How Russia's nuclear power dominance can be cut out of supply chains

Assuming it can.
Mert Erdemir
Two cooling towers on a winter day.Andrey Pruss/iStock

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led many countries to wean themselves from Russian energy. On the other hand, there is the fact that Russia is a significant energy supplier to the world, and this requires the West to free itself from its reliance on Russian energy.

A new paper published by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy details Russia's dominance in global supply chains and discusses ways to reduce the country's involvement in Western nuclear power markets.

In 2021, there were 439 nuclear reactors in service worldwide, and 38 of them were in Russia. Additionally, 42 were built utilizing Russian nuclear reactor technology, and 15 more were under development by Russian technology at the end of 2021. Therefore, considering the fact that Russia is a dominant player, reducing the dependence on Russian energy may be more challenging than thought.

How to reduce the reliance on Russia

According to the paper, the first solution for a country that decides to break away from Russia is to construct nuclear reactors. The U.S., France, Korea, and China are “viable” reactor suppliers.

The countries that already have Russian nuclear reactor models, VVERs, may get repair assistance from Westinghouse Electric Company, a U.S.-based company that is able to supply services to VVERs. By doing so, they can avoid the need for Russia to repair parts and services.

In terms of the fuel issue, Nuclear fission reactors are fueled with uranium, and Russia mines about six percent of the raw uranium annually, as per the report.

Russia also has a significant role in converting and enriching uranium since it cannot go directly from a mine into a nuclear reactor. According to the report, Russia owned 40 percent of the world's total uranium conversion infrastructure in 2020 and 46 percent of uranium enrichment capacity in 2018. Therefore, reducing dependence on Russia requires Western countries to realign their supply chain.

Despite its significant role in the uranium mining operations, Russia is not one of the leading miners of raw uranium, as shown in the report. Some allied countries such as Australia and Canada have more outstanding production and they could boost their uranium mining production to make up for any possible shortfall that might result from halting Russian uranium.

Additionally, in terms of uranium conversion and enrichment, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States are juxtaposed as the countries that have capabilities.

Government policies needed

"More investment in mining, conversion, and enrichment facilities may be necessary to fully extricate Western nuclear fuel chains from Russian involvement. However, adding sufficient new conversion capacity and enrichment capacity will take years to accomplish," wrote the authors of the report Paul Dabbar, a former undersecretary of Energy for Science at the Department of Energy, and Matthew Bowen, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

In any case, any private company's initiative to invest in uranium infrastructure is still up to the government's policy. For example, national rules that set a deadline for stopping Russian shipments would give a clear signal to private markets in the US and elsewhere. And so that any investor's worry about Russian uranium products being allowed back into national markets could be eliminated.

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