Ending Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas may be the easy part.
It could prove much harder for the continent to replace Russian nuclear fuel and technology after decades of underinvestment in the West’s nuclear-energy industry. Russia supplies almost half of the world’s enriched uranium and dominates the global market for new reactors. And most of Europe’s more than 100 reactors rely on Russian fuel.
This explains why Russian state-owned nuclear energy powerhouse Rosatom has not faced Western sanctions since the country’s invasion of Ukraine. It is also why last week Canada joined the United States, Britain, France and Japan in a bid to end Russia’s dominance in the field.
At a meeting of their energy ministers in Japan, the five countries announced a “strategic collaboration” to increase “the depth and resilience of our nuclear fuel supply chains, while supporting the wider geostrategic objectives of further reducing reliance on Russia in the nuclear fuel supply chain for the long-term and increasing the availability of commercial free-market alternatives in the supply of civil nuclear technologies to third countries.”
Britain’s Department of State for Energy Security and Net Zero said the agreement “will be used as the basis for pushing Vladimir Putin out of the nuclear fuel market entirely, and doing so as quickly as possible, to cut off another means for him to fund his barbaric attack on Ukraine and fundamentally leave Russia out in the cold.”
Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson echoed that sentiment, telling Bloomberg News: “For Canada, there is a real opportunity in terms of supply of uranium. … Many countries in Europe have been using Russian and Belarusian uranium, and all would like to see a pathway to getting off of that.”
Saskatoon-based Cameco Corp. CCO-T, one of the world’s biggest uranium miners, stands to benefit. Last week, it signed a 10-year supply contract with U.S.-based Westinghouse to provide enriched uranium product to Bulgaria’s Kozloduy nuclear power station.
Still, Russia’s nuclear hegemony could prove resilient. China and India have turned mostly to Russia for nuclear technology as they seek to reduce their dependence on coal-based electricity. So have Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt. Many of Rosatom’s customers have relied on Russian loans for the construction of nuclear power stations. Russia has used its nuclear technology to wield political influence in many developing countries.
Rosatom supplied the technology for 20 of the 53 reactors under construction in 2022, according to the latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report. The only other companies acting as lead contractors on nuclear power plants abroad are French and South Korean.
Both Russia and China have invested heavily in nuclear technology and have built up precious expertise, enabling them to build nuclear power stations more quickly and efficiently.
Not so in the West.
Its nuclear energy industry practically entered a coma after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, with many Western countries shutting down reactors or announcing plans to scale back their dependence on nuclear power.
Germany closed its three remaining nuclear power plants last week. They had been set to shut down last year, but earned a reprieve after the invasion of Ukraine sent natural gas prices skyrocketing and sparked fears of an electricity shortage. The plants’ closing has increased tensions within Germany’s governing coalition, with the Free Democratic Party calling the move a mistake that will require the country to burn more coal.
Debate within Germany explains why the G7 country did not sign the agreement to squeeze Russia out of the West’s nuclear market. Italy, which abandoned nuclear power starting in 1987, also refrained from endorsing the agreement.
France, which had planned to slash its dependence on nuclear power after Fukushima, changed course last year and has embarked on an ambitious plan to build six new reactors by 2035. But analysts are skeptical the country can respect such a tight timeline.
State-owned Électricité de France is more than a decade behind schedule to complete the only nuclear station currently under construction in the country: the 1,600 megawatt EPR (European Pressurized Water Reactor) at Flamanville on the Normandy coast. Europe’s only other EPR station, Finland’s Olkiluoto 3, began operating this month – almost 14 years after it was initially scheduled to come online.
EDF is also building the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Britain, whose two EPR reactors are to provide 3,200 megawatts of electricity. Unsurprisingly, that project is also behind schedule and overbudget. But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government remains committed to boosting nuclear power’s share of British electricity to 25 per cent from 15 per cent by 2050. Last month it proposed classifying nuclear energy as “environmentally sustainable,” which would make nuclear power projects eligible for subsidies.
Many experts insist there is no way to decarbonize global electricity grids without building more nuclear power stations – lots of them. Unfortunately, a decade of post-Fukushima dithering has strengthened Russia’s nuclear dominance. It will take more to unwind it than aspirational statements by Western energy ministers. But last week’s agreement is a start.