The West Wants to Cut Off Russian Oil and Gas. It Still Needs Moscow’s Nuclear Tech

Russia’s war in Ukraine has not just created a crisis surrounding countries forced to wean themselves from dependence on Russian oil and natural gas.

The war has forced nations to begin important conversations about nuclear energy as well. Russia is a key player in the global supply chains of nuclear reactor technology. At this stage, nuclear power is a necessary part of the move away from fossil fuels in general.

This fact was given greater clarity in a new paper published this week by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

In the world, there were a total of 439 nuclear reactors in operation at the end of 2021. Out of that total, 38 of them were found in Russia and there are 42 more that were made with Russian nuclear reactor technology.

Fifteen more reactors were in the process of being built with Russian technology at the end of 2021. That means almost one-fourth of all the nuclear reactors in the world right now have a connection to Russia.

So if the world continues to attempt to separate itself from Moscow, it will need to figure out how to reduce or eliminate the dependence on Russia’s nuclear supply chain.

For those countries that have not yet built a nuclear reactor, they will need to look to other countries like China, Korea, France, and the United States for other options, according to the paper released by Columbia University. 

Countries that already have nuclear reactors made with Russian technology, VVERS, are used to looking to Russia for repair parts and services.

VVER stands for “water-water energy reactor,” or in Russian, “vodo-vodyanoi enyergeticheskiy reaktor.” These countries now will have to seek help from companies such as Westinghouse, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania. 

But repairs are only part of the future problem. Nuclear fission reactors are operated by fuel, which is enriched uranium. Other countries will now have to increase the uranium that they mine to compensate for the amount of uranium that is mined in Russia.

Uranium supply

But the problems keep coming. Uranium does not move from the mine right into a nuclear reactor. It has to be sent through a conversion and enrichment process before it can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors. And Russia is a major player in this process worldwide. 

Russia owned 40% of the total uranium conversion infrastructure in the world in 2020. And they hold 46% of the total uranium enrichment capacity in the world, according to the report.  

What this means is that the United States and other allied nations are going to have to focus significant attention on building the infrastructure to meet the world’s new needs. 

This report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy was written by Paul Dabbar, a former secretary of Energy for Science at the Department of Energy. It was co-written by Matthew Bowen, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Some of the nations that will need to work with the United States on uranium conversion and enrichment are Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

No one is certain yet that these countries working together will be able to replace the conversion and enrichment of uranium that has been done in the past by Russia.

Dabbar and Bowen write in their report, “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.”

Before private companies invest significant money to set this up, they need to be certain that Russian products will not be allowed back into national markets in the next year or two.

Dabbar and Bowen are suggesting that it would make sense for the United States to wean off Russian dependence for the long haul.