Sanctions to stunt Russia's nuclear industry

21 August 2014

Russia is currently a major player in Europe’s nuclear industry

The imposing of sanctions on Russia by the EU and the US may increase the focus of Moscow’s nuclear industry on the Middle East and North Africa.

While the current sanctions placed on Moscow do not affect the trade of raw or enriched uranium, future additional sanctions may have a significant impact on the export of Russian nuclear fuel and services to Europe and the US.

Russia is currently a major player in Europe’s nuclear industry, supplying about 20 per cent of the uranium required to fuel atomic power stations. In addition, Russia enriches about 30 per cent of the fuel used by EU nuclear power plants. Moscow also supplies up to 15 per cent of uranium used by nuclear power operators in the US.

Moreover, any future sanctions may prevent Russia from competing for work to build any new nuclear power plants in the West. There are currently 18 Russian nuclear reactors in Europe, with two in Finland and the rest split between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria.

If relations between the West and Russia continue to deteriorate and nuclear exports are affected, Russia’s significant nuclear industry may seek to compensate this by bolstering its position in the Middle East’s emerging atomic energy market.

Russia has already been quick to establish itself in the region’s atomic energy sector. Russian nuclear contractors built and commissioned in September 2013 Iran’s controversial maiden nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and in November Russia’s Atomstroyexport was selected as preferred bidder to build Jordan’s first nuclear reactor.

Moscow is also set to provide fuel for the GCC’s first nuclear programme, with Russian firm Tenex having signed agreement with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) to provide supply uranium concentrates, conversion services and enrichment services for Abu Dhabi’s Barka nuclear project, currently under construction.

The political tensions with the West may also strengthen Russia’s resolve to win work on Egypt’s planned nuclear programme. The newly elected Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Moscow in mid-August included discussions with Russian president Vladimir Putin over nuclear cooperation between the two countries, and may have opened the door for Russian involvement in Egypt’s much-delayed first proposed plant at El-Dabaa.

The region’s largest planned nuclear programme in Saudi Arabia will provide a more difficult proposition for Moscow. Although no firm agreement has been signed, the kingdom has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the US for a technology sharing agreement, and Russia’s political relations with Iran and Syria are likely to further reduce the likelihood of it playing any part in the kingdom’s ambitious nuclear plans. The growing strength of South Korean companies in the kingdom’s development will also put Seoul in a strong position to win work on Riyadh’s ambitious nuclear programme. South Korea is also building the UAE’s four nuclear reactors.

While Russia’s nuclear industry has not yet been directly impacted by the sanctions, further embargoes may result in Moscow increasing efforts on expanding into the Middle East’s emerging market. In addition to the economic incentives, the Middle East’s nuclear sector would offer an opportunity for the Kremlin to win symbolic political and strategic battles reminiscent of the Cold War era. 

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