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MOSCOW, June 21 (Sian Glaessner, RIA Novosti) – Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of an economic forum in St. Petersburg this week, the head of Russia’s nuclear behemoth Rosatom indicated his confidence that cooperation with the United Kingdom could lead to Russia, one day, being involved in building new nuclear power plants in that country, something that has been on Rosatom’s to-do list for a number of years.
Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko hailed progress made in energy sector cooperation between the two countries since a deal signed in 2011 with British power systems company Rolls-Royce.
Nothing in the paperwork of that deal explicitly states that Rosatom building a new nuclear power plant in the UK is a goal of this cooperation.
Historically, the two countries have occasionally enjoyed periods of alliance – notably in time of war, but largely relations have been defined by their Great Power rivalry, and have wavered between “frosty” and “cool.”
Eyes on the Prize
Since the 2011 deal, however, Russia and the UK have made great strides in energy sector collaboration, as recent bilateral meetings have shown. Speaking after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Sochi on May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not explicitly mention nuclear power, but called the energy sector “one of the most promising fields of cooperation” between the two countries.
“We agreed to establish a special group to work on promising projects and facilities,” Putin added, enigmatically.
A month later, on June 10, meeting with the UK’s secretary of state for energy and climate change in London, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich signed an agreement to establish a joint working group on nuclear energy.
One week after that, Putin was in London ahead of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. He placed particular emphasis on bilateral cooperation in the nuclear sector on UK soil. “We can cooperate in the nuclear energy sphere, not only on the territories of Russia and Britain, but in third countries as well,” he said.
Britain has several new nuclear plant projects on the drawing board at present, at differing stages in the long, some would say torturous, process that has to be completed before actual construction work can begin.
Facing an “energy gap” in the next decade due to dwindling hydrocarbon supplies from the North Sea, and committed to cutting carbon dioxide emissions, Britain views nuclear as a key component in its energy mix.
Rosatom got closer than ever before to its goal last year, after backers for one proposed new nuclear power project in the UK, Horizon, withdrew in early 2012.
Its communications director was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying, “Rosatom can give all guarantees that the construction of a NPP [nuclear power plant] in the UK will meet absolutely all international safety requirements and International Atomic Energy Agency standards.”
Rosatom’s potential involvement was covered in the British media at the time, but UK officials, enthusiastic about cooperation with Rosatom on nuclear projects in third countries – such as the project to build a new nuclear power plant in Turkey – have been reticent about Russia’s potential role in this sensitive sector.
At a UK parliamentary committee meeting on the future of the Horizon Nuclear Power project in May 2012, before a deal with Hitachi was concluded that autumn, Russia’s potential involvement was downplayed.
After several mentions of Rosatom and Russia alongside other potentially interested parties, such as China and Japan, the committee chair asked, “It does look a bit as though we are hoping for some friendly Russian oligarch with a partner with a bit of nuclear experience to come along and bail us out, doesn’t it?”
“No, I think what we are looking for is a consortium where there is real proven expertise in this sector – people who see the opportunities, which are here, as being very alive and very real and who want to take forward that investment as a business case,” replied a lawmaker at the meeting.
In many respects, however, Rosatom would seem to fit that bill. Political concerns in the UK remain, as does a lingering mistrust at the institutional level, while in the public mind the words “Russia” and “nuclear” carry just one association – “Chernobyl.”
Speaking at the economic forum on Thursday, Rosatom chief Kiriyenko noted the difficulties associated with a Russian company working in the nuclear sector on UK soil as ranging from the “licensing process” to “public acceptance” and “the certification of Russian technology” in the UK.
This seemed further indication that Russia’s nuclear giant is doggedly pursuing its ambition of deeper direct involvement in the UK.
Rosatom brings together about 250 enterprises within Russia employing over 300,000 people, and through its numerous subsidiaries is a leading company on the global nuclear market.
From uranium mining to nuclear power plant construction – for the last few years Rosatom has been set on a concerted course of diversifying its operations: deepening and expanding activities with “traditional partners” and gaining a foothold in new countries.
This is not just a priority on paper – 19 of the 28 new power plants Rosatom is currently involved in building are outside Russia – more than any other company in the world.
In 2010 Rosatom saw construction work scheduled or begin on 12 new power units in India, Bulgaria, Turkey and Ukraine. The following year saw construction scheduled or start on 21 new power units in Bangladesh, India, Belarus, Vietnam, Ukraine, Armenia, Turkey, Bulgaria and China.
“We have not worked in the UK ourselves,” Kiriyenko said – a nod to the fact that the company has enjoyed a significant, sustained presence on the UK’s nuclear energy market for a number of years through subsidiaries supplying enriched uranium products (meeting 20 percent of the country’s needs) and fuel pellets.
Through a German subsidiary, Nukem Technologies, Rosatom also provides decommissioning services in the UK.
High Risk – High Reward
Nuclear power has long been a controversial source of energy, in part because its development carries with it the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation, an issue of particular concern with Iran at present.
There is the need for long-term safe storage facilities for nuclear waste.
Then there is the danger of nuclear meltdown – the kind of disaster seen at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986 or Fukushima in Japan in 2011. The United States saw partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. The UK had Windscale, an accident ranked 5 on a severity scale of 7 in 1957.
The nuclear industry is at pains to distance itself from these, and other, disasters. Technology has – the leading global nuclear companies assure us – moved on since then: It is cleaner and safer than ever before.
Despite these safety fears in Europe and Japan, there is great potential for growth, and Rosatom has set itself the modest goal of achieving “global technology leadership” in this sector by 2030.
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The British experience can be instructive for Russia. London retains its British Commonwealth if it wants to use this as a foundation for integration in the future. That’s a valuable lesson for Russian experts who are calling for an end to “ineffective” associations like the CIS, the Russian World and others.