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As the Western nuclear industry flounders, Russia’s Rosatom is building nuclear power plants (NPPs) on time and under budget around the world, while selling uranium to the US, according to Professor Thane Gustafson. His article, on “The Devil’s Dance” substack blog, says Russia has world-beating nuclear power technology that is flourishing thanks to booming exports. The article, originally released in May, has now been reproduced in several other publications and a link provided on Gustafson’s Twitter page.

Gustafson is a professor of political science at Georgetown University, Washington DC, specialising in comparative politics and the political history of Russia and the former USSR. He is a former professor at Harvard, a former analyst for Rand Corporation and Senior Director of Russian and Caspian Energy for IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. He has published seven books on Russian affairs.

He notes that nuclear power in the West, which has been “in the doghouse” for 40 years, is now taking a second look at the technology in face of concerns about global warming. “There is a problem, though: after decades of neglect, the Western nuclear industry has lost much of its capability to build new NPPs or even (in the case of France) to maintain them, as skilled workers and experienced managers have left or retired,” he says. “In the US, no new NPPs have been commissioned in the past three decades (although one is due to start up soon, but fifteen years late). At this time of writing, none of the traditional leaders still active in civilian nuclear power is able to execute a nuclear project on time or even close to budget.”

By contrast, “The Russian nuclear industry stands out as a rare – indeed unique – case of a high-technology sector that has not only recovered from the end of the Soviet era and the chaos that followed, but has developed an effective export strategy that has allowed it to prosper today as never before.”

He contends that Russia’s nuclear industry is thriving, thanks mainly to its international business. He cites its success in exporting NPPs including a “full service” package that covers construction and operation, as well as the supply and reprocessing of nuclear fuel. “The Russian government actively supports Rosatom with low-interest financing. In short, Russian nuclear power is on a roll.” In addition, Rosatom exports enriched uranium to numerous countries, including the US and Europe and also provides services to five EU counties that operate Russian-built NPPs.

“Because of this dependence, Russia’s nuclear industry is not under Western sanctions …. Rosatom is able to operate without impediment, both at home and abroad; one of the few sectors in the Russian economy to be able to do so,” he notes. “For both the US and Europe the implications are serious. First, they will continue to depend on Russian enriched uranium for several years more, potentially weakening their common front on sanctions.”

He adds: “Secondly, and more fundamentally, neither the US nuclear industry nor its European counterparts, in their present decrepit state, is in any position to compete commercially with the Russians in the construction of new NPPs, whether at home or in the developing world. Russia should continue to hold a commanding position in nuclear power for some time to come.”

Gustafson points out that the US, in particular, relies on Russia for low-enrichment uranium for its own NPPs. “Although efforts are under way to develop substitutes, for the present Rosatom is simply too valuable to sanction.” [NEI: The EU is currently developing its 10th round of sanctions on Russia, which are expected to include Rosatom and the nuclear industry, although the US is not, as yet, considering such a move]

“But even if sanctions were to be imposed, Rosatom’s operations would be largely unaffected,” he states. “Internally, its supply chain, which … runs from uranium mining to power plant construction and operation, depends very little on the outside. As a direct descendant of the Soviet nuclear programme, it was designed from the beginning to be self-contained, with a minimum of reliance on imported designs and components. That remains the case today. Indeed, as Russia’s leading high-tech company, Rosatom is increasingly being given the mission of filling sanctions-related gaps in other Russian industries.”

Gustafson indicates that. Apart from sanctions Russia could face two other challenges – technological progress and possible competition from China. He notes that Western countries, to deal with the high costs and long approval times of large traditional power plants are encouraging the development of small modular reactors (SMR) which “could be one of the keys to tomorrow’s nuclear renaissance, especially in developing countries, Russia’s main market”.

However, he notes that “Russia would be well positioned” as “the only country in the world to operate nuclear-powered icebreakers and floating NPPs, both of which are powered by small reactors”. Russian experience in designing and building small reactors “goes back decades to the Soviet era, and there have been multiple generations of successively improved designs”. Rosatom is working on deploying them not only on nuclear icebreakers and floating platforms, but also on land. “A small NPP is already planned in Yakutia, in Russia’s Far East, and Rosatom has also signed an agreement with Kyrgyzstan to explore the deployment of small reactors there,” he says.

In contrast, “Western countries lag far behind in SMR development and deployment. The first SMRs will continue to be based on conventional light-water technology, but they are still far from deployment. For example, US-based NuScale just submitted to the NRC the Standard Design Approval application for its VOYGR SMR …. But the first units will be ready only by around 2030, according to company estimates, even assuming the absence of delays in regulatory approval and construction.”

The more proximate threat to Rosatom’s leading position is Beijing, he suggests. China has a vigorous nuclear programme, which is entirely independent of Russia. China ranks first in the world in the number of units under construction, and it is moving quickly toward next-generation designs. China’s first Gen IV reactor just reached full power last month. It uses a modular design, with each module having 100 MWe of output.” He adds that “neither Russia nor any Western country has anything similar at a comparably advanced stage of deployment”.

[NEI: He is referring to China’s HTR-PM high temperature gas cooled reactor. However, while China is certainly developing its own nuclear technology, Russia has played and continues to play, a key role in the development of its nuclear industry. China’s 600MWe fast neutron reactor is being developed with Russian assistance after Russia previously helped to build, and provides fuel for, its prototype Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor. Russia also helped to build China’s uranium enrichment plant at Hanzhun/Hanzhong, and has provided its VVER technology for units 1-4 at the Tianwan NPP as well as for units 7&8 under construction and units 3&4 under construction at the Xudabao NPP.]

Gustafson concludes: “Despite these risks, Rosatom and the Russian civilian nuclear industry look likely to retain their leading role for at least another decade. The challenges ahead are real, but they will come more from technological changes and rising competition from China, than from sanctions.”

Date: Thursday, 19 January 2023
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