Though I often describe Russia as a nation of skilled chess players to my colleagues as I attempt to remind them that Russia’s “Great Power” aspirations did not start or end with the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, even good chess players can make short sighted moves.
This morning, Russia, after another round of failed negotiations with Ukraine, has once again begun to cut off deliveries of natural gas. Gazprom, of course, claims that it is simply reducing the portion of its exports destined for Ukraine, but since the pipes still go through Ukraine before they get to the rest of Europe, the reduction in supply has the very real potential for causing some economic disruption in all of Western Europe.
From my point of view, there are few actions that do a better job of getting people to listen to the good news about nuclear power than heavy-handed natural gas supply cutoffs. Even nations that do not have an indigenous supply of commercial nuclear fuel should recognize that there are potential energy security benefits available from basing a large portion of their electrical power supplies on fission.
The important point to share is that it is relatively simple to store enough fuel to last several years. All that is needed is a secure building no bigger than a two truck fire station. With a fuel like natural gas, storage for more than a few weeks is quite problematic. Naftogaz, the owner and operator of Ukraine’s natural gas network, claims a total storage capacity of 32 billion cubic meters. That is technically enough to supply Ukraine’s needs for about 6 months, but the last time that Russia cut off shipments, customers started feeling the pain of shortages in just a couple of days.
The negotiating brinkmanship that is possible with gas is much less likely with commercial nuclear fuel. This gas supply interruption, like the one that occurred in 2006, may capture sufficient media attention to remind people that there is a nuclear option that enables a strong negotiation position with fuel suppliers. Perhaps German leaders will reconsider the country’s decision to prematurely shutter its well maintained and operated nuclear power plants. It might help them to remind their citizens that the political decision to limit their total lifetime power output was originally negotiated by a man who now works for the Russian gas company, not someone who was interested in Germany’s long term energy security.