Russian International Nuclear Energy Expansion

The accompanying infographic provides a visual representation of Russia's international nuclear energy expansion. It highlights existing memorandum of understandings or cooperation agreements, operational reactors, reactors under construction, and planned projects worldwide. This visual aid underscores the global reach of Russia's nuclear ambitions and partnerships in various regions.

Is Russia a Reliable Nuclear Partner?

In recent years, Russia's role as a significant player in the global nuclear energy sector has been scrutinized. Once considered a dependable partner in nuclear technology and services, the Ukrainian invasion and other geopolitical developments have raised questions about its reliability and long-term stability as a nuclear supplier.

Russia's ambition to expand its nuclear influence globally is evident in its robust nuclear portfolio. As of June 2024, Russia operates 36 nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of 26,802 MWe and has four additional reactors under construction, totaling another 3,702 MWe. This growth is set against a backdrop of political maneuvers that complicate its reputation as a reliable partner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visits to North Korea and Vietnam underscore the intricate web of Russia's geopolitical ambitions. These visits, described by the Kremlin as "friendly state visits," have sparked international concern. In North Korea, discussions reportedly included potential collaborations on security and energy, which the White House warned could signify a deepening relationship between two sanctioned states. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern over the possibility of Russia aiding North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, deepening concerns over non-proliferation commitments. Similarly, in Vietnam, Putin's visit highlighted Russia's intent to establish a "reliable security architecture" in the Asia-Pacific region. During this visit, Russia proposed assisting Vietnam in developing nuclear power plants, reigniting interest in nuclear energy that Vietnam had abandoned in 2016 due to financial constraints and safety concerns following the Fukushima disaster.

Russia's nuclear expertise is embodied by Rosatom, its state-owned nuclear corporation, which operates under the umbrella of Rosenergoatom. Established in 1992 and reconstituted as a utility in 2001, Rosenergoatom manages all of Russia's nuclear power plants. The VVER (Water-Water Energetic Reactor) series, including models like the VVER-440 and VVER-1000, form the backbone of Russia's nuclear reactor technology. These reactors have seen operational life extensions and upgrades, with some units expected to operate for up to 60 years.

Despite these advancements, Russia's involvement in international nuclear projects remains contentious. Prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia accounted for about half of all global nuclear agreements related to construction, reactor and fuel supply, decommissioning, and waste management. This dominance persists despite international sanctions, with Russia involved in over a third of the world's new reactor constructions, including projects in China, India, Iran, and Egypt.

Russia's dominance in the nuclear sector is partly due to its ability to offer comprehensive packages that include reactor construction, training, safety support, compliance with non-proliferation regimes, and flexible financing options. This "one-stop nuclear shop" approach, coupled with government-sourced credit lines and the capability to manage spent nuclear fuel, has made Russia an attractive, albeit controversial, partner.

However, the geopolitical climate has shifted dramatically. Rahm Emanuel, U.S. ambassador to Japan, recently remarked that Russia's actions signal its intention to become the principal supporter of rogue states that develop nuclear weapons and violate non-proliferation treaties. This stance, coupled with Russia's tight grip on the global nuclear fuel supply—controlling significant shares of uranium conversion and enrichment capacity—poses a strategic risk to countries dependent on its technology and resources.

Adding to the complexities is the U.S. ban on Russian uranium, which prohibits imports of unirradiated low-enriched uranium (LEU) and natural uranium produced in Russia. Given that Russia controls approximately 44% of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity and supplies about 35% of the U.S.'s nuclear fuel imports, this ban is significant. It aims to revive U.S. domestic nuclear fuel production and will reduce LEU imports by approximately 6,000 kilograms annually from 2024 to 2027, with exemptions to minimize industry burdens. The bill includes a waiver process allowing companies to apply for exemptions to prevent U.S. nuclear power industry disruptions. These waivers can be granted if no viable alternative source of LEU is available or if importation is within the national interest. This move aligns with broader efforts to diversify energy imports away from Russia and reduce dependency on Russian nuclear fuel, especially in light of Russia’s recent weaponization of energy.

As the West works to move away from dependency on Russian energy, Russia aims to strengthen its economy by increasing nuclear exports to Africa, where energy demand is rising amid rapid industrialization. African nations, facing challenges in energy security, grid stabilization, and infrastructure, are turning to nuclear power as a renewable energy source. However, reliance on Russian investment raises concerns about long-term dependence and potential vulnerabilities to disruptions. Rosatom recently announced nuclear energy cooperation agreements with Mali, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. These agreements build on Russia’s current construction efforts in Egypt, where Rosatom is constructing a fourth reactor at the El Dabaa nuclear power plant. This project, one of the biggest nuclear construction projects in the world, is being funded by a $25 billion loan from Russia, to be repaid over the next 22 years at an annual interest rate of 3%.

Russia's extensive experience and technological strengths in nuclear energy make it a formidable force in the sector. However, its recent geopolitical maneuvers and deepening alliances with sanctioned states raise serious questions about its reliability as a nuclear partner. As countries evaluate their nuclear energy strategies, balancing technological capabilities with geopolitical stability and adherence to international norms becomes increasingly critical. While Russia remains a key player, its future as a dependable nuclear partner is fraught with uncertainty, urging the global community to tread cautiously in their engagements with Russian nuclear entities.

Emily Day, Della Ratta Fellow, Partnership for Global Security