London (CNN) Much of Russia’s energy exports have been hit by Western sanctions since the country launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, with one notable exception — nuclear power.
Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom, which exports and enriches uranium as well as builds nuclear power plants around the world, has controlled Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine’s Zaporizhia region since it was captured by Russian forces a year ago.
Kiev accused Russian forces of turning the complex into a military base and using it as cover to launch attacks, knowing that Ukraine could not return fire without risking hitting one of the plant’s reactors. Ukraine also blamed Russia explosions at the siteincluding late last year.
Petro Kotin, the interim head of Ukraine’s atomic energy company, Energoatom, is concerned about the militarization of the plant, but also about a significant reduction in the number of qualified personnel at the site. The Russian press service of the plant told CNN that new employees are being hired, “ensuring [its] safe operation.”
If anything, Cotten said, Energoatom “can’t jump in and actually mitigate any consequences or mitigate any emergency” because Russia controls the area.
Despite what Cottin describes as a growing risk of an error or breach of safety protocols at the Zaporizhia plant, and repeated calls by Kiev for sanctions against Rosatom, the Russian company remains largely unscathed, although the UK has sanctioned its top management and many companies. affiliate in the past. month and Finland finished Power plant deal last May.
Experts say Rosatom remains protected by the vital role it plays in global nuclear power, and the fact that it cannot be easily replaced.
Paul Dorfman, chair of the Nuclear Advisory Group and longtime adviser to the UK government and nuclear industry, says the problem is “intertwined dependencies worth a Russian puppet”.
First of all, Rosatom is a major source of nuclear fuel. In 2021, the United States relied on the Russian nuclear monopoly for 14% of the uranium that powers its nuclear reactors. European utilities have purchased nearly a fifth of their nuclear fuel from Rosatom. According to Dorfman, the EU has made little progress since weaning itself off the Russian nuclear industry.
Rosatom also provides uranium enrichment services, accounting for 28% of what the United States requires in 2021.
It has built many nuclear plants around the world and in some cases financed their construction. At the end of 2021, nearly one in five of the world’s nuclear power plants were in Russia or Russian-built, and Rosatom is building another 15 outside Russia, according to Columbia University’s Center for 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 funded by governments, and in some cases they can’t even afford. In those cases, Rosatom often gets involved, offering lines of credit guaranteed by the Russian government and in some cases long-term contracts to provide fuel or even operate the plant.
The most extreme of these types of deals is the build-own-operate model, says Szulecki, who co-authored a recent paper on the Russian nuclear industry. It was first used by Rosatom with the Akkuyu power plant in Turkey, which the company is building, fully financing and has committed to operating for its entire life.
Such dependency can trump other considerations. For example, Hungary has been a staunch opponent in the European Union of sanctions against Rosatom. It is also one of several EU countries that relies on nuclear power for more than 40% of its electricity and 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 could take years.
This may be why, far from deterring future customers, Rosatom’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia plant coincided with the growth of the company’s foreign revenue. Its general director, Alexey Likhachev, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia in December that foreign revenues are on track to rise by about 15% in 2022 compared to 2021.
For his part, Energoatom’s Cotten believes that Rosatom maintains equipment at the plant so poorly that the Russian occupation could cause irreparable damage.
If it continues for another year, he said, “I’m sure we won’t be able to get this plant back up and running.”
Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Halushenko said over the weekend that diplomatic efforts to return control of the plant to Ukraine had stalled.
Russia itself has repeatedly accused Ukraine of bombing the Zaporizhye plant, and in an email to CNN, the station’s Rosatom press service denied the presence of heavy military equipment at the site.
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