Nuclear Energy: The New Geopolitical Battleground

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Yves here. Energy hog advanced economies are trying to wean themselves from using Russia as a source of uranium. Amusingly, the county stepping in to fill the gap is China, the other nemesis of the West.

By Haley Zaremba, a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. Originally published at OilPrice

  • Russia’s nuclear energy sector continues to generate significant revenue despite sanctions on its fossil fuels.
  • Western nations are increasingly turning to China for nuclear energy supply chains, strengthening China’s economic and geopolitical power.
  • This transition is part of a broader trend of China’s growing influence in the global energy landscape.

While the west has had a considerable amount of success imposing energy sanctions on Russia in response to the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russian nuclear sector exports have proven harder to kick. But now, as more western nations get serious about cutting Russia out of their nuclear energy supply chains, they are pushing more and more economic and geopolitical power into the hands of China.

While it seemed impossible to wean Europe off of Russian oil and natural gas without devastating the economy and dangerously compromising European energy security, the European Union has had remarkable success cutting those ties thanks to a surge in renewable energy production and a very mild winter during the critical transition phase. But the potency of those efforts has been undermined by the continued global reliance on Russian nuclear energy supply chains.

Russian state-operated nuclear energy firm Rosatom has long been one of the primary exporters of nuclear fuel and uranium enrichment services around the world. European countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Bulgaria have increased their imports of Russian nuclear fuel in order to make up for Russian fossil fuels, meaning that they’re still providing significant funding to the Kremlin. The Belladonna think tank estimates that nuclear fuel exports earned over  $739 million for Moscow in the last year alone. Rostatom is also a major source of funding for the construction of new nuclear facilities on a global level. At present, nearly one in five nuclear power plants on the planet is either in Russia or is Russian-built.

But Russia’s influence in certain nuclear markets appears to be faltering as the nation’s ongoing war in Ukraine compromises its ability to deliver on its projects. Bulgaria has pleaded with the United States to help get out from under Russia’s nuclear thumb, and Hungary seems to be trying to get out as well Rosatom’s Paks II nuclear power plant in Hungary has been delayed and over budget since its earliest planning phases in 2014, but the setbacks have intensified in recent years as Europe’s stance toward the Kremlin and heightened security measures have complicated Russia’s ability to finalize the project.

As Russia continues to spin its wheels on Paks II, Hungary appears to be turning to China to continue its nuclear energy development. China’s President Xi Jinping will be making a stop in Budapest later this week, where he is expected to sign 16 agreements with the Hungarian government, including one which concerns “cooperation covering the entire portfolio of nuclear energy.” This would seem to include Paks II, signaling that Hungary is looking to cut Rosatom out of its nuclear industry.

This is not the first time that nuclear energy has been a ‘geopolitical flashpoint’ between Russia and China. The two economic giants have also been facing off for nuclear dominance in emerging economies, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the growth potential for a nuclear power industry is enormous and in dire need of funding to kick off the prohibitively expensive development phase of nuclear power plant planning and construction. But with Moscow’s attention and resources caught up in wartime chaos, China has a clear upper hand.

This potential transition of nuclear energy power and profit toward China is part of a much bigger trend in the global energy landscape. Beijing has been outspending the rest of the world on renewable energy and green infrastructure and manufacturing for years now. Beijing has placed itself at the nexus of global clean energy supply chains, becoming indispensable to growing clean energy sectors in developed nations in Europe and the Americas while simultaneously expanding its energy influence in emerging economies. Filling Russia’s shoes in the global nuclear energy industry is just one more step toward Beijing’s consolidation of power over global energy markets.

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16 comments

  1. Revenant

    This is a slightly mad article! What viewpoint is it pushing? Russia bad? China bad? Both bad? The only consistent stance is West good. This seems to be one part wishful thinking to one part projection and one part misdirection.

