The UK Is Fighting Putin's Nuclear Racket
The UK is breaking its reliance on Russian nuclear fuel.
One of Putin’s most potent weapons in his quest to invade Ukraine wasn’t an aeroplane, tank, missile or special ops soldier. It was Russia’s state-owned energy racket over the Western world. You see, ever since the USSR fell apart, Europe and the US have happily bought vast quantities of cheap Russian energy, and over the decades, they become addicted and reliant on it. So, all Putin had to do to stifle Western support of the Ukrainian resistance was threaten to cut this flow of energy; at least, that was the plan. However, this scheme wasn’t just restricted to Russian gas and oil exports, which Europe and the US have now largely replaced, but extended to Russia’s nuclear fuel industry, which is far more complex for the West to replace. Luckily, the UK has put a plan into action to undermine Putin’s nuclear racket over them, but is it too little, too late?
You might be shocked at how heavily we rely on Russian nuclear fuel.
Firstly, you must understand that nuclear fuel isn’t just straight-up uranium; it must be enriched. This process removes certain isotopes of uranium, effectively upping the ratio of U235 in the fuel. U235 is the isotope that undergoes nuclear fission, the process that creates nuclear energy. Isolating isotopes like this is near impossible, and the machines capable of doing it correctly are eye-waveringly expensive and take years and years to build.
Uranium is mined worldwide, but Russia currently has 43% of the world’s enrichment services. It got this way because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. You see, the Soviets were nuclear mad and built way more enrichment services than they needed in order to build a USA-rivalling nuclear arsenal. But once it collapsed, these plants were open to trade with the West, and due to lower wages in newly created Russia and other economic factors, these enrichment plants were far cheaper to run than those we had built. As such, over the decades, we closed ours down or simply adopted Russian services, as expanding our domestic capacity is arduous and expensive, and we became reliant on Putin’s cheap nuclear assets.
This has led to our current sorry state of affairs. 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 monthly 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. There are no sources on what percentage of UK nuclear fuel comes from Russia. However, it is likely to be at the same level as the EU, as officials have admitted their reliability on Russian fuel is worrying.
In the light of the Ukraine War, this reliance is troubling. Not only because Putin can use it to blackmail the West into ceasing its support for Ukraine, but because all the profits from this industry are shuttled back to the Kremlin (as it is state-owned) and, therefore, directly funds Putin’s war machine.
France, being primarily powered by nuclear energy, was the first to realise this gargantuan cock-up, and the first to take action against it. Orano, a mostly state-owned French nuclear company, has already approved a €1.7 billion expansion of its enrichment services to increase capacity by 30% with the express purpose of reducing France’s dependency on Russia. This is just about expansion enough to wean France off Putin’s nuclear gold, but this new capacity won’t be up and running until 2028!
Now, the UK is following France’s lead. It has announced a £300 million cash injection to expand its own enrichment capacity. Moreover, the nuclear fuel it will make is unique, known as High-Assay Low-Enrichment (HALEU) fuel. While HALEU fuel can still be used in regular nuclear reactors, more advanced modern reactors, like SMRs and fast reactors, will only run on HALEU fuel, as it has a far higher concentration of U235 than traditional nuclear fuel, which these designs require. This matters because the UK is looking to dramatically expand its fleet of advanced reactors, and until recently, you could only get HALEU fuel from Russia!
This means that the UK will be the first European country to produce advanced nuclear fuel.
HALEU also has many other benefits over regular nuclear fuel, such as having longer times between refuelling, reducing levels of nuclear waste, and producing cleaner waste.
However, like France’s push, this isn’t an instant solution; these enrichment sites won’t start producing fuel until sometime in the 2030s. What’s more, the total cost of this project (further funding rounds are expected down the line), or how much fuel it will actually end up making per year, is still unknown. In other words, the UK will be reliant on Putin for now, and if production levels of HALEU fuel aren’t high enough once this project is completed, it could be for the foreseeable future.
But even if this project doesn’t meet the UK’s HALEU demand, it’s still a giant leap forward. You see, at COP28, the UK was one of over 20 countries, including the United States, France and South Korea, that recently signed a pledge to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050 as part of their efforts to cut carbon emissions. It’s not surprising why they signed onto this, as nuclear has one of the lowest carbon emissions of any energy source, at around 4g of carbon dioxide per kWh of energy, and despite what you might think, one of the lowest death rates of any energy source, at 90 deaths per 1,000 TWhrs (that’s over 11 times lower than coal). This HALEU enrichment push is a baby step towards reaching this monumental pledge that can have a vast impact on our efforts to save the planet, whilst also scuppering Putin’s influence on us.
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