Rosatom’s woes before and beyond the war: implications of Russia’s embattled nuclear industry

Editor’s note: In this article, Pinar Demircan examines the present Russian occupation of Ukraine as one that signifies the dead end of capitalism. The author argues that foreign dependency has made even the Russian nuclear industry giant Rosatom aggressive and vulnerable at the same time, and points to the possibility of similar occurrences across other geographies, including in her country, Turkey by looking at it from the perspective of nuclear energy.

Pinar Demircan

Pinar Demircan is from Turkey. She is an independent researcher (PhD candidate), nukleersiz. org coordinator and nuclear editor at Yesil Gazete.

One can hardly underestimate the share of energy resources in war when past experiences are taken as a reference. As is known, shortly after the end of the First World War, the increase in the need for natural resources to ensure industrial progress due to population growth fed the tendencies that underpinned the second war under the cover of development. Subsequently, it was seen during the Cold War period that this possibility was strengthened with the deepening of resource dependence and internationalization. Unfortunately, this state of aggression is justified in various ways, as was witnessed in Syria. It can be said that solar and wind energy, which are known as renewable energy sources, do not serve the goal of continuous accumulation through capitalist appropriation. Renewable energy sources do not create addiction or dependencies, cannot possibly trigger a war, and they are less likely to be serve inhuman accumulation.

Questions behind the radiation spike at Chernobyl

What made me think about the above in the context of the recent invasion of Ukraine was that the siege started from Chernobyl, while the statements made regarding the two separatist regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, and messages of hostility continued, Russian President Putin appeared to have decided to protect the legacy of the former USSR.

The military occupation of Chernobyl turned public attention towards the radiation levels at the beleaguered plant that are believed to have increased 20-30 times. Even more interestingly, it was stated that this increase had occurred due to the military vehicles which entered the facility area, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust present in the surface soil. What needs to be asked is whether such a claim was made to lay to rest adverse public opinion that was concerned that Russian forces could potentially cause radioactive pollution in Chernobyl, or was it made to hide the many questions that were emerging about another operation? Another important question that has emerged is why were the measurement monitors used for measuring the spread of radiation in the field, deactivated? What about reports that there was fighting between Russian forces and Ukrainian soldiers at the Chernobyl facility, that the latter were taken prisoners and the management of the Chernobyl facility changed hands? Where about 21 000spent fuel rods in the pools of the 4th reactor must be constantly cooled avoiding any leakage at the Chernobyl site.

Moreover, was it not a risk for the Russian forces that the technical officers in these facilities were forcibly brought under Russian command and control? Were there nuclear experts and scientists within the occupying Russian side? Some political scientists and experts say that Chernobyl is the shortest way to Kyiv, and therefore, the facility had been surrounded because it was ‘on the way’. However, the seizure of the facility requires us to think more deeply, which is what this article is about, a perspective that shows the big picture about nuclear energy. Because accumulation by dispossession is in the very nature of capitalism, and underpins all inequalities, therefore, what is happening in Ukraine today may possibly be pointing us towards closely observing this practice of usurpation/confiscation in the context of nuclear energy. Now let’s fill in the missing pieces so we can see the big picture.

Nuclear waste is “precious”

Nuclear energy production should be considered together with its fuel chain. In other words, nuclear power generation is never simply an operation in a facility for which nuclear fuel is required. The fuel obtained by processing crude uranium becomes nuclear waste after use, and after cooling for 20-30 years; it is either stored dry as in Ukraine or in one of a limited number of facilities around the world (France, England, Russia, India), it is reprocessed. Finally, although there is no fully operational example in the world yet, it is the final storage. It can be said that Russia leads the way in processing nuclear waste.

In fact, within the framework of agreements made with many countries around the world, Russia is also the leader of the nuclear fuel production process from nuclear waste. This must lead us to consider that such fuel can cause much greater ecological destruction in case of an accident or leakage compared to uranium fuel used in reactors produced by Russia. Thus, Rosatom made a step towards closing the nuclear fuel chain facilities by using high-level plutonium extracted from the nuclear fuel irradiated in VVER-type reactors. So ongoing projects in Russia, China, India, Hungary, Iran, Turkey, Finland and Egypt are potential sources of such reprocessed fuel.

Russia had a nuclear waste agreement with Ukraine. According to this arrangement, Ukraine would send the waste from its 15 nuclear reactors operating within its borders to Russia at the cost of 200 million dollars every year. However, in 2005, Ukraine’s then Minister of Energy, Yuriy Nedashkovsky concluded a new agreement with the US-based company Holtec to establish a storage facility promising 100 years of protection in the Chernobyl plant site for 250 million dollars, thus, bringing to an end the earlier deal with Russia. The dry-storage facility, built by Holtec with the financial loan support of the US-based Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which committed to offering protection for a maximum of 100 years, was to be put into operation on November 6, 2021, with trial tests at the end of 16 years. 2 There are currently 4,000 cubic meters of waste, and the warehouse as the key facility where nuclear waste from 15 nuclear reactors, which produce more than 50 percent of Ukraine’s energy production will be stored. Thus, Ukraine was spared from paying $200 million every year to Russia for the removal of nuclear waste, and had to bear only a one-time expense of 250 million dollars under the new agreement. In other words, with the construction of this warehouse by the US corporate, Russia had lost both the supply of nuclear waste for nuclear fuel production and an income of 200 million dollars per year. Moreover, the Russian-origin nuclear fuel company TVEL, which has been operating since 1996 in Moscow, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars to produce fuel from nuclear waste and had even started a Chemical Concentrates Plant site in Novosibirsk.

