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RFE/RL staff

RFE/RL staff

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Serbia's Nuclear Future: A Delicate Balancing Act Between East and West

  • Serbia is considering lifting its 35-year ban on nuclear power plants to diversify its energy sources and reduce reliance on Russian gas.
  • The decision opens up a complex geopolitical landscape as Serbia must choose between potential partners like China, France, the UK, and the US, each with their own strategic interests.
  • Serbia's nuclear ambitions could have significant implications for the Balkans and the wider European energy market.
Nuclear Power

Driven by a need to diversify its energy sector and pivot away from cheap Russian gas, Serbia is moving to end the country’s decades-old policy banning the construction of nuclear power plants on its territory.

Several Serbian ministries announced on July 10 that the country is weighing whether to end the 35-year-old, Yugoslav-era ban on nuclear reactors and said public debate was being opened on the shake-up of Belgrade’s long-standing energy policy.

If successful, the Serbian government could also find itself on a new geopolitical fault line involving nuclear energy in Eastern Europe as countries look to move away from relying on Russia -- which has dominated the nuclear energy sector -- and consider alternative partnerships with countries like China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is looking to navigate the new realities created by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and deploy the same hedging strategy for the country’s nuclear future that’s been used by Belgrade to play the United States and the European Union against Russia and China on a host of security and foreign policy issues.

“Even though Serbia has not been hard on Russia like the European Union has, it’s looking to preserve a balancing act with the West,” Stefan Vladisavljev, program director at Foundation BFPE, a Belgrade-based think tank, told RFE/RL. “That means distancing away from Russia for big strategic projects, but where exactly that leads Belgrade remains to be seen.”

Prior to the start of Russia’s February 2022 war, Serbia relied on cheap local labor and discounted Russian gas to make its mining and manufacturing industries competitive and attractive to investors. But Western sanctions and market turbulence have increased the price of Russian gas and seen Brussels and Washington attach a political price tag to making new deals with Russian companies.

That leaves Vucic walking a tightrope between the need to improve Serbia’s energy security by adding nuclear power and the geopolitical considerations brought by the country Belgrade decides to partner with.

Serbian officials have actively weighed their options, having already held meetings with Britain’s Rolls-Royce and France’s state-owned Electricite de France (EDF), in April, when a memo was signed “assessing the potential for the development of the civil nuclear program in Serbia.”

In June, the Energy Ministry said it is “laying the groundwork” for an assessment on partnering with EDF.

EDF did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for details on what cooperation with Serbia would entail but, in the meantime, China has also entered the mix.

The state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation’s (CNNC) could supply small modular reactors (SMRs), which proponents say are less cumbersome to build and may better suit a country like Serbia’s more modest nuclear power needs.

Another option involves buying a stake in the still under construction Paks 2 nuclear power plant -- a joint Hungarian-Russian project launched in 2014 that is 100 kilometers southwest of Budapest -- which could then send power south to Serbia.

The Serbian Energy Ministry told RFE/RL in a statement that it is currently exploring all potential partnerships.

“After changing the legislative framework, Serbia will analyze the potential for cooperation at the regional and international level with countries that already have a developed nuclear program, both with China as well as with France, the United States, Russia, Japan, and other relevant countries,” it said.

The New Nuclear Chessboard

While Russia has lost its dominant position in oil and gas exports since the 2022 start of the Ukraine war, it continues to be the biggest player globally in providing nuclear fuel, accounting for more than 40 percent of the global market. Russia also has a complete monopoly on the production of advanced nuclear fuel that will be needed to power the next generation of nuclear reactors.

For countries with Russian-made reactors this dependence runs even deeper, with Russia’s state-owned nuclear power giant Rosatom operating 18 reactors across the EU, the bulk of them in Central and Eastern Europe.

This reliance has so far left Rosatom and Russian nuclear materials off sanctions packages passed in Brussels, but the United States, Britain, France, and important Western nuclear fuel providers have announced plans to expand their own capacity to enrich uranium and build reactors across Europe.

It’s against this backdrop that Belgrade must make a decision and plan for the long-term implications. Currently, Serbia gets almost 70 percent of its electricity from coal, but has committed to completely phase it out by 2050. Incorporating nuclear power along with more green energy is necessary to meet that goal.

