- The Writer holds an MSc in Eurasian Political Economy & Energy from King’s College London and also an MA in European Studies from Sabancı University.
Russia, having gleaned over half a century of experience in nuclear energy since its first power plant in 1954, is moving steadily forward placing heavy emphasis on nuclear development. In addition to meeting Russia’s ever-increasing electricity demand and facilitating economic growth, its traditional focus on fossil fuels production has shifted towards nuclear goods and service exportation. Contrary to perceptions, nuclear technology investment and innovation for partnering up with countries that want to join the nuclear power club has increasingly overtaken Russia’s historic aim to deploy conventional fossil fuels. The current investment trajectory suggests that this growth trend already achieved in nuclear is here to stay for many years.
As of 2016, Russia’s total assets in nuclear goods and service exports reached US$133 billion. Currently Russia has 35 nuclear power reactors in operation, with a total capacity of 27,000 megawatt electric (MWe). It is estimated that Russia plans to build well over 15 more reactors from 2030 onwards to have a minimum of 50. A capacity increase and greater investment in nuclear energy would not only modernize Russia’s economy over the long term but would also allow spare capacity for export instead of natural gas as nuclear gradually takes over domestic electricity generation.
The answer as to why Russia is actively choosing to heavily invest in nuclear energy when it has vast hydrocarbons lies in its political and environmental motivation, in combination with the technical and cost advantages.
Firstly, when compared with other fossil fuel sources, nuclear energy provides more independent electricity generation. Despite the high risks of radioactive leakage and fear of accidents, nuclear energy helps to generate clean electricity that is almost emissions-free. Unlike fossil-fuel power such as natural gas, the fuel costs of nuclear power generation account for 20 percent of total costs with an expected service life of 50 years, compared to 80 percent for natural gas.
Russia has a vast nuclear skills heritage ranging from decommissioning to power plant design to uranium mining. All these advantages serve Russia’s nuclear energy growth plans well and explain the strong motive for further investment.
To increase the share of Russia’s nuclear exports on international markets and to develop new products and reduce lead-time, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in 2007 for the restructuring of nuclear energy and the country’s industrial sector to create a single and vertically-integrated company. The company Atomenergoprom was founded through this decree and was designated the task of consolidating Russia’s civilian nuclear industry with a particular emphasis on nuclear power engineering.
Although Russia frequently appears in the news for its gas pipeline geopolitics, it has become more intent on strengthening its hand in nuclear energy, particularly in the MENA region. State-controlled nuclear energy giant Rosatom has signed a significant number of nuclear energy cooperation agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Despite the region’s instability and it rising role as a supplier and user of natural gas and renewable energy, Russia’s nuclear reactor construction cannot merely be explained by its diplomatic maneuvers in the region. This action is more a consolidation of regional power by improving the institutional capacity of nuclear energy as well as living up to the task of responding to the ever-pressing energy needs that the region has been lacking.
Russia is not only involved in the MENA region with a number of nuclear projects, its presence in India, Thailand and Indonesia also supports the theory that Russia is aggressively progressing towards achieving its target set in its Energy Strategy document in November 2009. The document sets out Russia’s energy policy priorities up to 2030 with particular emphasis on sustainable development, energy efficiency, technological development and lastly, modernization of the energy sector through the expansion of a better-managed energy mix. The policy strongly stresses that the share of nuclear energy in the energy mix should increase substantially, reaching a 23 percent share of overall electricity generation in 2020, and 25 percent in 2030.
Mini floating nuclear power plants designed to serve places that are geographically difficult to reach have become popular in recent years.
South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia have shown a great interest in signing a protocol with Rosatom to purchase floating nuclear power plants. The most recent agreement signed with Turkey on a build-own-operate (BOO) basis, became the first of its kind in a foreign power plant for the construction of Turkey’s first Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
Russia’s growing presence in nuclear power plant exportation in recent years has reflected its aim to create a nuclear renaissance based on its comparative advantage. With Russia’ well-established uranium enrichment capacity and fuel-reprocessing industry, its half a century of experience in designing reactors and in nuclear construction, favorably supported by public opinion, has seen it gain the upper hand in enhancing its nuclear energy export capacity abroad.
Oil and gas might remain Russia’s most important export products for many years to come, which it avails of every opportunity to expand, however, given Russia’s comparative advantages in the field of nuclear energy and the recent improvements in the field of regulation and R&D, Russia is determined to obtain a greater share of nuclear power plants exports.
- Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy.