Financing the war in Ukraine on the one hand, buying uranium from Russia on the other… These revelations by Greenpeace, which has managed to oversee several shipments of Russian uranium to France in recent months, highlight the difficult independence of French energy, even nuclear. Unlike gas, oil or coal, no embargo on uranium was adopted.
What is uranium and why does France need it?
Uranium is the centerpiece of nuclear power. Extracted from the bowels of the Earth, it allows, after numerous transformations (including enrichment of substances), to operate nuclear power plants. “Pellets (enriched uranium) will remain in the reactor for four to five years and undergo nuclear fission reactions,” EDF explains on its website. After this time, it must be replaced.
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If France needs uranium, it’s because its energy mix, which ultimately powers households, is largely based on nuclear power. The country has 56 nuclear reactors at 18 power plants located throughout the territory. Typically, about 70% of the electricity supplied to France comes from this sector. Maintenance shutdowns of several reactors, in particular due to corrosion problems, are currently reducing this share.
Why do people buy it in Russia?
On Tuesday, Greenpeace was able to observe the delivery to the port of Dunkirk (North) of “several dozen barrels of enriched uranium and ten containers of natural uranium from Russia.” This is not the first time: NGO already observed in September the same ship, “seen several times in recent months in the context of nuclear trade with Russia”, unloading dozens of barrels of “uranium” in the same port. “These imports didn’t stop with the war in Ukraine,” notes Pauline Boyer, Greenpeace’s campaign manager for the nuclear and energy transition.
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As for the most recent shipment, nuclear power plant manufacturer and fuel supplier Framatome, a subsidiary of EDF, simply specified on Tuesday evening that it was a “delivery of material for the production of nuclear fuel” to its plant in Romans-sur. -Isère (Drome). This fuel is then destined for his “customers and, in particular, the French nuclear fleet”.
“Since the early 2000s, almost half of the uranium (45%) used in France has come from the Russian sphere of influence, in this case from Kazakhstan,” Greenpeace noted in March. But Russia has a large stranglehold on conversion (purification and transformation) and enrichment (for use in nuclear power plants, for example) of uranium: according to the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), Russian Rosatom had a 25% conversion market in the European Union in 2021 and 31% of the enrichment market.
If France can import uranium from Russia, it is because it is not subject to any embargo, now or in the future, like oil, gas or coal. In April, the European Parliament called for a resolution imposing a “full and immediate” embargo on a number of raw materials, including Russian “nuclear fuel” … but this did not follow. “These contracts are signed with Rosatom, a state-owned enterprise that directly serves the geopolitical interests of Vladimir Putin and which occupies the Ukrainian power plant in Zaporozhye,” regrets Pauline Boyer.
In addition to the issue of consistency – between the sanctions against Russia, on the one hand, and its financing – on the other, there are questions of the independence of the French nuclear industry. France no longer mines uranium on its territory after the closure of the Jouac mine in Haute-Vienne in 2001. “These imports link the energy independence of France with the geopolitical situation in the world,” warns Pauline Boyer.
Russia’s dominance of the enriched uranium market could raise fears of dependency in the nuclear sector as well, while European countries dependent on Russian gas are now paying the price. “Until now, nuclear fuel and services have been exempt from sanctions, but the situation may change,” Euratom warned this summer in its annual report. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky was also touched in August: “It is not normal that there are still no sanctions against Rosatom. »