One could be forgiven for thinking that the global nuclear industry is facing a meltdown.
The industry was rocked by the collapse of Toshiba’s US nuclear giant Westinghouse last year, which has raised questions about Europe’s largest new nuclear plant at Moorside in Cumbria.
A bailout deal fr om Korean utility giant Kepco to buy the development faltered over the summer, raising concerns about the cost and risk of the project.
Meanwhile the French state-owned nuclear giant EDF, still wounded by the rescue efforts of Areva, heads back to the drawing board with UK Government officials to patch together a new financing framework for follow-up projects to the widely criticised Hinkley Point C nuclear deal.
But amid the financial fallout of the West’s attempts at a new nuclear dawn, Russia is quietly building an army of nuclear reactors across the world in an increasingly important power play for a country that has traditionally been powered by fossil fuels.
Kirill Komarov, the first deputy chief executive of Russia’s Rosatom, is also the head of the World Nuclear Association. It is a fitting role for man helping to lead Russia’s global nuclear expansion.
“We are the ultimate leader in the majority of nuclear sectors,” he says, and it is hard to disagree.
“In the last 11 years we have commissioned 13 new nuclear plants, which is probably the biggest number in the world even compared to the increase fr om our Chinese friends.”
Rosatom is the leader in constructing new nuclear power plants with eight reactors under construction domestically and 35 at different stages across the globe. Rosatom is also a leader in the export of nuclear fuels, and the second largest reactor operator behind EDF. The majority of these new plants are being built in the developing world.
“These are the countries which show the strongest economic growth,” says Komarov. “China, India, South East Asia, countries in the Middle East region. We see countries on the African continent and Latin America.”
The company’s rapid growth is the result of a shifting energy landscape and canny energy acumen.
Nuclear power satisfies the rising appetite of developing countries for large-scale energy sources which is combining with a growing desire to hit climate change targets. In response, Rosatom can guide countries through the almost impenetrable regulatory labyrinth.
“We are a unique company in that we have activities in all areas of the nuclear business; starting with mining of natural uranium, enrichment fuel fabrication, developing our own nuclear equipment, the construction of nuclear power plants, the decommissioning, waste management… everything,” says Komarov.
Rosatom’s steady refinement of its nuclear capabilities mean that its technology is “recognised in the trade as being very good and competitive”, says Tim Yeo, a former Tory MP and the leader of New Nuclear Watch, an industry-backed lobby group.
“They back this up with helpful vendor financing packages, which the Russian government is ready to support wh ere necessary,” says Yeo. “This adds up to an attractive offering. In my view China is their only serious competitor now that the Korean government is hesitating over the role of nuclear energy.”
The rapid expansion has not been without its controversy. In Brussels, European Commission officials called foul on Hungary’s decision to award the €12bn Paks II nuclear contract to Rosatom in 2014 without opening up the project for bids from other vendors. In flouting EU transparency rules Hungary’s project would be built and fuelled by Rosatom, while its heady costs will be funded via a loan from the Kremlin.
The infringement case came to a head in 2016, reigniting concerns over the EU’s mettle in challenging Russian energy dominance in Eastern Europe. It was a test case in which Russia emerged victorious after bureaucrats quietly closed its investigation. The decision emerged in the same week that former EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger came under fire for accepting a flight to Hungary from prominent German businessman Klaus Mangold, who holds close ties to Russia and the Paks nuclear project.
In Armenia, Russia will finance 95pc of the €5bn plans to build a Rosatom nuclear plant. In Belarus, Rosatom will flip the switch next year on a new €5bn nuclear plant that is entirely financed by Moscow.
Any concern regarding Russia’s nuclear stronghold over its near-neighbours is misplaced in light of Rosatom’s good-guy track record in the region, says Komarov. He points to Ukraine, a hotbed of energy geopolitics and simmering tensions. Both sides stand accused of using their positions within the vital flow of gas from Russia, through Eastern Europe to the West, to their own political advantage. But both co-operate seamlessly on nuclear energy, according to Komarov.
Ukraine relies on nuclear power for over 50pc of electricity, and 100pc of this is generated by Russian-designed reactors and fuelled by the Russian nuclear behemoth. “And you’ve never heard of any problems between Russia and Ukraine on nuclear issues, because there are none,” he says.
Despite global tensions between Russia and the West, Rosatom still supplies around 20pc of America’s enriched uranium and has a long history of relations with UK reactors. EDF’s Sizewell B nuclear reactor in Suffolk uses uranium solely sourced from Russia.
In part, these relationships endure out of necessity. The complex regulatory strictures which underpin the safety of the industry also bind countries together with tighter knots than the politics of the day.
“Everything in the nuclear industry is deeply connected to safety issues so it’s better to think not just twice but many, many times before relations break down,” says Komarov. “This is a world wh ere competitors are often partners too. We try to fulfill our obligations, in accordance with contracts. That’s why we are able to operate without disturbances.
“We are living in a complicated world, and relations between Russia and the West are not easy. But thanks to the common wisdom within the nuclear industry we feel far away from the temporary political turbulence. And I do believe that it’s temporary turbulence.”
Temporary or not, one can imagine Rosatom will have a big say in the global energy industry of the future.