“Where a country gets its reactor from is extremely important and keeps them tied together,” Jennifer Gordon, the director of the Atlantic Council's Nuclear Energy Policy Initiative, told RFE/RL. “The buyer-vendor relationship can be a 100-year relationship when you take into account building the reactor, its lifespan, and then needing to decommission it.”

Countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Bulgaria have relied on Russian nuclear-fuel imports to make up for the lack of Russian gas and oil as a result of the war, but they’ve also begun to pivot away from Rosatom for any future plans.

Bratislava, Helsinki, and Prague have excluded the Russian company from future tenders, and the Czech energy company CEZ has signed contracts with the U.S. firm Westinghouse Electric and the French company Framatome to supply fuel assemblies for its plant in Temelin.

Westinghouse is also constructing two new reactors in Bulgaria, where it is to also become the country’s main supplier of fuel rods.

For Belgrade, the nuclear decision could also be a harbinger for where Vucic is looking to take his country.

While Serbia remains nonaligned, Vucic insists his goal is membership in the EU, but talks have made little progress in 12 years amid EU concerns over the rule of law and the status of Kosovo.

Serbia has a traditionally close relationship with Moscow, but Belgrade has been looking for distance from Russia since the war in Ukraine.

Vucic has also built strong ties with China, which has invested heavily in the Balkan country and often tops Serbian opinion polls as the most popular foreign power. Serbia, along with Hungary, were also the only two European countries Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited in May after his state visit to France.

“Xi’s visit opened up new frontiers for cooperation,” said Vladisavljev. “China is already a leader in renewable energy sources and is looking for new ways to expand its presence. For Belgrade, the best way to utilize its ties with China is to focus on areas that Serbia can’t do on its own.”

Vucic has also strengthened ties with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made developing nuclear energy across Europe and championing European firms a key part of his “strategic autonomy” policy, which seeks to reshape the political order across the continent.

The View From Belgrade

While France’s EDF -- once the world’s leading nuclear energy developer -- appears to be making headway with Belgrade, Serbia’s other options are still in contention.

The Serbian Energy Ministry told RFE/RL that an analysis on whether to choose a conventional reactor or SMRs will be carried out in the near future, and Vucic said in March at an energy summit in Brussels that “we are interested in getting at least four small modular reactors to replace 1,200 megawatts” of output.

Prefabricated SMR units can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, making them potentially more affordable to build than large power reactors, which are often custom designed for a particular location and sometimes lead to construction delays. But some estimates have shown the cost for SMRs could be similar or more expensive than traditional reactors in the long term due to higher maintenance costs.

China and Russia are racing to pull ahead in the SMR field, but a collection of American and European firms are also making advances in the market.

Serbia’s presidential administration and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment about Beijing’s potential role.

One major obstacle for an SMR deal could be the cost.

In his March comments, Vucic said the price for four SMRs could total 7.5 billion euros ($8.1 billion) and that external funding would be required because he “doesn't know how it would be financed.”

A less costly option is buying a stake in Hungary’s Paks 2 plant, which is an idea that Vucic first discussed with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2021.

“We are ready to be a minority owner in order to ensure our energy security, especially because of our strong economic activity,” Vucic said in 2021.

Buying a stake in Hungary’s nuclear reactor is appealing to Belgrade as it would avoid needing to build a nuclear reactor on its own soil and face any potential public backlash.

But the Hungarian project spearheaded by Russia’s Rosatom has been delayed and over budget. While Hungarian officials say the main reactor is still planned to be shipped from Russia, Paks 2 CEO Gergely Jakli told the Hungarian financial newspaper Portfolio in May that Russia’s involvement is increasingly expensive and he is considering bringing on other investors’ to complete the project.

China has been floated as a potential option, especially since Budapest and Beijing signed a nuclear-energy cooperation agreement during Xi’s visit in May, and China is looking for opportunities to showcase its nuclear expertise overseas.

Framatome is also a subcontractor in Paks 2 and while Chinese and French nuclear companies have partnered together in the past, souring relations between Beijing and the West along with growing resistance to allowing Chinese firms to build strategic infrastructure in Europe could derail any such cooperation.

This leaves Serbia balancing the technical and financial dimensions to any offer, as well as the strategic ones, as it pushes ahead in its pursuit for nuclear energy.

“This is about a civilian nuclear energy program,” the Atlantic Council’s Gordon said. “But whatever option Serbia chooses, it will have a geopolitical bearing.”

By RFE/RL

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