Recent events in Ukraine have put Europe’s energy security again under scrutiny, and while there is great concern about the bloc’s vulnerability to Russia retaliating to sanctions by turning of the gas, not as much attention has been paid to the nuclear power aspect.
Russia is highly influential in terms of the EU’s nuclear power capability.
It is an important supplier of the raw material for nuclear fuel, uranium, accounting for 18 per cent of EU supplies.
The BBC reports that 30 per cent of the enrichment work to make uranium suitable for power generation is done by Russian companies.
Meanwhile, many countries within the EU have a significant number of older, Russian-designed nuclear reactors – 18 in all. Finland has two – and all the reactors in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (who are in deals with Russia to build two more) are Russian-designed.
These states are heavily reliant on their nuclear capacity, with 50 per cent of Slovakia’s electricity and 45 per cent of Hungary’s being accounted for by these plants.
The fuel for a reactor also has to be supplied in a form – called a fuel assembly – that meets the specifications of the particular reactor, and for Russian-designed nuclear reactors the fuel comes from a Russian company, TVEL. Anything that disrupts the supply of the fuel assemblies needed for these countries’ reactors would be a serious problem for them.
A recent European Commission report argued that, “Ideally, diversification of fuel assembly manufacturing should take place, but this would require some technological efforts because of the different reactor designs.”
Because of the implications to countries’ power sectors and, subsequently, their economies, many are reluctant to back aggressive sanctions against Russia.
In the meantime, there are some positives associated with nuclear, which can buy time for countries that find their capacities compromised.
Firstly, a nuclear plant is only re-fuelled occasionally – typically every 12 to 24 months for modern designs. And if a scheduled re-fuelling is missed, the plant can continue to operate with declining output.
Secondly, compared with coal or gas, it is also easier to store large amounts of fuel needs, as the volume of material is much smaller.
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