Security concerns are an integral part of the discussions on energy dependencies. The security discussion became even more common in the European energy debates with the various gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine in 2006–2015. After these incidents, the energy diversification policy has received increasing attention in Europe. Russia has featured prominently in the European debate relating to energy dependencies and interdependencies, but there are also other actors who may have an interest in affecting the stability of the energy supply. This has been the case with hydrocarbon production and exports in particular (Oxenstierna, 2014). Recent attacks on oil tankers and an oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia have made headlines and resulted in rapid fluctuations in the price of oil. Nuclear energy has attracted much less attention as a potential security risk compared to the perception of risks related to hydrocarbon dependency, and it is therefore worth taking a closer look at the sector. 

About the report

Different energy sources, industries and actors must be studied more carefully in the changed security environment. These changes include the growing dependencies across energy infrastructure systems, increasing interconnectedness in the world, the increased potential to use energy as a geo-political tool and the intensifying competition among great powers and regional hegemons (Verner, et al., 2019). The objective of this study is to analyse whether nuclear energy can be used in some way by an adversary as a part of their hybrid activity toolbox. 

The first part of the report will contextualise the way in which we should conceptualise hybrid threats, and illustrate how any adversary might put together a toolbox to make an intervention in any state’s sovereign space, in order to further their own strategic interests. To this end, the report will apply the conceptual model developed in the joint report by Hybrid CoE and the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), ‘The Landscape of Hybrid Threats – A Conceptual Model’. 

According to the Hybrid CoE-JRC report, an adversary might employ highly creative combinations of different tools in multiple domains in order to achieve its targets and strategic goals. Hence, every subject studied through the hybrid threat lens should include different disciplines. The Hybrid CoE-JRC conceptual model includes 13 domains and three phases of activity. The domains most relevant to nuclear energy – infrastructure, cyber, economy and information, as well as all three phases – are analysed in this study. The hybrid threat analysis also requires viewing the role of nuclear energy in a political and geographical context. It is not only important to consider the role of nuclear energy in the national and regional (European) energy mix and energy markets, but also to consider potential threats relating to nuclear energy outside European markets. 

The first chapter of the second part of the report, written by James Henderson, will examine different empirical cases. It starts by looking at Rosatom as an actor. Russia is the most important foreign actor in the EU in the energy sector and it has an established position in the European nuclear energy markets. As the European Commission states, “Russia is a key competitor in nuclear fuel production and offers integrated packages for investments in the whole nuclear chain. Therefore, particular attention should be paid to investments in new nuclear power plants to be built in the EU using non-EU technology, to ensure that these plants are not dependent only on Russia for the supply of the nuclear fuel: the possibility of fuel supply diversification needs to be a condition for any new investment, to be ensured by the Euratom Supply Agency” (European Commission, 2014). On the Russian side, Rosatom is a state corporation and belongs to the strategic sector in which the Russian state is heavily involved. In recent years, Rosatom has established itself as an important player in international markets. 

After discussing Rosatom’s role and position in the European nuclear energy markets, the report 

continues with three case studies of NPPs in three European states: Ostrovets in Belarus, Hanhikivi in Finland and Paks in Hungary. It is through these case studies that we learn how different processes can create potential hybrid threats, and how business deals and actions sometimes have their respective challenges and competitions, but that not everything will become a security threat. 

The case studies have been chosen on the basis that all of them have in their own way an important place in European energy security, and all of them have Russian-designed reactors. Ostrovets in Belarus is not inside the EU and Belarus is not a NATO member. However, as the Chernobyl experience from the 1980s has shown, a nuclear power plant accident will not only be a matter for the country that hosts the NPP. The consequences of an accident are wider and also affect neighbouring states. 

The Paks NPP development in Hungary is clearly in line with the Hungarian energy strategy. Any connection to threats is hard to detect, at least at first glance. However, the Paks development did require the European Commission’s intervention and the role of Rosatom is central in this respect. Lack of transparency in the process has duly raised concerns. 

In the case of Hanhikivi in Finland, a certain continuity can be detected in the Finnish energy policy. However, the public debates relating to the project justify looking at the project development from the hybrid threat perspective as well. Even if the business deal can be seen as business as usual, such a deal may expose a vulnerability for the host state.

The report will conclude that nuclear energy and nuclear power plants – as part of the hybrid threat landscape – are indeed an area that needs to receive more attention in the current security environment. An ordinary-looking business deal may have threat potential embedded in it and the capacity to destabilise a state. Nuclear energy might not reflect the same kind of vulnerability as physical connections or logistical dependency, such as pipelines or dependency on sea lanes. However, nuclear energy is much more connected to created threat perceptions, diverting a business culture away from host countries’ preferences, as well as creating financial dependencies.

CONCLUSION: Nuclear energy and the potential creation of vulnerabilities for the future?

