Europe’s Nuclear Option

For all the worries about Russia's energy stranglehold over Europe, the continent is still looking to Moscow for nuclear reactors.

Attila Kisbenedek - AFP - Getty
Attila Kisbenedek - AFP - Getty

Whatever else Russia may have accomplished with its bullying of Ukraine, it has left Europe thoroughly frightened of Moscow’s ability to lord its energy dominance over the continent. Except, oddly enough, when it comes to nuclear power — and Russia’s plans to build reactors across Europe are proceeding with nary a hiccup.

Despite a chorus of international condemnation for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, plenty of hand-wringing over the latest disturbances in eastern and southwestern Ukraine, talk of tougher economic sanctions, and a mad dash to secure alternatives to Russian natural gas, nuclear power projects with Russian participation are going ahead as planned in Finland, Hungary, and Turkey.

The Russian push doesn’t stop there. Rosatom, Moscow’s state-owned nuclear company, is busy building reactors in Vietnam and Bangladesh and bidding for projects in Slovakia and South Africa.

Moscow’s nuclear dealings are another sign of the West’s inability to find a way of hammering Russia hard enough that it will stop harassing Ukraine. The United States and Britain have suspended nuclear-energy cooperation with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, but other European countries — even those who have been most vocal about the threat posed by Russia’s control of natural-gas supplies — have hardly batted an eye.

"It surprises me that the Europeans are going forward with it," said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Russia’s use of oil and natural gas exports as a geopolitical tool steal most of the headlines, especially with concerns mounting in Europe that the Ukraine crisis could again trigger a shut-off of natural gas flows from Russia.

But nuclear power is a key part of Russian energy diplomacy, too: It ensures long-term relationships with countries that buy it, with a soup-to-nuts commercial relationship that includes reactor construction, nuclear fuel supply, and the ongoing employment of Russian technicians. Moscow’s energy strategy through 2030 highlights the state’s role in promoting nuclear power, both domestically and overseas. Rosatom is currently building 19 reactors around the world.

Spreading Russian nuclear technology is so important to Moscow that it is willing to basically underwrite the cost of building expensive new reactors for cash-strapped countries from Hungary to Bangladesh, usually offering favorable terms for loans that would cover at at least 80 percent of the multi-billion price tag for each project, something no Western nuclear firm can match.

But even the threat of rival incursions into markets Russia considers its own, such as Ukraine, prompt outrage in Moscow. The decision by Ukraine’s electricity utility to renew a nuclear-fuel contract with U.S. firm Westinghouse, not Rosatom, prompted apocalyptic warnings from Moscow about impending nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s reactors.

In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, and signs of further destabilization in eastern Ukraine, there are signs that Europe might temper its appetite for Russian nuclear deals.

Government ministers in the Czech Republic this spring floated the idea of removing Rosatom from the bidding for the construction of a pair of new nuclear reactors there because of Moscow’s Ukraine invasion. Opposition parties in Hungary — worried over deepening energy ties with Russia, especially plans for a pair of Russian financed nuclear reactors — tried to oust Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who ultimately secured a landslide reelection win earlier this month. Public opinion in Finland turned against a proposed new nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, primarily due to Moscow’s involvement in the reactor.

The new push to oppose Russian nuclear deals on political grounds are dovetailing with other, broader concerns about nuclear power, from cost to safety. Bulgaria’s decision last year to scrap a Russian reactor was due to both political divisions and rising costs.

"Now many European countries see a political dimension to the choice, because of Crimea," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. The question facing many European countries now, he said, is: "How do we associate ourselves more clearly with the West? We need to do this for our security, so how do we reduce our ties with the Russians?"

Sokolski noted that the Ukraine crisis, the prospect of tougher Western sanctions on Russia, and the suspension of civilian nuclear cooperation with the United States could soon make it tougher for Rosatom to close deals. That’s because Rosatom has used generous financing and the ability to point to safety work with topflight U.S. regulators to hawk its technology. Sanctions could imperil Rosatom’s ability to offer juicy financing, one of its biggest selling points.

Rosatom declined requests to comment.

So far, Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine has not derailed its nuclear ambitions, in Europe or anywhere else. Just this week, Fennovoima, the consortium building Finland’s new reactor, reaffirmed plans to go ahead with Rosatom now holding a 34 percent stake.

