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France's Plan To Crush Russia's Nuclear Monopoly
This should worry Putin.
Nuclear energy is remarkable. It is incredibly efficient and can produce copious amounts of on-demand clean energy. As such, it is not only a vital part of modern energy infrastructure, but will play a key role in the net-zero energy grids of the future. However, it has one glaring problem: Russia. You see, Russia is a world leader in nuclear fuel exports, and as such, Putin can blackmail the West to get out of his way by threatening to increase prices or stop exports. What’s worse, Russia’s nuclear industry is entirely state-owned, so its vast profits fuel the Kremlin’s war machine currently obliterating Ukraine. But France has an answer to this problem and has just taken an enormous step forward.
As always, when we discuss nuclear power, we need to address the widespread misconceptions about this energy source. Firstly, nuclear energy has one of the lowest carbon footprints of any energy source at only 4 g per kWh! That is the same as wind power, yet nuclear energy is far more compatible with our current centralised energy grids than wind. Nuclear is also one of the safest forms of energy, with only 90 deaths per TWh produced, far lower than solar power at 440 per TWh and coal at 100,000 per TWh. These figures include the deaths from nuclear incidents like Chernobyl. It doesn’t include ‘indirect deaths’ from these incidents, like cancer deaths that have a correlation, but not a direct link, to radiation exposure from Chernobyl. But, even if these deaths are considered, nuclear is still safer than solar, gas or coal power. We have also solved the issue of nuclear waste storage, as upcoming fast reactors can recycle nuclear waste, and companies like Deep Isolation can now safely bury nuclear waste kilometres deep in geostable deposits.
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This is why the West has rapidly adopted nuclear power over the past decades, particularly for fossil-fuel-poor countries like France, which rely on nuclear power for 68% of its energy generation. But, while the West has rapidly expanded its nuclear power capacity, it has not expanded its uranium enrichment capacity. Enrichment is the process where natural uranium is processed to increase its ratio of an isotope known as uranium 235, so it can be used as nuclear fuel. Enrichment facilities are eye-waveringly expensive to build and run, as they are incredibly hazardous and complex work. But luckily for the West, the Soviet Union was nuclear-mad and built way more of these facilities than it needed. So, when the USSR collapsed, the West reduced its domestic enrichment and instead relied on cheaper Russian enriched uranium.
This is why, despite international safety concerns, Russia is now the world’s leading enriched uranium exporter, accounting for 43% of the world’s enriched uranium production. 20% of the nuclear fuel used in the US comes from Russia, and the US pays Rosatom (the state-owned Russian nuclear industry) $100 million per month for this fuel! In 2022, after sanctions on Russia, the EU still spent $720 million on Russian enriched uranium. That is 22% more than it spent in 2021, but the EU had to pay that price, as it has no other source of nuclear fuel to replace its Russian reliance. As France is one of the few countries that heavily rely on nuclear power for its energy, they are now the world’s biggest importer of Russian enriched uranium and as of 2021, 15% of its nuclear fuel came from Russia.
As I have stated, the Russian nuclear industry (Rosatom) is entirely state-owned by the Kremlin. This means the West’s nuclear sector is sending millions of dollars worth of funding straight to Putin’s war machine, which we are actively trying to scupper in Ukraine. Seems a bit counterproductive and two-faced, doesn’t it? But it is far more than a moral issue. This allows Putin to hold our energy grids to ransom by threatening to increase fuel prices, reduce their output capacity, or entirely cut off enriched uranium exports to the West. If he chose to do this, he could kneecap NATO’s ability to defend against Putin’s expansionist plans.
So, what’s the solution? Well, expand our domestic enrichment capacity! But that is easier said than done; this will cost an insane amount and take years to complete. Moreover, Russia is still happily exporting cheap enriched uranium, so there is currently no financial advantage to expanding domestic production. In fact, it is a massive risk, as it would amount to oversupply and potentially crash the market, potentially threatening the capacity we already have.
But the French nuclear company Orano has solved these problems, at least for France.
Last Thursday, Orano’s board approved a plan to spend €1.7 billion to increase its uranium enrichment capacity by 30% with the express purpose of reducing France’s dependency on Russia. This is 17% short of their previous plan to replace Russian uranium by expanding their capacity by 47%, but it is still a significant step forward. If there was any doubt as to why this increase was approved, Claude Imauven, Orano’s board of directors chairman, said in a statement, “In the current geopolitical context, the purpose of this increase in enrichment capacities is to strengthen Western energy sovereignty in France.”
But, is this expansion enough to replace Russian uranium enrichment?
France currently consumes 8.23 million kg of nuclear fuel annually, and Russia accounts for 1.23 million kg of that. Orano’s plant currently operates at 7.5 million SWU, equating to roughly 4.5 million kg of enriched uranium produced annually. A 30% increase in capacity would equate to an extra 1.35 million kg of enriched uranium annually. As such, this planned expansion can sever France’s dependency on Russian enriched uranium!
As for the market issues around this expansion, France only exports a little enriched uranium to foreign reactors that it doesn’t own or operate (for example, EDF nuclear plants in Britain). What’s more, Orano and all other French nuclear companies are partially state-owned. This means Orano is operating in an isolated market with government support; as such, replacing Russian fuel should have no ill effect on the French nuclear industry.
However, there is one problem that Orano can’t solve: Time. This expansion will take until 2028 to complete, meaning that until then, France has to continue to pay for dodgy Russian nuclear fuel.
But, at least France is taking a proactive stance to regain their nuclear industry’s sovereignty and security. Other Western countries have given lip service to expanding domestic enrichment, but are still years off implementing these projects. If they don’t hurry up and follow France’s example, and the war in Ukraine continues for years more (which it seems set to), then they risk undermining and losing their nuclear industry, as they won’t be able to move fast enough to react if Putin decides to use their nuclear advantage as a political weapon. This will significantly set climate progress in the West, as nuclear power is crucial for our transition to net-zero. So, let’s hope the rest of the world is watching France’s example.
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