    – Who knows if Bulgaria has asked for US help? But with its existing reactors on Soviet designs, future help matters less than present help.
    – Portraying Hungary announcing Chinese cooperation as a slight on Russia is fanciful. It may just as well be a deepening of Hungary’s BRICS integration. And as the article quietly notes, the project’s difficulties are all created by the EU not Russia or Hungary.
    – repeating that Russia is distracted from its energy projects by Ukraine is laughable. I don’t think Russia civil nuclear engineers are being armed with shovels and sent to the front lines! Or even disassembling washing machines. Some may be keeping Zaporozhiya stable under Ukrainian bombardment but that’s not going to affect the pace of international civil projects.
    – subsaharan Africa is a big place, plenty big enough for Russia and China to source uranium. They both have access to Kazakhstan’s mines anyway! It’s the West’s access that is umperilled….

    Reply
    1. Piotr Berman

      The link about Paks is in Hungarian, which is not among my familiar languages. Few months ago RosAtom claimed that everything there goes OK. RosAtom runs a number of projects, the big ones are in Egypt and Bangladesh, and even China while the Turkish project is at latest stages, so I do not thing it lacks ability to complete Paks in Hungary, unless EU throws a monkey wrench. But forcing Hungary to replace Russia with China is bizarre. A sop for blocking their EVs?

      The largest misrepresentation in the article is that nuclear fuel is a substantial source of revenue for Russia. Under 1 billion, the sanctions on nuclear fuel have almost no impact on Russia, while creating headaches in the West. The cost of fuel is a small part of the cost of nuclear electricity.

      Reply
      1. AG

        The Hungarian text says not a word about RU, interestingly.

        It is clearly a piece to propagate economic cooperation. (Using instead of “Hungarian” the word “our”, as usual in Hungarian press, which however always irritates me. Not necessarily political independent reporting. But where is national press ever neutral.)

        The news that China would take over car manufacturing plants in Pécs, is described as false. Apparently there were news reports suggesting that China´s Great Wall Motors would operate their.

        Regarding Paks II there is no definite verdict. It only gives an optimistic outlook that according to Szijjartó China could step in due to China´s ability to produce all kinds of NPPs of US, French, Canadian, RU, Korean designs, respectively the entire non-Chinese technological array of engineerig is produced / can be produced by China herself. Adding that China is currently building 52 new NPPs in China.

        In case the Hungarians open China the way to Paks II, Paks II CEO Jákli suggested to create contact/engage into a partnership with one of the three major Chinese players who own the Chinese NPP market. Reminding that building NPPs is a long process.

        Apparently the French company building British Hinkley Point C NPP (at Bridgewater) has brought in the Chinese to help as well.

        According to minister Szijjartó 2020 and 2023 China already was the biggest investor in Hungary.

        Xi was accompanied by some top members of his economics delegation.
        Besides the 16 deals 2 more are negotiated.

        Again: No word of Russia. Which, I would guess, is simply to keep a low profile towards European public and not offering them any appearance of argument within the CHIN/RU alliance. Which there probably just isn´t.

        What EU press will spin out of this is a different matter.

        Reply
      2. Kouros

        The text doesn’t say what the article implies it is saying. Work is going on and while there might be some cost increases, one should look at all nuclear reactor plants in EU to see how much over budget and over time they are…

        Reply
        1. Piotr Berman

          RosAtom deals are for complete package, so the only cost increases can be from environmental and regulatory side, forcing changes in the project. The author stresses more reasonable approach to nuclear energy in EU, but one may speculate that it will change. There is a fuel supply diversification directive, probably complicated, and warranty that is valid only with RosAtom fuel. Environmentally, this or last year the water level in Danube dropped so low that it was close to operating threshold of the plant, and just pumping from a deeper inlet would not solve the problem of overheating the river, 30 C can be to hot for Central-European fish. That may force changes in the cooling system.

