Russia is moving to create a global nuclear power empire — a bold power play that elicits opportunity and risk far beyond the nuclear reactors themselves.
With its ploys in Ukraine and Syria coming largely unanticipated in Western eyes, Russia has cultivated a tendency to pursue foreign policies that are not immediately obvious to surface-level observers.
While these bold military adventures have attracted much attention from investors thus far, a more stealthily conducted Russian energy strategy might hold equally major implications: the establishment of Russian nuclear power in vital strategic countries across the globe.
In consideration of the post-Fukushima stigma towards nuclear power, the notion of constructing a global nuclear empire might appear as initially bound for failure as invading a European nation like Ukraine in the 21st century. Yet, Russia’s under-the-radar ambition to become the global provider of nuclear power appears poised to be successful and — as was also the case in Ukraine — largely unchallenged by the few major players capable of insisting a different course.
The Rosatom Model
The strategy has thus far been relatively straightforward. Russia’s nuclear energy program dates back to the advent of nuclear power, and Russia’s state-owned nuclear vendor — Rosatom — is the only company in nuclear capable of offering the “industry’s entire range of products and services.”
Over the past five years, Rosatom has quietly cornered the market in nuclear energy, systematically seeking out agreements and contracts with roughly 30 nations interested in the installation of nuclear power plants (NPPs).
Thus, Russia’s nuclear power diplomacy has penetrated the international stage in an already significant manner. Countries that have signed on to Rosatom nuclear agreements span across all regions of the world, and include strategically significant players such as Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
While other countries such as the United States and France have the nuclear know-how required to export nuclear technologies abroad, no entity outside of Russia has aggressively sought to capitalize on international demand for nuclear energy. The Russian dominance of global nuclear energy that has followed holds important geopolitical connotations in the medium-term and beyond.
Positive Economic Implications
For one, the ability of Russia to not only maintain pre-Fukushima nuclear power agreements but also broaden its international NPP roll-out is a clear signal that — from a global perspective — the reportedly “historic” decline of nuclear energy may be less dramatic than presently understood.
Russia’s success in securing a litany of NPP contracts may be an early indicator that nuclear energy will rise in the medium-term along the same environmentally-minded tide as renewables.
Naturally, sending nuclear power abroad also provides economic gains to Moscow; The U.S. Department of Commerce projects $740 billion in revenue generation from nuclear power technologies between now and 2025. With Rosatom boasting no other comparable international competitor, vast swaths of that revenue will be siphoned into the pockets of the Kremlin, with nuclear energy standing firmly alongside oil and gas as an adhesive to the otherwise fracturing economy.
Finally, nuclear power plants have been deemed as an “effective local development tool” for the surrounding community. Local economies across the diverse list of Rosatom contractees may benefit not only from the labor required for nuclear plant maintenance, but also the prestige that an NPP entails.
Russian Geopolitical Influence Expanded
Though these economic implications are worth considering, they are far overshadowed by the geopolitical impacts of Russia’s nuclear power expansion strategy. The same local governments that may experience economic upticks as a result of Russian-installed NPPs will also become sutured to the Russian nuclear industry — and therefore the broader Russian government.
To be clear, the influence gained by Russia through each bilateral nuclear agreement should not be understated. For one, the construction timeline for nuclear power plants is typically long-term, ensuring that Russia will have a presence in any country it signs a nuclear contract with for a minimum of several years.
In addition, Moscow has secured special comprehensive contracts with highly strategic countries like Turkey under the premise of “build-own-operate” — a system in which Russia builds, owns, and permanently operates a nuclear power plant.
From this perspective, Russian-built nuclear power plants in foreign countries become more akin to embassies — or even military bases — than simple bilateral infrastructure projects. The long-term or permanent presence that accompanies the exportation of Russian nuclear power will afford President Vladimir Putin a notable influence in countries crucial to regional geopolitics.
Western influence will subsequently be undermined in crucial ally states like Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria. This now-justified Russian presence abroad will also provide Moscow intelligence opportunities that would otherwise be significantly more difficult and risky. Russian nuclear expertise will also be required in some form for maintenance and operational purposes even in countries that do not sign on for the full build-own-operate package.
All of these benefits — significant as stand-alone strategic gains — will be undergirded by the traditional Russian leverage that emerges when nations become dependent on Russia for their energy needs.
At present, it appears that Russia is well-positioned to continue its expansive nuclear power diplomacy in pursuit of a broader sphere of influence. However, competition from other capable nuclear powers may emerge in the medium-term.
In just the past week, Chinese diplomats secured an agreement with the United Kingdom to commission a Chinese nuclear power plant in Essex. While modest in comparison to the dominant overseas commissioning carried out by Moscow, the deal may ultimately mark the beginning of a Russia-China rivalry conducted through nuclear power diplomacy.