The massive humanitarian crisis created by Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine may continue to radiate out unpredictably as Russia’s central role in global nuclear security and energy becomes a major casualty of the war.

So far, there are two clear categories of Russian nuclear transgression.

The nuclear weapons saber rattling in the conflict from the Russian president and his closest advisors is indefensible and extremely dangerous. It is forcing the U.S. and allies to make contingency plans for how to respond to this scenario. Simulations show how quickly any nuclear weapon use can escalate to all out nuclear war.  

The unprecedented attacks by Russian forces against civil nuclear sites have significantly undermined Russia’s global nuclear security credentials and authority. Russian forces have attacked an operating nuclear power complex, the highly radioactive Chernobyl reactor site, and the Kharkiv nuclear research center.

The fallout from these actions has significant implications in five key areas.

Nuclear Power Expansion

The recoil against the Russian invasion and the sanctions that have been imposed on its economic life blood in the energy sector are causing its major clients in Europe to rapidly pull back from their dependence on its oil, gas, and coal.

It is leading countries like Belgium and even Germany to rethink their previously planned nuclear power phaseouts. And it is prodding other European countries like Poland, Czech Republic, and the U.K. to accelerate their nuclear power deployment plans. In Asia, both Japan and South Korea are reversing their positions on nuclear expansion, and China has announced plans for a 150 reactor build-out.

The combination of the growing demand for reliable carbon-free energy and a decreased dependence on Russia’s fossil fuels is enhancing the appeal of nuclear power. Nuclear energy had already received a boost out of the 2021 COP 26 climate meeting in Glasgow as countries grappled with how to meet their carbon reduction goals. But its salience in the climate debate continues to expand and even silicon valley entrepreneurs see a future for it.

This expansion will shake up the current international system, in part, by increasing the pressure to ensure that the technologies are operated in a safe and secure manner. This is especially important in countries new to nuclear power. That will require adaptation, including more support from the International Atomic Energy Agency and deeper engagement from nuclear exporting nations and companies.

Nuclear Export

Russia is the world’s primary nuclear power exporter but that status may not last. Its reputation as a responsible nuclear supplier will be undermined by its transgressions in Ukraine. And its supply chain for the VVER reactors it sells abroad runs through Ukraine, including critical reactor castings.

Existing clients for Russian VVER’s include Turkey, Bangladesh, Belarus, India, Iran, China, and Egypt. Russia also is building several reactors on its territory. It is likely that financial sanctions and supply chain choke points will impact these projects.

Russia’s target markets in European Union countries including Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic withered away before the Ukraine invasion and a collaboration with Finland is now under review.

Democratic nation nuclear suppliers have not been able to compete with Russia in the export market, in part, because of the generous state financing Russia was able to offer to clients. That may now be ending as energy revenues and access to international capital shrivel. But to fill the opportunity void, democratic nations will need to quickly organize themselves to work in concert. If not, China may replace Russia, which puts another authoritarian nation in control of this century’s global nuclear market. That outcome must be avoided.

Nuclear Fuel Supply

Russia has the largest uranium enrichment capacity in the world and provides about 35% of the global requirement. Many reactors in many countries run on Russian-supplied nuclear fuel, including in the U.S. and Europe.

Despite the decision of the U.S. to end the importation of Russia’s fossil fuels, there has been no move by the U.S. or other nations to ban the import of Russian uranium or fuel in response to the Ukraine invasion. However, some support for a ban is emerging in the Congress, despite cautions. There is not any panic over the supply of fuel for existing reactors at the moment.

However, there is growing alarm about the ability to supply a higher-enriched fuel (HALEU) for the next generation of smaller, advanced reactors. These reactors are still in development and the U.S., at present, does not produce this fuel. But Russia does. The U.S. Department of Energy has determined that it will need 40 metric tons of the fuel by 2030. A small pilot project to produce 5 metric tons of HALEU in the U.S. is underway but Russia is still the primary source of the fuel. Other technical options are available to create the HALEU fuel but they are complex and unlikely to meet the target amount in time.

Should the U.S. decide to sanction the Russian civil nuclear sector and its primary company Rosatom, it will have significant impacts on U.S. nuclear operations and reactor development. It may require a significant government and private sector investment in the expansion of the uranium enrichment capability in the U.S. and Europe.

Reactor Component Testing

Uranium enrichment is not the only area where the U.S. and its allies are dependent on Russia. It operates a fast reactor that is used to test fuel, components, and sensors for the next generation of smaller nuclear reactors. The U.S. likely does not have any experiments in that reactor now, but the next-generation developers are considering it for future tests. One reason is that a similar test reactor proposed by the U.S. energy department has been denied funding by the Congress and no substitute exists.

If the U.S. wants to wean its nuclear industry and that of its allies off of dependence on Russian test facilities it will have to reconsider this funding decision. It certainly is not an inexpensive facility. But if reshoring critical industrial capability is a response to the Ukraine invasion, this facility will be a necessary element of civil nuclear expansion.

Nuclear Proliferation and Arms Control

The invasion of Ukraine and the Russian threat of nuclear weapons use on the battlefield has pushed U.S.-Russian relations to the breaking point. This has eliminated any chance for near-term cooperation on the reduction of nuclear weapons and the enhancement of global nuclear security. It also poses a deep threat to viability of the global nuclear governance architecture of which Russia and the U.S. have been central designers. Proposals have been put forth to try to salvage the situation from deteriorating further.

But an extremely challenging and lingering question will be whether the Russian invasion has demonstrated that the possession of nuclear arms is necessary protection from foreign nation attack and regime change. The jury is out on this question at the moment. But there is evidence that nations may absorb that lesson, particularly those in dangerous neighborhoods.

A breakout of nuclear weapons states would be extremely destabilizing and would gut the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But no nation will willingly suffer the inhuman destruction Russia is raining upon Ukraine. The global non-proliferation community will need to come to grips with these new realities and recognize that a suite of new solutions is desperately needed for this new realpolitik world.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security