The objective of this report has been to explore risks related to civilian nuclear power in the contemporary security environment and in the context of hybrid threats. Compared to oil and gas politics, nuclear energy has received less attention as a potential tool for building influence and as leverage for exploiting vulnerabilities. Nuclear energy employed as a tool for any hostile intent has a different logic compared to oil and gas, for example, which have more explicit physical and logistical dependencies. Nuclear energy is still dependent on its distribution networks, which in this case are highly interconnected power grids that are also vulnerable to attack and manipulation. The EU has stated that its energy system is becoming increasingly integrated, while at the same time member states are importing from the same supplier countries. It is important therefore to consider energy security from an EU perspective, an issue that is reflected in the new Energy Article of the Lisbon Treaty. Choices made by one member state at the level of fuel supply, infrastructure development, energy transformation or consumption may lead to spill-over effects on other member states (European Commission, 2014). This report’s findings support the Commission’s view.

The report has also highlighted several points that can have potentially negative spill-over effects on other domains, which may increase the influence of the provider country over the decision-making of the client country, as well as the business culture and rule of law framework of client countries. A centralised building process can give rise to many vulnerabilities, most of which are related to economic leverage-building. In this report, all of the case studies used the Russian company Rosatom as their provider. The part of the report that takes a closer look at the latter makes a strong case for talking about the Russian state as the provider when talking about Rosatom. 

Building an NPP is a huge undertaking that not only involves engineering, construction, and the machining industry, but which also extends to other areas of the economy. Service arrangements, fuel supply and training obligations will allow Russia to establish a self-supporting presence in the energy sector, further advancing its existing interests and connections in hydrocarbons to nuclear energy and mutually reinforcing dependencies. Credit arrangements and negotiations over interest rates may also present a potential loophole for influencing political decisions in the future. 

Moreover, NPP building projects also fall under geopolitical security. In historical terms, we know that building projects have been used for both intelligence-gathering and operations. From the point of view of hybrid threats, these types of projects provide an opportunity for priming, meaning that leverage can be exerted, the environment can be shaped, vulnerabilities can be exposed and created, and the capabilities of both the adversary and the target can be tested.

In all three case studies, it is possible to explain Rosatom’s activities in commercial and competitive terms. Both sides, the buyer and the seller, have arguments to support their decision to engage with each other when the principal decision has been made in favour of nuclear energy. The large loans that the Russian state provides also have a commercial benefit. Compared with low interest rates and the volatile global environment, return on investment will be very stable for decades. There is also the remarkable spill-over effect of creating jobs in Russia. The symbiotic nature of the Russian state and one of its flagship industries creates a clear advantage over competitors when it comes to pricing, which seems to be challenging to overcome.

It is also possible to explain all of the case studies through Russia’s strategic interests, which extend beyond business arguments. State veto 

over business logic cannot be excluded. As James Henderson’s examination of Rosatom in this report shows, there is certainly a political element involved. As one of only seven strategic “state corporations”, the President of Russia appoints the company’s Director General and members of the Supervisory Board, while the government approves the company’s long-term strategy, and hence the management is clearly motivated to keep its political masters happy. The statements by the Russian high-level political elite also support the close relationship and cooperation argument. The risks relating to hybrid threats increase if the state in question, namely Russia, is at odds with the EU, NATO or with democratic principles in general.

The report examined risks stemming from the nuclear energy sector under the following headings: security of supply, economic leverage-building, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, the cyber domain, and information influence activities. Hypothetically speaking, if one NPP were targeted with tools from all of above-mentioned categories, a strong hybrid combination of tools would be created and the result would most likely be devastating.

The security of supply issue has tended to predominate when threats relating to nuclear energy have been discussed. Since nuclear energy reserves last longer in the event of supply disruptions compared to oil or gas, and alternatives can be found, the threat relating to security of supply has not usually been regarded as high. In the hybrid threat security environment, cuts or disruptions can be used to blur situational awareness, however. In this sense, if security of supply threats are used in combination with other activities, then they warrant taking seriously.

Economic leverage-building is a new old method, so to speak. It becomes a threat issue particularly when deals are made between democratic states and non-democratic states. Partners from less democratic political regimes are likely to challenge the normative environment and provoke changes in the business culture. Loans, supply dependencies, roles in the energy market, side deals and so forth all play a part in business, and are aspects that may be used by the state or by small interest groups to their own advantage while harming or undermining another party (Rosenkranz, 2006). Economic leverage-building may be a facet of priming, which is one of the phases of hybrid activity. Similarly to the security of supply issue, if we are talking about a business deal where proper risk assessments have been conducted, this alone does not increase the threat level. But as priming aims to bring about an effect over the long-term, seemingly straightforward economic aspects can turn into a serious weakness over time.

