Prague, Czech Republic – One chilly night in early April, a pair of Spanish-owned planes left Helsinki Airport loaded with pipes bearing radiation hazard symbols.
Their destination was Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city.
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These nocturnal manoeuvres have become regular over the past 14 months.
With Russian planes banned from European Union skies, Finland is now a regular stop for imports of nuclear fuel from the east, which currently runs approximately 20 percent of Europe’s nuclear fleet.
Dependence among former Eastern Bloc countries operating Soviet-built reactors is especially heavy, and has helped block efforts to levy sanctions against Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear agency.
But the client list of TVEL, Rosatom’s fuel arm, is shrinking. From 2024, Finnish air cargo handlers should no longer be required to load planes bound for the Czech Republic, and other routes could also soon be abandoned.
In March, Czech state-controlled energy group CEZ announced that from next year Westinghouse will supply fuel for the Dukovany nuclear power plant’s (NPP) four Soviet-supplied VVER-440 units.
France’s Framatome joined the US company in signing a similar deal to fuel Temelin’s twin VVER-1000 reactors last year.
“After the war in Ukraine broke out last year, CEZ immediately started talks to find a new fuel supplier for security reasons,” the Czech company said.
But as a staunch supporter of Ukraine, the Czech Republic – which holds reserves to last three years – also understands that reducing dependence on Russian fuel should help open the way to sanction Rosatom, which helps fill the Kremlin’s war chest and, as Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU Vsevolod Chertsov told a European Parliament meeting on April 25 “works hand in hand with the Russian military”.
Pressure to include the Russian nuclear sector has built as the European Commission plans an 11th package of sanctions. However, the discussion is far from straightforward.
Rosatom supplies fuel to more than a dozen European NPPs, according to Olena Pavlenko from Ukrainian energy think tank Dixi, and controls close to 50 percent of the global uranium enrichment market.
With this in mind, Rosatom’s Western competitors have been racing to develop fuels that can replace TVEL’s.
Russia insists that is a risk.
“Safety must remain the top priority,” TVEL told Al Jazeera. “Decisions must be based on transparency and technological efficiency, rather than political considerations.”
And even campaigners like Vladimir Slivyak at Russian NGO Ecodefense acknowledge “it’s a question whether Westinghouse can really supply this fuel by 2024”.
Many nuclear experts suggest that developing a new fuel usually takes at least two years. Westinghouse did not respond to questions regarding its progress.
National regulators also need to license new fuels.
“It typically takes around seven-eight years,” claims TVEL, “before a new supplier may begin full-scale commercial fuel supplies.”
However, given the political impetus, it seems likely that licensing decisions could be swift. The European Commission pledged last year to help fast-track the process.
Nuclear fuel sales contribute relatively little to the Kremlin’s coffers, but the nuclear sector as a whole drives significant income and access to key technology from overseas. Rosatoms’s earnings in 2021 ran to about $20bn.
“Rosatom controls a nuclear market valued at 180 billion euros,” says Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius. “The obvious question is why the EU is not sanctioning this company.”
But the answer is just as clear: Russia’s control of the fuel and enrichment market.
Washington is in a similar bind. Rosatom holds a share of the US enrichment market. However, it is claimed that the White House is ready to move regardless.
“The Biden administration understands that certain EU member states oppose sanctioning Rosatom and is hesitant to proceed without a consensus,” suggest analysts at Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Bulgaria, Hungary and France are believed to be the main obstacles to waging EU sanctions.
The former pair rely on Russian fuel. France produces its own, but sources 15 percent of the enriched uranium it needs from Russia.
However, change is in the air.
Against the grain
On April 16, Paris signed an agreement alongside the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom, to squeeze Russia out of the international nuclear fuel market.
Meanwhile, like the Czechs, Bulgaria and others operating Soviet-era NPPs – which are currently fully dependent on TVEL – are pushing to diversify.
Last year, Sofia signed deals with Westinghouse and Framatome for fuel supplies for the two reactors at the Kozloduy plant starting in 2024 and 2025. Slovakia has launched a tender for a new supplier and is talking with the same suppliers.
Finland is also planning to dump TVEL when its contracts expire in 2030, while a contract for Rosatom to build a new reactor has also been terminated.
The trend is keenly encouraged by Ukraine. Kyiv’s bid to break with TVEL began after Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea, and by 2019 one of its VVER-1000 units was loaded with US fuel.
“Ukraine is the first country that managed to diversify. We’ve shown it’s possible to find an alternative fuel and certify it,” says Chertsov. “But some EU countries still seem unwilling.”
That barb is aimed squarely at Hungary, which as so often is going against the grain. Viktor Orban’s government has refused to pivot away from Putin and Budapest has instead worked to complicate EU sanctions. It has threatened to veto any action against the Russian nuclear sector.
A 2014 contract that Orban struck directly with the Russian president to expand the Paks NPP, which provides about 40 percent of Hungary’s power, is key to that stance. Under the deal, Moscow is providing 10 billion euros ($11bn) in financing.
“Paks 2 is the elephant in the room when it comes to agreeing EU sanctions against Rosatom,” says Slivyak.
On the one hand, Orban appears determined to see the project through. On the other, it is badly behind schedule as Rosatom struggles to meet EU safety requirements. But Budapest this month dismissed the opportunity to back out to agree on amendments to the contract.
Budapest is already under immense pressure from Western partners, and its track record suggests it is unlikely to continue to block nuclear sanctions should it find itself standing alone.
Many suspect that, as with oil and gas sanctions, Hungary is hanging on in the hope of winning a carve to allow Rosatom to build Paks 2.
Hungary’s EU partners could hand over that plum and yet prevent Russia from building a new NPP inside the bloc.
“Sanctioning the nuclear sector would be great, but there’s another route also,” says Sebastian Rotters from German NGO Urgewald. “The dependency goes both ways. Rosatom relies on the likes of France and Germany to supply high-tech equipment. Halting such exports wouldn’t need agreement from 27 states.”
Leveraging that dependency could stop Paks 2. Hungary complains that Berlin is “blocking” Siemens from delivering control systems for the project.
But it could also be used to have a deeper and wider effect, should Western governments find the courage to take on such powerful companies.
While nuclear fuel is a relatively minor earner for Russia, Rosatom’s operation constructing new NPPs around the globe is far more lucrative, both financially and in terms of geopolitical influence.
The company hopes to build 30 NPPs across Asia, North Africa, and South America, among other spots, in the coming years, asserts Pavlenko from Dixi.
Akkuyu, Turkey’s first NPP, built and operated by Rosatom, was inaugurated in late April.
“Framatome and Siemens are supplying the ‘brains’ for Rosatom’s NPPs,” Pavlenko says.
“If these companies didn’t ship key technologies it would prevent Russia spreading its influence and the potential for further nuclear terrorism,” she says, pointing at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant, Russia’s occupation of which has spurred deep safety concerns.
“It could also stop Rosatom’s habit of passing on certain equipment to the Russian military,” says Rotter.