Power Plays: Developments in Russian Enriched Uranium Trade

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This report examines the trade in Russian enriched uranium.

This report examines the extent of Western (European and US) dependencies on Russian enriched uranium and identifies ways in which Rosatom may be continuing to access global, including Western, nuclear fuel supply chains, despite some efforts in the US and Europe to diversify away from Russian supply. The report studies changes in Russian enriched uranium trade patterns since the start of 2022 to identify possible indicators of efforts to adapt to restrictions on Russian uranium supply that have been or may be introduced by governments and companies.

The report examines four main case studies. In the first case study, the report outlines possible Chinese displacement activity using Russian material, identifying trade patterns that suggest that increased imports of Russian enriched uranium into China may be facilitating greater exports of Chinese enriched uranium supply, including to the US. The second case study addresses well-documented increases in enriched uranium imports from Russia to France and considers a range of possible explanations for this growth. While the precise flow and use of the additional Russian material that is being imported into France is difficult to ascertain definitively, it appears that France may be offering an outlet for Russian enriched uranium that is no longer welcome in other countries. This may be facilitating the reallocation of Russian supplies across European utilities’ supply chains, allowing Russia to continue accessing the European nuclear fuel market even as some countries seek to diversify away from Russian supply. The third case study examines reported deliveries through France and possibly the Netherlands of Russian enriched uranium to a French-owned fuel fabrication facility in Germany. The trade data reviewed for this report could not confirm the extent of deliveries to Germany of Russian material through third countries, or whether there have been shifts in such activity since the start of 2022; however, any such deliveries to Germany may be providing an additional option for Russian enriched uranium imports no longer welcome in other countries and may potentially be used in the future fabrication of VVER assemblies in Germany. The fourth case study touches on US dependencies on Russian enriched uranium and the likely limits of a proposed US ban on imports of Russian uranium in limiting Russia’s role in global nuclear fuel supply chains and Rosatom revenues.

Ultimately, the report demonstrates how Russia may be able to take advantage of incongruencies in sanctions or other restrictions, as well as persistent contractual dependencies and supply challenges, to maintain access to Western nuclear fuel supply chains and continue generating revenue through its enriched uranium exports. To improve effectiveness, any future sanctions or other bans aimed at limiting Russia’s presence in global nuclear fuel supply chains must be multilateral and accompanied by a concerted effort to increase Western and partner capacity across the supply chain, to successfully undercut dependence on Russian supply.

It is worth noting that most of the activities described in this report are entirely legal and likely represent logical efforts by companies to adapt to the changing trade and geopolitical landscape while continuing to meet whatever contractual obligations they may have for continued purchase and import of Russian material. As such, the report does not imply any violations of the laws of any relevant jurisdiction, or any international laws or sanctions. As described in more detail in Chapter II, the delivery to the US of enriched uranium that has been displaced by Russian supply, as may be the case with Chinese enriched uranium trade, may be in contravention of US regulation, unless assurances have been given to US authorities that such displacement is not taking place.

The practices described in this report raise questions over the extent of Western dependencies on Russian enriched uranium supply, the implications for Western energy security, the imbalance of vulnerability this may create between some Western governments and Moscow, and the effectiveness of efforts to cut Russia out of global, or even Western, nuclear supply chains. While the nuclear sector holds strategic significance for Moscow, it is not a major revenue source for Russia when compared to Russian trade in other commodities, such as oil and gas. However, as outlined in this report, Western reliance on Russian enriched uranium supply is proving challenging to shake, at least in the short term, and may create some difficulties for Western generation of nuclear energy, although experts disagree on the urgency and extent of potential challenges. The willingness, or necessity, of some Western countries to overlook Russian adaptations following efforts by other countries to limit Russian presence in Western nuclear fuel supply chains also points to a political and moral dissonance with stated US and European commitments to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.


WRITTEN BY

Darya Dolzikova​

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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