The U.S. and its European allies are importing vast amounts of nuclear fuel and compounds from Russia, providing Moscow with hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed revenue as it wages war on Ukraine.
The sales, which are legal and unsanctioned, have raised alarms from nonproliferation experts and elected officials who say the imports are helping to bankroll the development of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal and are complicating efforts to curtail Russia’s war-making abilities.
The dependence on Russian nuclear products — used mostly to fuel civilian reactors — leaves the U.S. and its allies open to energy shortages if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to cut off supplies. The challenge is likely to grow more intense as those nations seek to boost production of emissions-free electricity to combat climate change.
“We have to give money to the people who make weapons? That’s absurd,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “If there isn’t a clear rule that prevents nuclear power providers from importing fuel from Russia — and it’s cheaper to get it from there — why wouldn’t they do it?”
Russia sold about $1.7 billion in nuclear products to firms in the U.S. and Europe, according to trade data and experts. The purchases occurred as the West has leveled stiff sanctions on Moscow over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, blocking imports of such Russian staples as oil, gas, vodka and caviar.
The West has been reluctant to target Russia’s nuclear exports, however, because they play key roles in keeping reactors humming. Russia supplied the U.S. nuclear industry with about 12% of its uranium last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Europe reported getting about 17% of its uranium in 2022 from Russia.
Reliance on nuclear power is expected to grow as nations embrace alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants produce no emissions, though experts warn that nuclear energy comes with the risk of reactor meltdowns and the challenge of how to safely store radioactive waste. There are about 60 reactors under construction around the world — 300 more are in the planning stages.
Many of the 30 countries generating nuclear energy in some 440 plants are importing radioactive materials from Russia’s state-owned energy corporation Rosatom and its subsidiaries. Rosatom leads the world in uranium enrichment, and it is ranked third in uranium production and fuel fabrication, according to its 2022 annual report.
Rosatom, which says it is building 33 new reactors in 10 counties, and its subsidiaries exported around $2.2 billion worth of nuclear energy-related goods and materials last year, according to trade data analyzed by the Royal United Service Institute, a London think tank. The institute said that figure is likely much larger because it is difficult to track such exports.
Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachyov told the Russian newspaper Izvestia the company's foreign business should total $200 billion over the next decade. That lucrative civilian business provides critical funds for Rosatom's other major responsibility: designing and producing Russia's atomic arsenal, experts say.
Ukrainian officials have pleaded with world leaders to sanction Rosatom to cut off one of Moscow’s last significant funding streams and to punish Putin for launching the invasion.
Nuclear energy advocates say the U.S. and some European countries would face difficulty in cutting off imports of Russian nuclear products. The U.S. nuclear energy industry, which largely outsources its fuel, produces about 20% of U.S. electricity.
The reasons for reliance on Russia go back decades. The U.S. uranium industry took a beating following a 1993 nonproliferation deal that resulted in the importation of inexpensive weapons-grade uranium from Russia, experts say. The downturn accelerated after a worldwide drop in demand for nuclear fuel following the 2011 meltdown of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
American nuclear plants purchased 5% of their uranium from domestic suppliers in 2021, the last year for which official U.S. production data are available, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The largest source of uranium for such plants was Kazakhstan, which contributed about 35% of the supply. A close Russian ally, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium.
Europe is in a bind largely because it has 19 Russian-designed reactors in five countries that are fully dependent on Russian nuclear fuel. France also has a long history of relying on Russian-enriched uranium. In a report published in March, Greenpeace, citing the United Nations’ Comtrade database, showed that French imports of enriched uranium from Russia increased from 110 tons in 2021 to 312 tons in 2022.
Some European nations are taking steps to wean themselves off Russian uranium. Early in the Ukraine conflict, Sweden refused to purchase Russian nuclear fuel. Finland, which relies on Russian power at two out of its five reactors, scrapped a trouble-ridden deal with Rosatom to build a new nuclear power plant.
Despite the challenges, experts believe political pressure and questions about Russia’s ability to cut off supplies will eventually spur much of Europe to abandon Rosatom.
“Based on apparent prospects [of diversification of fuel supplies], it would be fair to say that Rosatom has lost the European market,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense.