Putin's other energy card, questioning his world influence "may cause a major crisis"

The game of the energy bill is played on a broad board that blurs the borders of the countries in favor of a passive-aggressive dependence on the Kremlin in nuclear matters. This highlights what Putin already declared a few days ago at the Vladivostok economic forum: "It is impossible to isolate Russia." And the Muscovite state company Rosatom is a battleship straight to the heart of Europe. Its reactors, control of nuclear fuel and its management of radioactive waste represent a triple arsenal that allows Russia to control the nuclear supply chain. Added to this are its nuclear icebreakers-the only ones in the world-and its floating nuclear power plants. As Enrique Ayala, an analyst at Fundación Alternativas and a retired brigadier general, affirms, "the withdrawal of all Russian nuclear fuel in circulation would produce an energy crisis greater than the one we currently have."

The truth is that since 2017, as stated by the International Energy Agency, Russia and China they have been adding allies and agreements, building 87% of the new nuclear reactors around the world. As in a 'matryoshka', as it disarms we also find the Asian giant. And while Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania or Nigeria, among others, aspire to have nuclear energy with the help of Xi Jinping or Putin, Russia exercises a nuclear diplomacy that is the key to influencing the country, building plants in Iran, India or Egypt.

Chart shows reactor construction by national origin of technology from 2017 to 2022, turquoise (Russia), blue (China) and green (other countries) IEA

Ayala explains that there are two aspects to take into account in this dynamic, the first is the use of nuclear energy within Russia itself. “It has 38 nuclear reactors and four under construction. This represents 20.5% of electricity production. And the idea is to increase that percentage by 2030 by 50%. And abroad, the red queen is building 15 nuclear plants in different states, including NATO countries such as Turkey and Hungary. Finland in May canceled its contract for a new plant on the edge of the Baltic Sea », he assures.

In addition, there are 42 nuclear plants with reactors that use Russian technology. Some of them are in EU countries, such as those in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria or Slovakia. “These reactors have to be necessarily activated with Russian nuclear fuel that is low enriched and that only Russia produces. The experts are seeing if Westinghouse, the American company, can be its substitute, but for now they continue to receive Russian fuel," says Ayala.

Uranium, sanctions

Also in relation to uranium, Russia only extracts 6% on its own land. Export and import. Ayala details that the importation with Australia was interrupted with the invasion of Crimea. Now most of it comes from Kazakhstan, which is the world's leading exporter of uranium and Moscow's partner in the CSTO, which is Russia's version of NATO. «The export of the Kremlin, both crude and enriched uranium, goes to the plants it has in Eastern Europe and the United States. In fact, in April, Senator Barraso, of the Republican Party, controversially said that the US is paying around 100 million monthly to Russia for uranium, about 1,200 million a year”, states the analyst.

Not all the uranium that Russia exports is Russian, they resell it or enrich it. Its global enrichment capacity is 46%, and its capacity to treat nuclear waste to convert it back into fuel is 36%, according to Euratom. It is no coincidence that Rosatom is one of the few Russian companies that has not been sanctioned by the United States. There is talk of gas or oil, but little is discussed about uranium because it is more difficult to replace, and claiming it would have a direct effect on the bill of US citizens. The paradox is that with the war in Ukraine, the US continues to buy from Russia, Ayala points out. As for Spain, according to EP, it imported 38.7% of its uranium from Russia in 2020, although in 2021 it was reduced to a third.

Ricardo Lenoir-Grand Pons, head of the International SOS intelligence unit in Spain, indicates that "the use that Russia can make of nuclear energy, like other resources, goes beyond the performance or economic benefit that it can bring. There is how symbolic it is to generate confusion in the West. And a hypothetical agreement between Russia and Hungary on the nuclear issue would destabilize the EU, because if it decides to sanction Russia there will be a group of countries that would oppose it.

Small letter

Russia's picaresque in its nuclear projects has to do with an attractive financing offer for these nuclear constructions. It was clear with Hungary. Thus, the terms of the Rosatom company that would be in charge of the work were previously known. The advantage for many countries is that they do not have to pay it until it ends, but the catch is that Rosatom would manage it for 50 years, and it would be its only fuel supplier for a decade. And currently, Putin has the support of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

For India or Turkey, having nuclear power plants represents an important energy development, as well as political popularity. Thus, Erdogan wants to have it finished by the time the elections approach. In exchange, "companies banned in other European countries are finding a lucrative space in Turkey," says Ayala. Rosatom has also sought a niche in the Middle East, in Algeria, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates.

But even countries that no longer want to rely on Russian reactors find themselves at a dead end in the case of the Soviet-designed VVER-440 series of reactors at their plants. No western supplier can provide fuel for this specific model, with the exception of Russia. Five EU countries with 40 million inhabitants depend on Russian favor. The General Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, stated that establishing sanctions on Rosatom would cause serious problems for these States. As well as new projects for years to come.

floating plants

Added to this nuclear deployment, as Ayala indicates, “is the fact that Putin has a fleet of nuclear icebreakers, the only one in the world. That facing the new North route of the Arctic, you can keep it open all year long. Having access to the huge resources in the area is a huge business advantage for Moscow." We are talking about reserves of 20,000-46,000 million oil and 36-83 billion m3 of gas, in addition, in the area there are deposits of manganese, lead, gold, platinum and diamonds.

And his most treasured creation is the Akademik Lomonosov. The first floating nuclear power plant in the world to circulate in the Arctic, and which the Kremlin unveiled in 2019. Its function is to provide energy to remote areas of Siberia and it has two nuclear reactors of 35 MW each. China has a $226 million contract with Russia to supply material to its floating plants.

Akademik Lomonosov, floating nuclear power plant afp

However, against this Russian creation, Greenpeace used the title of 'nuclear Titanic on ice', arguing the potential threat it poses to the Arctic and nearby countries. Meritxell Bennasar, responsible for nuclear energy at Greenpeace, explains that “these ships are smaller nuclear power plants. But they are exposed to strong storms in the area and man-made accidents. And to this is added the radioactive waste they generate ».

This NGO points out in a report that “in the event of a collapse, the ocean water would cool the core. There would be a water explosion and possible hydrogen explosions that would spread a large number of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. The areas around Fukushima and Chernobyl are already difficult to clean up, worse would be even worse in the polar night, with sub-zero temperatures and snow storms." Faced with this accusation, Rosatom has declared that "the plant is invincible against tsunamis and natural disasters." He has even used Lomonosov as a provider of residential nuclear heating for Siberian homes, an energy efficient option that Russia intends to innovate in its energy portfolio. Several countries have expressed interest in his design for small traveling reactors.

Paraphrasing the expression “all roads lead to Rome”, it is interesting that all energetic roads lead to Putin. In that case, the question in the face of these facts remains: is it really possible to isolate Russia?

Source link