          There is also somewhat crazy article suggesting competition between China and Russia for nuclear projects in Africa. First of all, such projects have to be created. Strangely, the project in South Africa flopped because of allegations of corruption, which, as described, would be a standard local content concessions, in this can, SA uranium, it could be that judges are pro-Western. This project would be huge, 8 big nuclear reactors. Seems that Bangladesh will have that much sooner… So currently, the only project that is actually planned in RosAtom in Rwanda. China has unusual approach to nuclear power, the government decided to expand it quickly, and they do it with all possible technologies, including Russian. So for a decade or two, Chinese nuclear sector will concentrate on internal needs, and they have enough avenues to invest in Africa.

          Reply
          1. CA

            Fourth generation nuclear power plants are gas-cooled:

            https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202312/1303124.shtml

            December 6, 2023

            World’s first 4G nuclear power plant enters commercial operation in E.China’s Shandong
            By Tao Mingyang

            The Shidaowan Nuclear Power Plant in Rongcheng, East China’s Shandong Province, which uses a high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactor (HTGR), entered commercial service on Wednesday following a 168-hour trial, according to the National Energy Administration (NEA)…

            https://english.news.cn/20240404/fd62d3c041d7421da8ffa6c4cead4f27/c.html

            April 4, 2024

            New-generation nuclear power plant begins heat supply in east China

            JINAN — The world’s first fourth-generation nuclear power plant, China’s Shidaowan high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) nuclear power plant, has begun to provide heat supply to residents of Rongcheng City, east China’s Shandong Province.

            It is the first time the nuclear power plant has provided heat supply to urban residents, marking another breakthrough in the comprehensive utilization of its nuclear energy, according to the power plant’s operator, Huaneng Shandong Shidaowan nuclear power Co., Ltd…

            Reply
            1. John k

              Afaik, first commercial htgr was built by general atomics in ft st Vrain, co, us. I worked on some refurbishing projects.
              I managed to visit inside the core of Germany’s pebble bed reactor, also gas (helium) cooled, during installation of the steam generators. Both reactors have since been shut down, ft st. vrain for economic reasons, I think the pebble bed for anti nuclear activities.

              Reply
    2. OIFVet

      It’s debatable how much of it is Bulgaria asking, and how much of it is the US insisting. In any case, a few days ago Bulgaria received the first shipment of Westinghouse fuel rods for one of its VVER 1000 reactors. Hopefully nothing goes ‘boom’ come refueling time.

      Bulgaria also plans to order two Westinghouse nuclear reactors, which the government insisted would be built for the bargain basement cost of €7 billion. Not for each, for both. It’s a bald-faced lie, but there doesn’t appear to be much of political opposition. It’s almost like an invisible hand is at work here…

      Reply
      1. Belle

        For something to go “Boom”, it would require an act of terrorism or significant malfunctions and neglect, or a major disaster. Nuclear plants do not normally explode, even in a non-nuclear fashion.

        Reply
        1. OIFVet

          It’s obviously a turn of phrase for effect. That’s because nuclear fuel must meet very strict specifications and non-OEM fuel can create potential dangers. I recall Ukraine trying US nuclear fuel and experiencing issues with compatibility.

          Reply
  2. CA

    https://english.news.cn/20240423/dd56cbe0c1ce4d4b9d4a7a6e0a04bb99/c.html

    April 23, 2024

    China’s nuclear power generation reaches 440,000 GWh in 2023

    BEIJING — Nuclear power generation on the Chinese mainland reached 440,000 gigawatt-hours in 2023, accounting for nearly 5 percent of total national electricity output, according to the China Atomic Energy Authority on Tuesday.

    This achievement is equivalent to saving 130 million tonnes of standard coal and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 350 million tonnes.

    As of the end of 2023, there were 55 operational nuclear power units and 36 approved or under-construction nuclear power units on the Chinese mainland, with a total installed capacity of 57 gigawatts and 44 gigawatts, respectively.

    China has established a self-reliant and comprehensive nuclear industry chain system, ensuring a secure and stable supply of nuclear fuel. With the ability to simultaneously construct multiple nuclear power units, China has also developed expertise in engineering, construction and operation, laying a solid foundation for the high-quality development of nuclear energy, the authority said.