On the other hand, considering the fact that Russia has emerged as an economic giant in the world with its foreign investments for the last 10 years, its requirements for uranium have increased heavily. TVEL, a public company established to supply manufactured fuel assemblies to Russian-made 76 reactors across the world, uses 5,500 tons of uranium as well as large quantities of spent nuclear waste. The spent nuclear waste is necessary for Russia’s research reactors, floating and icebreaker reactors in addition to the operating reactors in its overseas projects and 37 reactors within the country. For Russia, which has 9 percent of the world’s uranium reserves, including the uranium it obtained from the mines in the Ural Mountains, Kalmica and the Caspian Sea, this amount is not enough to meet either the expanding foreign nuclear portfolio or the needs of its own nuclear power plants. In fact, this can only meet half of the uranium supply that Russia needs, and hence, the country is preparing to open six more uranium mines in the coming period.

Another reason why Russia currently faces a bottleneck for manufactured fuel assemblies
is that since 2014, Australia has suspended uranium exports to Georgia and Ukraine, and has justified doing so in the face of Russia’s attempts to invade Georgia and Ukraine. As a matter of fact, in an official statement made in parliament, the Australian Prime Minister asserted that “Australia has no intention at the moment to sell uranium to a country like Russia that is openly violating international law”. This move also confirms our assessment that Russia has been exposed to an implicit international embargo on the supply of uranium that it needs for its nuclear power plants. Ukraine was dependent on Russia for its uranium supply, as well as for its waste. As a matter of fact, in order to end the dependency of its 15 reactors, it decided to increase uranium production within its borders by 2026, and for this, the USA made a 335-million dollars agreement through Westinghouse. To clarify, we can say that till 2015 Ukraine got most of its nuclear services and manufactured fuel assemblies from Russia, but it also gradually reduced that dependency by purchasing manufactured fuel assemblies from Westinghouse.

Moreover, Russia, which has been internationally declared as an “occupying power” since its declaration of war on Ukraine, will be excluded from the global nuclear industry market, much in the same way as it may be excommunicated from all other markets at the current juncture. The first signs of this have already arrived in the form of Finland’s decision to announce that the Hanhikivi-1 project is already dead. Similarly, the Swedish state-owned energy company Vattenfall, which supplied nuclear fuel deliveries to Russia within the framework of the agreement signed with the state-run TVEL in 2016, has announced that it will not provide nuclear fuel deliveries to Russia until the next announcement. There is no prospect of a resumption of uranium supplies from Australia, and other suppliers are also blacklisting Russia. As mentioned above, domestic mines can currently provide only half of Russia’s annual uranium needs, while blockades against uranium imports to the country means that its hands are tied further. It is likely that similar announcements will be made by other companies and public enterprises involved in civil nuclear trade with Russia in the coming days.

Obviously, more severe restrictions that would undermine the supply of nuclear fuel are likely to be implemented this time against Russia’s foreign investments. For instance, all new reactor projects led by Russia could be canceled for “punishment of the rogue state”. As it is becoming abundantly clear, on top of the nuclear fuel embargo that Russia is implicitly exposed to as the leader of the nuclear industry, its share in the global nuclear commerce is also getting steadily reduced. Even its own slice of the pie is now on other plates. As a matter of fact, Poland, which had to give up coal, turned to nuclear energy as the nuclear option was included in the tax-reduced solutions in face of the climate crisis. Poland has signed an agreement with the US to establish a nuclear power plant, which also strengthens the possibility of a conflict between the US and Russia on the nuclear industry.

As for Rosatom’s projects in the Middle East, if we need to clarify the picture a little more, the nuclear industry market in the region is shared by a total of 4-5 countries worldwide, as can be seen on the map. Led mainly by the US and Russia, the nuclear power plants are a means of controlling the geopolitics of the region in which they have been set up. For example, in addition to the Akkuyu NPP in Turkey, Russia’s nuclear power plant projects in Iran and Egypt will strengthen its hands in its competition with other imperial states and will also enable it to effectively take control of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In particular, the Rosatom initiative in Egypt on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean will serve to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean in the context of the burgeoning energy conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean over the past few years.

Towards the end of this article, let’s also reflect upon those who claim that by owning nuclear plants, a country necessarily acquires more political power. Whether Ukraine is a “nuclear power” with its 15 reactors and 4 thousand tons of nuclear waste remains a crucial question to be asked at the present juncture. Instead of being a pawn in the technology market dominated by the imperial states and using a foreign-dependent technology, it is much better to prefer the modes of energy generation that are compatible with nature, do not destroy ecological rights, and, do not create technological dependence because it does not have complex processes that will not feed the appropriation motives of states that have to serve their companies. Is it not evidently emerging as the only solution?

The invasion of Ukraine should serve as an opportunity for other states to learn lessons and give up nuclear energy. While the world debates whether or not nuclear energy should be considered for tax-exemptions as a green solution in the context of climate crisis, it should be taken into account that the nuclear option inherently imperils world peace as it perpetuates the power asymmetries and conflicts rooted in the capitalist system. The occupation of Ukraine should ignite the start of a campaign where nuclear opponents around the world should remind the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and global citizens against nuclear cooperation with Russia and demand to abandon Rosatom projects.

 

 

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