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The EU’s nuclear links with Russia via BBC News

Following the loss of the Malaysian airliner last week, European leaders are once again wrestling with the question of how to respond to Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

They are reluctant to get tough, much more so than the United States.

The EU could easily end up doing itself a lot of economic harm, most obviously if Russia were to respond by turning down the gas.

Russia is a very important oil exporter too, though that is a more liquid market – to coin a phrase – where it is not so hard to find alternatives if you fall out with one major supplier.

But there is also a significant role in Europe’s energy sector for Russian nuclear supplies and the potential for significant disruption in the EU.

Nuclear energy is an important source of electricity in the EU.

Some countries are planning to phase it out, notably Germany. But even so, projections last year from the European Union see more than a fifth of EU electricity coming from nuclear power plants up to the middle of the century.

About half of EU states have some nuclear power – though there is a marked variation between countries.

In France, which is the world’s biggest producer and user of nuclear power, 75% of total electricity generation is nuclear. In the UK, the figure is 18%, while Italy is the largest EU economy to have none.

Russian connection

Russia comes into this picture at several points.

First, it is an important supplier of the raw material for nuclear fuel, uranium.

There is an international market for uranium, so there are alternative sources, but Russia accounts for 18% of EU supplies (behind Kazakhstan and Canada), so switching is not that simple.

Second, there is the business of enrichment to make the uranium suitable for power generation – and 30% of this work is done by Russian companies.

There is another potential source of vulnerability, too. The EU has a significant number of older, Russian-designed nuclear reactors – 18 in all.

This is a reflection of past political relations with the Soviet Union.

Finland, which was never formally part of the Soviet bloc but did have a close relationship, has two – and all the reactors in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are Russian-designed.

Hungary also has an agreement for two more to be built.

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