactors such as the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) and Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), uranium be enriched. This involves increasing the proportion of U-235 up to between 3-5%.

This enriched uranium, known as low-enriched uranium (LEU), is standard for commercial reactors. However, there is growing interest in further enrichment to about 7% and even close to 20% for some specialized reactors, producing what is termed high-assay LEU (HALEU), according to WNA.

"Uranium-235 and U-238 are chemically identical, but they differ significantly in their physical properties, such as mass," explains the WNA. The slight mass difference between these isotopes, 1.27%, though minor, allows for the separation and enrichment processes.

Some reactor designs, such as the Canadian Candu and British Magnox, operate using natural uranium, eliminating the need for enrichment. By contrast, uranium used for nuclear weapons requires enrichment to at least 90% U-235, necessitating highly specialized facilities.

The conversion of mined uranium oxide into a gaseous form, uranium hexafluoride, is a preliminary step in the enrichment process. This conversion occurs at separate facilities, tailored specifically for this purpose.

The global landscape for uranium enrichment has experienced considerable shifts, with an over-supply in enrichment capacity noted in recent years. This excess capacity has been used to reduce uranium demand or boost supply through 'underfeeding,' a process where enrichment facilities use less uranium to produce the same amount of enriched product. The advancement of centrifuge technology, which offers lower Separative Work Unit (SWU) costs and more efficient processing, has further influenced these dynamics.

There are three major producers at present: Orano, Rosatom, and Urenco operating large commercial enrichment plants in France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, USA, and Russia. CNNC is a major domestic supplier and is pursuing export sales. In Japan and Brazil, domestic fuel cycle companies manage modest supply capability.

The WNA lists the main players in the enrichment business:

Orano's enrichment plants are in operation in France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, USA, and Russia, with smaller plants elsewhere. Orano's SET subsidiary operates the Georges Besse II gas centrifuge plant at Tricastin in the south of France. The facility commenced commercial operation in April 2011, reaching its full production capacity of 7.5mn SWU/yr at the end of 2016. The plant replaced Eurodif's Georges Besse diffusion plant.

Rosatom has four enrichment plants: Novouralsk, Zelenogorsk, Angarsk and Seversk. The four facilities have a combined capacity of over 27mn SWU/yr.

Urenco has enrichment operations in the UK (Capenhurst), Germany (Gronau) and the Netherlands (Almelo). In 2010 Urenco's US subsidiary Louisiana Energy Services commenced operation at its centrifuge plant in Eunice, New Mexico.

CNNC's enrichment capacity is estimated at about 6-7mn SWU/yr, which includes 1.5mn SWU/yr from Russian-supplied centrifuges, with the remaining SWU capacity from indigenous technology. A production line using indigenous centrifuges was launched in March 2018 at the Shaanxi plant.

Uranium enrichment capacity operation in 2020 and planned

A small number of other countries have limited enrichment capablity.

Argentina reactivated its gaseous diffusion plant at Pilcaniyeu in 2010, more than two decades after production there was halted. Production was again halted in 2018 and the plant has not been used for commercial or export needs.

Since 2009 Brazil's Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB) has produced small quantities of enriched uranium for domestic consumption using domestically developed centrifuges. INB is renovating the Resende Nuclear Fuel Factory in Rio de Janeiro with the initial aim of supplying 70% of the requirements of the Angra 1 unit, eventually increasing to 100% of the needs of Angra 1&2.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) is upgrading centrifuge capacity at its Rokkasho facility. JNFL commenced commercial operation of the newer machinery in 2012 and has since then installed approximately 150,000 SWU/yr of capacity. The full planned 1.5mn SWU/yr of capacity was expected to be installed by 2022 and operational by 2027, but has been beset by delays. A new schedule is expected to be announced before the end of 2022.

India, Pakistan and Iran have small centrifuge enrichment capabilities, but do not sell SWU commercially or export to the global market.

Areva (now Orano) was planning to build the $2bn, 3.3mn SWU/yr Eagle Rock plant at Idaho Falls, USA. In 2009 it applied for doubling in capacity to 6.6mn SWU/yr. It is now cancelled, and in 2018 Orano requested the NRC to terminate the licence.

USEC (now Centrus) was building its American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, on the same Portsmouth site where the DOE's experimental plant operated in the 1980s as the culmination of a major R&D programme. Operation from 2012 was envisaged, at a cost of $3.5bn then estimated. It was designed to have an initial annual capacity of 3.8mn SWU. Authorization for enrichment up to 10% was sought – most enrichment plants operate up to 5% U-235 product, which is becoming a serious constraint as reactor fuel burnup increases. A demonstration cascade started up in September 2007 with about 20 prototype machines, and a lead cascade of commercial centrifuges started operation in March 2010. These are very large machines, 13 m tall, each with about 350 SWU/yr capacity and requiring regular maintenance. The whole project was largely halted in July 2009 pending further finance, although a demonstration cascade became operational in October 2013. It was licensed for 7mn SWU/yr enrichment up to 10% U-235, but operation ceased in February 2016. In mid-2021 it was licensed to produce HALEU up to 20% and Centrus is currently deploying a cascade of AC100M centrifuges at the American Centrifuge Plant.