"We do not see that current political events around Ukraine and Crimea should influence the progress of our project," a spokesperson told Foreign Policy. "Fennovoima is in the business of constructing sustainable electricity generation in Finland; it is a commercially driven investment and not involved in politics."

Finnish government officials stressed that the nuclear deal is a commercial transaction, not a government decision; only if Europe-wide sanctions were to be implemented on Russian firms would plans for that new reactor likely change.

With parliamentary elections out of the way, Hungary is also doubling down on its nuclear bet with Russia, thanks in large part to $13.7 billion in financing provided by Moscow. Hungarian officials said that there has been no discussion about backing out of the nuclear deal, though any future economic sanctions could change that.

Russia still hopes to build a new reactor in Slovakia, though the economics there are problematic in the absence of Slovak government guarantees, and plans for a Russian reactor in Turkey are still going ahead as before. Further afield, Rosatom’s expansion into Asia is also picking up steam, with the company exploring prospective deals in India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. This week, top Vietnamese and Russian leaders met, and Hanoi reaffirmed the strategic importance of its relationship with Moscow, including nuclear-energy development.

The one nuclear casualty this spring — the sudden cancellation in the Czech Republic of plans to build a pair of new nuclear reactors — was officially chalked up to lousy economics by the state-owned utility in charge of the project, not a revival of Cold War politics; low wholesale power prices and the lack of financial guarantees ostensibly made the expensive nuclear project untenable.

Still, some Czech government ministers hinted that politics may have indeed played a part in the cancellation and said that the nuclear expansion could be restarted if there were more bidders than just Toshiba’s Westinghouse and Russia’s Rosatom. Nevertheless, the Czech ambassador at large for energy security, Vaclav Bartuska, told FP that the cancellation had nothing to do with Russia’s behavior or concerns of deepening ties with Moscow.

"The answer is very simple: no," he said, adding that Toshiba’s Westinghouse scored higher in preliminary rankings than Rosatom in any event.

There are several explanations for the difference in European reactions to natural gas dependency and nuclear dependency. For starters, gas is a fuel, not a massive energy complex that can operate for a half-century. The huge investments, infrastructure requirements, and long-term nature of nuclear projects mitigate against decisions being made on a whim; many of the European projects have been in the works for years, if not decades.

At the same time, many countries that are pressing ahead with nuclear deals with Rosatom have political leaderships that are more pro-Russian than the rest of the European Union, notes Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based nuclear policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That includes Slovakia and Hungary, though far-right parties throughout Europe are also increasingly sympathetic to Vladimir Putin.

The battle for new nuclear business is one way that the United States and the West could, theoretically, push back against Moscow’s state-dominated energy diplomacy. Senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have talked up the prospects of using U.S. natural-gas exports to undercut Russia’s dominance in that market. Others mull flooding the oil market to bring down crude oil prices to inflict economic pain on Moscow.

These days, the nuclear option is gaining currency, even though it would be far from a short-term fix. Barbara Judge, a former senior British atomic official, has called for European countries to make it easier for Western firms to build nuclear power plants, as a way to blunt Russia’s advantage in both gas and uranium.

But U.S. firms, in particular, have a tougher time competing in the international market than many of their foreign rivals. The United States has legal restrictions on civilian nuclear deals, such as on fuel enrichment, that industry officials say sometimes makes it tough to do business overseas.

And the U.S. government provides nowhere near the financial support for the nuclear export business that other countries, especially Russia, do. The small amount of American aid available through the Export-Import Bank is in danger of evaporating this year; the Ex-Im Bank charter could expire and is the subject of a fierce political fight in Washington. Removing some of those barriers would help the industry take advantage of any European reluctance, no matter how small, to do business with Russia’s nuclear industry now.

"We could really change the game, especially right now — this is a huge opportunity for us," said Ted Jones, director of supplier international relations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

As attractive as the nuclear quiver may be in the Western arsenal against Russia, the lack of any coordinated government strategy to promote nuclear power overseas makes that difficult, said the American Security Project’s Andrew Holland.

"The Russians are playing a completely different game than we are. They’re playing a geopolitics game, while we think it’s all laissez-faire, free-market, open competition," he said.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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