    According to the World Association of Nuclear Operators comprehensive index (WANO), China’s nuclear power operation safety performance has continuously ranked among the world’s best for several years. In 2022 and 2023, 37 and 33 nuclear power units, respectively, achieved the maximum score in WANO’s comprehensive index.

    The world’s first fourth-generation high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, developed by China, has been put into commercial operation, with steady progress in the construction of small modular reactors and fast reactors…

    Reply
    1. Trees&Trunks

      Hope they invest heavily in protection too. US will attack these stations when they attack China.

      Reply
      1. Morincotto

        Just as they sure as hell will try to blow up the three gorges dam.

        Actually they’ll try to do that even without open war.

        Reply
      2. CA

        “Hope they invest heavily in protection too…”

        “Just as they sure as hell will try…”

        The comments are unfortunately belittling, showing no understanding of or respect for just how strong a determinedly peaceful China is.

        Reply
        1. Morincotto

          Well, it definitely wasn’t intended as such.

          It’s just that the US will try absolutely everything to destroy China, including through terrorism on an apocalyptic scale no matter how committed to peace China may be.

          In fact, the US would love, love, love an aggressive, militaristic China, it drives them up the wall that China is so frustratingly reasonable.

          Though to be fair, inside the US itself and Europe it hardly matters how China actually conducts it’s business, but it No doubt drivesthem crazy that Africa and the Arab World aswell as significant parts of Latin America stubornly refuse to see China as the bad guy the US is desperately trying to portray it as.

          But if they can’t bully,pressure or in any way trick China into doing something, anything that the US can pretend constitutes an act of war by China, then eventually the US WILL strike first.

          Since they, all blustering aside, probably do know how great the likelihood is that a conventional war will end in utter disaster for them and how little international support they’ll have when they are seen as having started the war for frivolous and selfish reasons, AND especially once they have to accept that their attempts at economic sabotage aren’t achieving what they hoped for either, then the logical (logic of criminal psychopaths, which the US Government and elites are) step would be to try and instigate some horrific catastrophes inside China.

          Catastrophes where Washington imagines that the american hand behind them will stay hidden while they’ll try to blame it all on some sort of malice or neglect on part of the government of China, or possibly on some minority that supposedly radicalized thanks to being oppressed.

          All part of the Washington Deep State playbook and it doesn’t matter how ludicrous the lies and smears are.

          Just saying that China absolutely should prepare for the worst.

          They should take careful and realistic account of their weak spots, of where their vulnerabilities are, including and especially against terrorist attacks, because the US is certainly working overtime to try and identify them and draw up plans to hit them hard.

          In any conflict the US certainly won’t fight a gentleman’s war as Russia for the longest time has done in Ukraine.

          The US doesn’t do “Spare civilians or civilian infrastructure as far as at all possible!!”, on the contrary.

          All the nations the US has chosen to be it’s enemies count a very well educated and industrious population as one of their biggest strengths, that’s what the US wants to eradicate.

          The only truly effective way to permanently keep a country from rising and rivaling you, however peacefully, permanently, is to kill the people that make it up.

          Full Spectrum Dominance in the end can only be achieved via genocide and
          to (attempted) genocide it must lead.

          Ideally via collapsing the other country’s society through neoliberal economic shock therapy leading to plummeting life expectations, despair and epidemics of substance abuse and suicide like in 90s Russia.

          But when that isn’t an option and if Washington feels desperate enough I’d definitely expect everything from mega scale terrorism against infrastructure (always with an eye on maximizing casualties and longterm damage) to biological warfare with targeted designer pathogens.

          Reply
        2. Morincotto

          It’s not China’s strength I worry about, only the possibility that it possibly might underestimate the absolute ruthlessness, inhuman maliciousness and fanatical determination of the Washington regime.

          Reply

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