This week, the Energy Transition Coalition, an alliance of Ukrainian environmental and climate organizations, appealed directly to President Biden to expand US sanctions to Russia’s nuclear energy sector. The US nuclear industry initially lobbied President Biden not to do so, but in recent days they have shifted their stance, at least publicly. We will say more soon about why expanding sanctions to Russia’s nuclear industry neither entails significant hardships on people in the US nor necessitates greater investment in domestic nuclear infrastructure. But today we focus on why NIRS stands in solidarity with our Ukrainian counterparts and we call on President Biden to sanction the Russian nuclear industry.
First of all, this war is horrendous and unacceptable, every bit as much so as the US’s “shock and awe” assault, invasion, and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The purpose of sanctions is to short-circuit Russia’s ability to finance its war on Ukraine, and to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically, to the maximum extent possible. As the Ukrainian coalition says in its letter:
“At this very moment it is important to impose tough sanctions against Russia, which will halt its ability to continue waging a brutal war on Ukraine and threaten international security.”
Just as it has done with fossil fuels, Russia has used its nuclear industry to exert political influence over other countries through dependence on its energy supplies and infrastructure. We shouldn’t continue sending our electricity dollars to finance Russia’s war on Ukraine anymore than we should be buying Russian fossil fuels for our cars and power plants.
In recent years, US nuclear power companies have begun purchasing more of their fuel from Rosatom and its affiliates in other Russia-allied countries (mainly Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan). US corporate purchases include uranium ore, as well as enriched uranium. As we will explain in a subsequent post, this is simply a matter of profit-seeking for US nuclear corporations. There is an abundance of uranium supply on the global market, and nuclear fuel manufacturing capacity is available, both domestically and among close allies like France.
The US also should not support Russia’s civilian nuclear industry because it is attacking nuclear sites in Ukraine. It is reckless in the extreme for Russia merely to wage its war in areas surrounding Ukraine’s nuclear sites. It has attacked towns nearby where nuclear workers undoubtedly live, potentially destroying their homes, forcing them to flee, and/or killing the very people needed to prevent a nuclear disaster. Errant bombs and missiles could hit the plants, or damage electricity transmission lines that provide power to operate the reactors and their safety and cooling systems. Diesel power generators on the sites only have a week’s worth of fuel, at most, and there is no reliable way to restock them. Russian supply lines have not even been able to deliver diesel fuel to their own military convoys throughout the invasion. In the fog of war, how much of a priority will Russia’s military make it to provide diesel to Zaporizhzhia’s backup generators when its military can’t advance without it?
But Russia has unconscionably gone even further. It has directly attacked three Ukrainian nuclear sites and occupied two of them, deliberately risking calamity. For decades, civilian nuclear safety regulators around the world have chosen to ignore the potential for nuclear power facilities to be targeted in warfare, despite well-known dangers and vulnerabilities. Yet this is the first time that operating nuclear power plants and radioactive waste facilities have been directly targeted and occupied in a military conflict. If the US does not directly and forcefully sanction Russia for these acts, we risk allowing this war to establish a new international norm, making nuclear power plants legitimate military targets.
Extending the sanctions to Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear conglomerate, also has a direct purpose: Rosatom is actually involved in the war on Ukraine. Its employees are now stationed at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to oversee the crews of Ukrainian workers who have been operating and maintaining the reactors and radioactive waste facilities, reportedly at gunpoint, for nearly two weeks.
The presence of Rosatom at Zaporizhzhia is of no nuclear safety benefit. In fact, it contributes to the risk of a disaster. Bringing in Rosatom managers who do not know the operational history of the reactors at Zaporizhzhia only increases the chances of something going wrong. It does not matter that the reactors in Ukraine are of Russian/Soviet designs to which Rosatom supplies fuel and parts. The reality of every operating nuclear power plant in the world is that, over time, they have all been modified from their original blueprints. For instance, on several occasions in the US, nuclear reactors have been found to have thousands of deviations from their originally-licensed designs, which were not properly updated in the reactors’ controlling document, the Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR). That can create problems even for a reactors’ experienced workforce, when valves and pipes are not where the FSAR says they should be. Rosatom employees do not have the working knowledge of Ukraine’s reactors that the Ukrainian workers, managers, and inspectors have.
Rosatom’s presence in occupying Zaporizhzhia and potentially other sites only increases the risk of operational errors that could cause a disaster. Especially because the Rosatom employees are now part of an occupying foreign military, there is very likely deep distrust between them and Ukrainian workers, which could lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and mistakes. In addition, the potential that Russia would use Rosatom nuclear experts to sabotage reactors should be unthinkable, but cannot now be ruled out given Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilians and its attacks on nuclear sites already.
As the Energy Transition Coalition says in its letter:
It is crystal clear that Russia is using its nuclear company as one of the tools in the ongoing war. … We call upon the U.S., the EU, governments of the EU member states and other countries cooperating with Russia in the use of nuclear energy to stop all cooperation with Rosatom and its subsidiaries, sanction the company as well as its leadership, as well as ban imports of Russian nuclear fuel.
For all of these reasons, NIRS joins our friends in Ukraine in calling on President Biden to extend sanctions to Russia’s nuclear industry.