We here at Registan.net have been demi-obsessive about Kazakhstan’s steadily expanding uranium industry, specifically its plans to serve as the primary global “bank” for refined uranium products used in power generation.
Of course, as one of the world’s other major producers (and users!) of uranium, Russia has been keenly interested—if nothing else, for the role that would give it in non-proliferation talks and environmental movements. And behold: Russia just inked a deal with the IAEA to establish a global uranium reserve:
Russia’s atomic energy chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, signed the deal with IAEA head Yukiya Amano in Vienna on March 29. The IAEA says the bank will eventually hold a stockpile of 120 tons of low-enriched uranium.
Kiriyenko, who heads Russia’s state-owned nuclear company Rosatom, said the bank will be located in the southern Siberian city of Angarsk. Russia and Kazakhstan have had a uranium enrichment facility there since 2007.
He predicted that nearly a third of the total uranium stockpile should be ready to sell by the end of the year.
Very few of the other issues and implications of this deal have changed in the last three years, so they’re not terribly worth re-hashing (click on the links above to learn much more). This also comes pretty late in the game for meaningfully affecting the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program—it’s doubtful it will have any real effect on either Iran’s or the EU’s strategic calculations.
This also doesn’t mean Russia has somehow solidified itself as the world’s energy hegemon. As Steve LeVine rather eloquently argued, Russia’s fortunes as the world’s energy bully have actually come to a rather sudden halt:
Gazprom’s main market – Europe – is under threat from cheap competition from the Middle East; one of its expected future markets – the United States – is sated by new indigenous gas supplies; and the reliability of its key underpinning – political backing from Russia’s leadership – now seems a bit less full-throated… Closing out this list of challenges, Gazprom now must share what was one of its most reliable current sources of supply – the captive gas fields of Turkmenistan, almost all of whose pipelines until recently ran only to Russia; in December, China opened a 2,900-mile-long natural gas pipeline connecting itself to Turkmenistan.
All in all, on all these fronts, the assumptions underlying Gazprom’s business model no longer exist.
While that doesn’t Russia is down and out, it does mean their ambition to dominate certain key sectors of the global energy industry have sputtered out. Viewing the Uranium Bank in this context sheds some insight, as it hints that Russia is not only not giving up on its ambitions, but that there might be legitimate, positive-sum ways to help Russia achieve prominence without permanently distorting strategic energy reserves around the planet.
Of course, uranium is uranium, and everyone gets weird about it much more (and for much more understandable reason). So we should be careful not to extrapolate too much from the behavior of only marginally similar extractive industries. But Russia’s evolving place in the center of global energy remains a terribly exciting story.
Image: Uranium mine in Qyzylqum, Kazakhstan.