Measures to squeeze Russia out of the nuclear business are inevitably doomed to fail if there simply aren’t any alternatives.

Efforts to loosen Russia’s grip on the global nuclear fuel market intensified in April as five of the G7 nations formed an alliance aimed at reducing the country’s influence in the fuel supply chain.

At the Nuclear Energy Forum in Sapporo, Japan – which coincided with the latest G7 meeting – Canada, Japan, France, the UK, and the USA announced plans to leverage their respective civil nuclear power resources and capabilities to undermine Russia’s nuclear business.

Although for the most part, sales of Russia’s vast energy resources have been curtailed by a raft of stringent international sanctions, so far that has not included its nuclear exports. However, while the sanctions which followed its invasion of Ukraine and so-called special military operation have avoided nuclear to date, it is clear that many see that as an unacceptable loophole that allows Russia continued access to hard currency and revenues with which to fund its aggression.

State-owned Rosatom remains the world’s biggest exporter of nuclear fuel through its TVEL subsidiary. Indeed, many European nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union still rely on Russian fuel, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary among them, Furthermore, many more use or even rely on Russian uranium, countries like France, Finland and the USA, for example.

Commercial efforts to find alternatives to Russian fuel are underway but nonetheless take time to come to fruition. US-based Westinghouse is aiming to replace Russia as a supplier with its alternative for VVER-440 reactors but is only now completing the development process for the fuel. Earlier in April, Westinghouse signed a deal with the Czech Republic power company CEZ for the supply of fuel for Dukovany NPP, which comprises four VVER-440 reactors. However, while Westinghouse
says it will begin to deliver fuel assemblies beginning next year it anticipates it will take seven years to displace the incumbent. Westinghouse already has a deal to supply fuel assemblies for the two VVER-1000 units at Temelin, again starting in 2024 and also operated by CEZ. Previously fuel was supplied by TVEL.

Bulgaria has also signed a contract with Westinghouse to supply the Kozloduy nuclear power plant’s two VVER- 1000 units, but earlier this year Bulgaria indicated that it would continue to import both fuel and replacement parts from Russia. Meanwhile, Hungary is certainly expected to go on using Russian fuel too, having made clear that it would veto any European Union efforts to sanction Russia’s nuclear industry.

Nonetheless, the new agreement signed in Japan aims to sidestep Russia through the development of shared supply chains to source a stable and secure supply of nuclear fuel. According to a statement, the five plan to collaborate on opportunities in uranium extraction, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication.

Such a strategy will no doubt eventually improve security of energy supply and create a more diverse fuels market but there is a fundamental problem if the goal is to squeeze Russia out of the nuclear business. The fact is that while much of Europe and the west has waxed and waned on nuclear, Russia has not. It’s been a stalwart of the nuclear industry throughout and remains so. It offers far more than fuel to its customers too, instead catering for every aspect of the nuclear value chain. If Western powers truly want to displace Russian nuclear dominance then they have to assume that mantle and deliver the same level of commitment. The alternative is there really is no alternative.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International