France extends uranium trade with Russia despite war and sanctions
The Russia-Ukraine war necessitates the emergence of strange compromises, as the sanctions do not extend to the trade of nuclear fuel. Enormous business deals are being concluded with Russia behind the scenes, one of those being France's purchase of a huge amount of recycled uranium, which was pointed out by Greenpeace, a Hungarian economic paper reports.
The elimination of Russian dependency on recycling would take more than a decade, with experts warning that the French energy system will be walking a tightrope in the winter, Hungarian economic paper Vilaggazdasag writes.
France has received Remix fuel, essentially recycled uranium, for the first time in ten years, French economic paper La Tribune writes in a lengthy article. The reprocessed uranium is used by the French national utility company EDF in the reactors of the Cruas Nuclear Power Plant.
It is noteworthy that natural uranium (not the recycled fuel) is transported continuously to EU member states from Russia (the country’s share in the urnanium supply of the EU, including Rosatom’s interests in Kazakhstan, well exceeds 40 per cent, according to 2021 data of the Euratom supply agency.)
The deal in question is about the re-commissioning of spent French nuclear fuel after processing in Russia.
The schedule is logical: after the French nuclear fuel spends about ten years in a special relaxation pool, it is reprocessed in France, and the precious uranium extracted is further processed and enriched in Russia. At the moment the task can only be performed in Russia, as the technology is not available in Europe. Its development would take more than a decade.
In 2018, EDF “reactivated” a partnership agreement with Russia, under which the eastern partner “recycles” the uranium spent in French reactors. The partnership agreement had been concluded by the parties much earlier, but it has been inactive for about ten years, mainly for economic reasons.
After the Fukushima disaster, the world market price of uranium dropped to such low levels that recycling of spent nuclear fuel was infeasible.
Although the shipment of recycled uranium, which arrived at the end of November, is not subject to EU sanctions, it is a highly sensitive issue due to the crisis in Ukraine. Especially because it was commissioned by a large French public company. Moreover, while until now it seemed that Remix fuel was not needed to run the French reactors, it is currently indeed being used.
On 1 December, La Tribune asked EDF about the date of the delivery and was told that it had already taken place and that the used fuel was sent to Russia in 2021. The case was discovered by Greenpeace. In the port of Dunkirk, the NGO noticed a number of containers from Russia containing partly enriched and partly natural uranium. (Just as in September, when one of the final destinations of the uranium shipment was Germany, the Lingen fuel assembly plant operated by Framatome. The nuclear fuel elements produced here are used in nuclear power plants in France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK, Spain, Sweden and Finland.)
EDF did not specify the term of the contract with the Russian partner, and the French Energy Ministry did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiry. The transaction, which raised ethical and moral questions, did not face any legal obstacles, La Tribune pointed out. The newspaper also did not hide the fact that the French electricity service will be operating “on the brink this winter.”
Europe-Russia cooperation in the field of research and development has run interruptedly, Vilaggazdasag noted. Rosatom is supplying one of the six giant magnets needed for the ITER fusion programme in France. The magnets are an essential component holding the plasma together in the world’s largest tokamak (experimental fusion reactor). The 200-tonne, nine-metre-diameter device took eight years to design and build. The ship, carrying the unique development from Rosatom, set sail from St Petersburg in November and made the two-week journey to Marseille via Amsterdam. ITER is one of the flagship energy projects of the European Union. 35 nations, including Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, India, China, Japan, South Korea and the EU, are working together to build the world’s largest nuclear fusion facility in the south of France.