Nuclear proliferation and terrorism are closely interlinked with geopolitical security. As this heading indicates, nuclear energy can be used between states as a political and a politicised issue. In the case of oil and gas, the politicisation is usually associated with security of supply. Since the security of supply in terms of nuclear has a different mechanism compared to oil and gas, nuclear proliferation and terrorism are integral when talking about risks relating to nuclear energy. The dual-use capacity of the technologies and materials required to produce nuclear energy takes matters beyond the location and safety of an individual NPP. Moreover, unlawful nuclear programmes that are not observed by international organisations have been undertaken by non-democratic governments. This means that the polarisation of the international order between law-abiding states and rogue states increases the vulnerabilities in nuclear energy production as well, and makes it harder to control the dual use of nuclear energy material. Furthermore, an act of terrorism, if targeted against a nuclear facility or with nuclear materials (CBRN agents and technology), has far more serious consequences than acts against fossil fuels. An attack against an oil refinery, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, also has global implications, but nuclear energy disasters immediately put lives at risk and inflict harm in the long-term. Furthermore, the fact that NPPs are seen as strategically important facilities always brings the security political aspects into play. Such factors need to be taken particularly seriously when considering an NPP built in one country but very close to the border of another, as in the case of Ostrovets.

The cyber domain poses a new and real threat to the physical safety of NPPs. It is possible to attack NPPs covertly through cyber means, which could be a tempting option for terrorists, but also for states. Cyber attacks could create major power outages, and incite general fear and distrust around nuclear energy. This will be a major 

future challenge and is a worrying development. The hybrid threat era has given rise to the notion of using attacks against NPPs as one of the tools in the adversarial hybrid threat toolkit. This is particularly relevant when it comes to intelligence-gathering. The continuously evolving cyber technology provides ever more sophisticated tools for conducting such operations. The cyber domain also poses new challenges for building projects as well as the running of power plants. The technical aspects are beyond the scope of this report, but note should be taken of the fact that cyber domain security planning needs to be examined through the hybrid threat lens.

Nuclear accidents and the devastation caused by them have made nuclear energy a very useful topic for information influence activities, a tool often used in the hybrid threat environment. Nuclear energy is clearly an issue that divides people and which can easily be used in information campaigns as a means of generating tensions in society, creating mistrust between government and civil society, and causing anxiety among the populace, in the hope that decisions in the target country will be made in a climate of fear. It is a well-known fact that fear compromises the ability to make pragmatic decisions. Nuclear energy is a form of energy production that carries major risks and hence it is important to have transparent and highly regulated and monitored safety rules. If these are not implemented, uncertainty will only exacerbate the fear surrounding nuclear energy.

This report has shown that nuclear energy as a tool merits further research from the hybrid threat perspective. If a nuclear energy aspect is added, in any form listed above, it will act as a strong force multiplier and strengthen the adversary’s hand. Even if the direct risk of a nuclear accident is limited, spill-over to other domains constitutes considerable potential for interference and influence. The coincidence of Rosatom’s business with key current and future allies of Russia in the global arena should be studied more closely. It is not entirely clear whether a nuclear energy deal is the result of existing good relations or should be seen as an investment for guaranteeing good relations in the future. All three case studies in this report indicate that the nuclear sector definitely warrants closer scrutiny and further security analysis. Since hybrid threats are ever-evolving, and adversarial actors, both state and non-state, have demonstrated the ability to think creatively and combine strategically, nuclear energy has to be seen as an important part of the hybrid threat landscape. 

Aspects to consider

  • Nuclear energy and its role in energy dependencies should be studied more extensively, not least because all too often the focus has been on oil and gas. To this end, this report serves as an initial study on a highly complex issue. As hybrid threats are evolving and adversarial thinking is becom- ing more creative, potential threats related to nuclear energy should be included in train- ing and exercise scenarios in order to counter and respond to them more effectively. 
  • Many of the hybrid threats relating to nuclear energy are not direct and obvious, but hidden and derive from spill-over effects. NPP building projects have embedded hybrid threat potential, where spill-overs to dif- ferent domains such as intelligence, legal, economic, information, social, infrastructure, political and military can be used to create powerful leverage.
  • Rosatom as an actor should be treated as a part of the Russian state’s foreign policy. Any deal for NPP construction is strategic in nature and has other objectives aside from economic ones.
  • Besides environmental and economic concerns, security and defence policy aspects should not be excluded from risk assessments of NPPs. NPPs are strategic assets and hence even military protection around them is possible, as the Ostrovets case study indi- cated. This protection could also be used offensively if a need or opportunity presents itself.
  • Business communities as well as engineering/ technical experts dealing with NPP safety issues should be educated about the land- scape of hybrid threats.
  • This report highlights the diversity of the threats related to nuclear energy and NPPs. Further work is required to assess the whole scale of risks relating to nuclear energy in the era of hybrid threats.