The dominance of the Russian state-controlled supply chain for uranium and fuel threatens the future operation of many western reactors if international relations continue to deteriorate, an independent report into state of the nuclear industry worldwide shows.
Among the countries in the European Union that use Russian-made fuel assemblies in their reactors are Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Hungary. Slovakia gets half its electricity from Russian-designed reactors. Russia has also been cooperating for 30 years on fuel deals with the French giant EDF, which is currently trying to find alternative supplies.
This is just one of the issues raised by the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2022, the latest in a series of independent reality checks on nuclear energy and its dim prospects for growth. It casts a different light on the almost continuous, glowing hype put out by the industry and its supporters in the last year that talks of expansion and new breakthroughs in reactor design and deployment.
The statistics show the continued decline of the atom as a source of electric power, in counterpoint to the rapidly expansion of wind and solar industries.
In a detailed look at the claims of nuclear industry lobbyists that a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other hopefuls like nuclear fusion are just around the corner, the authors conclude that SMRs are years, possibly decades away from widespread operational use and will make no meaningful contribution to slowing climate change.
The report’s experts also takes a swipe at the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA), which they say distorts the figures of what is happening across the globe in the nuclear industry. They say the Vienna-based IAEA is disguising the decline by claiming 29 reactors are operational when in fact they are not producing any power—some not for a decade.
The report says the IAEA should have its role confined to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons from civilian nuclear power stations, and be stripped of its second brief of promoting the use of civilian nuclear power. The two are incompatible, according to the report’s panel of experts, because the possession of “peaceful” nuclear power is a necessary preliminary step to acquiring nuclear weapons. That puts the IAEA’s dual aims in conflict, the panel concludes.
“These reports are vital reality checks of the nuclear industry’s performance,” University of Antwerp energy expert Dr. Aviel Verbruggen said in the foreword to the report. “Every yearly report is a barrier against utopian fantasies and wishful thinking, a tool to connect with reality.”
This year’s headline statistic is that nuclear energy’s share of the world’s commercial gross electricity production dropped to 9.8% in 2021, its lowest in 40 years and the first time it has fallen below 10% since its decades of growth. Its peak was in 1996 at 17.5%.
In contrast wind and solar power continued to grow and for the first time generated more power than nuclear—10.2% of the world’s total.
Eight reactors were closed in 2021, three of them in Germany. But perhaps most interesting were the figures for the last two decades, from 2002 to 2021. In that time, there were nuclear 98 start-ups and 105 closures. Most tellingly, 50 of the start-ups were in China, which did not close any reactors and has another 21 under construction. Across the 33 countries in the rest of the world that have nuclear reactors, there has been a net decline of 57 units.
But it is the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia and the continued war that casts a long shadow over the nuclear industry. Apart from the danger of Ukraine’s operational reactors being in an active war zone, Russia is a major supplier to the international nuclear market both in building new reactors and supplying existing stations.
Russia is the major builder of nuclear power stations through its state-owned monopoly Rosatom, which is currently constructing 20 units worldwide, only three of them on its own soil. The remaining 17 include four each in China and India and three in Turkey.
While Russia is under heavy sanctions from the west in many industrial areas, including computers and weapons as well as oil and gas, the nuclear industry’s trade with Rosatom has remained untouched, the report says. This is because the nuclear supply chain in various western countries is heavily dependent on Russia for uranium, fuel, and waste removal.
For example, about half the natural uranium imported by the European Union in 2020 was purchased from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, the last two former members of the Soviet Union and still heavily under its influence.
Perhaps the most difficult issue is keeping reactors going with Russian supplied fuel.
Five days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and one day after the European Union closed its airspace to all Russian aircrafts, the Slovakian Government provided a special permission to a Russian plane to fly fresh nuclear fuel assemblies into the country. Slovakia operates six Russian-designed VVER reactors that, in 2021, generated more than half of its electricity. Two additional units, under construction at Mochovce since 1985, are expected to start up soon, with Russian fuel.
“The European Parliament has explicitly called for the inclusion of the nuclear sector in sanctions against Russia,” the report states. “Do these commercial interdependencies explain why the call was not followed-up?”