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BRUSSELS — Pressure is building on France to fully cut ties with Russia’s atomic sector as the EU mulls its latest sanctions package against Moscow.
The European Commission is set to meet with diplomats from the EU’s 27 member countries on Friday to start discussions on the bloc’s 11th round of Russia sanctions. Hitting Moscow’s state-run nuclear company Rosatom — a divisive issue for some EU countries reliant on Russia for nuclear fuel — is likely come under the spotlight once again.
That means increased scrutiny of France’s ties to Rosatom, the Moscow-based atomic firm.
Although much commercial cooperation has been frozen or suspended in the past year, French state-controlled companies continue to maintain some ties with Rosatom.
That’s prompting calls by Ukraine and diplomats from several EU countries for Paris to sever all links with Rosatom, especially given its role in overseeing the Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine.
“I am sure” that Paris has a moral duty to encourage its state-backed companies to cut ties with Rosatom, Ukraine’s Energy Minister German Galushchenko told POLITICO last month, adding that Kyiv wants all EU countries with links to Russian’s nuclear industry to cut them.
“All of our public scrutiny has been on Germany and not so much on France,” for ties with Russia, said a diplomat from one EU country, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “whereas I think if you look closely … they haven’t been the best kid in the class either.”
Paris should at least back long-standing demands from the Baltic countries and Poland to sanction Rosatom, Sven Giegold, a state secretary at Germany’s energy ministry, tweeted last week. “We will try to convince France.”
In late February, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Rosatom; both Washington and London have sanctioned some of its executives for “deep connections to the Russian military-industrial complex.”
A Rosatom spokesperson told POLITICO the company has “always taken the view that nuclear energy should remain outside of politics.”
Despite a strong push from some EU countries and the Commission to target Rosatom executives during previous sanctions discussions, those efforts floundered partly due to pressure from Hungary, where Rosatom is in charge of the expansion of its Paks nuclear power plant. France is also resisting sanctions.
Although other bigger countries have also not spoken up during discussions, diplomats from four EU countries argued Paris was hiding behind Budapest on nuclear sanctions.
“Because Hungary has been very clear, very vocal, very visible on that question, I think some other countries, including France … don’t really need to lobby for their cause,” said one of the diplomats.
The French foreign ministry told POLITICO: “The European Union and its member states have not adopted sanctions targeting civil nuclear power,” while adding that “France and the United States … continue to cooperate with Russia in the areas of nuclear safety and security.”
For France, “Rosatom is above all a client,” said Valérie Faudon, general delegate with the French Nuclear Energy Society, while adding that Paris doesn’t depend on Russia for its security of supply.
Paris and Moscow’s nuclear ties, which date back to the Cold War, are most apparent in the links between Rosatom and state-controlled EDF, France’s largest utility that runs the country’s nuclear fleet. It signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Rosatom on green hydrogen in 2021, as well as a joint declaration to develop research cooperation.
The Rosatom spokesperson called it “a win-win partnership” that is “a driver of development both in the field of nuclear energy and scientific projects.”
“There are areas in which we mutually develop our relations, for example, projects in third countries, nuclear fuel cycle development, exchange of experience in nuclear safety development,” the spokesperson said.
That’s not the only link.
When Rosatom builds a nuclear plant abroad, it often relies on technology from French companies — typically spending up to €1 billion per project, Faudon said. Those orders usually include command and control systems from Framatome, which is majority-owned by EDF.
Framatome has an ongoing role in Russian nuclear construction projects around the world, including at Paks. The company aims to set up a joint venture with Rosatom to produce nuclear fuel in western Germany, a project that has been sharply criticized by local authorities.
The French firm also signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Rosatom in December 2021 to expand collaboration on fuel fabrication and other technologies.
Framatome didn’t comment on its ongoing contracts but with reference to the 2021 agreement, a company spokesperson said: “Everything has been postponed until further notice,” adding that Framatome will “re-examine the agreement if and when that is appropriate.”
EDF declined to comment.
Orano, a French firm specializing in nuclear fuel that is partly state-owned, sold used uranium fuel stocks to Rosatom for reuse outside France until late last year. The company said this contract is “now settled” and it has “set up a specific process for monitoring and prior approval of activities” relating to any “Russian stakeholder.”
And while France isn’t dependent on Russia for its nuclear fuel and security of supply, it bought enriched uranium worth €359 million from Moscow last year, more than three times the amount it bought in 2021.
It’s not the only such sale to the West. The U.S. bought $830 million of enriched uranium from Russia last year. Moscow also supplies fuel to reactors in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia and Hungary.
Those close commercial links are leading to calls for action by lawmakers and diplomats.
“It would be the right thing to do for the French government to, like the German government, make great effort to … stop [nuclear] cooperation as long as Putin does not end the war against Ukraine,” said Engin Eroglu, a German MEP with the Renew grouping who has been vocal on Russian nuclear issues.
In February, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on Rosatom to face sanctions.
Although France hasn’t backed sanctions against Rosatom, it says it’s working to help other EU countries shift away from Russia on nuclear and the country said it would fall in line with any trade measures.
“The principle of sanctions is that they should do more damage to the Russians than to the Europeans,” said a senior official with the French energy ministry. “France, for its part, does not depend in any way on Russian natural uranium. We are working with our partners who are dependent on Russian uranium to put an end to this dependence.”
France last week also joined a G7-related alliance “aimed at displacing Putin from the international nuclear energy market” alongside Britain, the U.S., Canada and Japan.
Despite that, diplomats from five EU countries told POLITICO that French state firms have an ethical responsibility to fully sever links with Rosatom.
“State-backed companies have a moral duty to cut ties” with Moscow, said one of the diplomats, to avoid “supporting the system.”
Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.