Russia’s push to mine arctic metals is fueled by nuclear power

When news first broke a few years ago that the Russian state nuclear power company was working on a floating nuclear power plant, some took it as a joke. Others scoffed at it as the worst idea ever.

But it turns out it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea after all. Akademik Lomonosov started operating in 2019. It looks like what it was meant to be: a reliable source of power in a region so harsh that building any other kind of power system would be a challenge.

Akademik Lomonosov is located next to the town of Pevek in Chukotka. Chukotka is an autonomous region located in the northern part of the Russian Far East.

It also happens to be full of gold, copper, and lithium, among other metals.

The Financial Times wrote earlier this week, how Russia fueled its Arctic ambitions with nuclear power. And the ambition is to take full advantage of the opening up of the northern sea route thanks to climate change but also of its metal and mineral wealth.

Take copper, for example. The demand for copper is expected to soar in the coming years if the energy transition continues at the current pace. Metal is the default choice for electrical wiring due to its exceptional conductivity and is also used in significant amounts in the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, including from wind turbines and solar installations.

It is also used extensively in electric vehicles – while the average internal combustion engine contains around 20 kilograms of copper, the average electric car contains up to four times it. No wonder then that the demand for copper from the electric vehicle industry alone – in charge of electric vehicles only, according to BloombergNEF– is expected to grow by 1000% between 2020 and 2030.

It may well be that, while everyone is too busy watching natural gas prices in Europe and wondering what Moscow will do next, Moscow is actually focusing on metals and minerals – some of which, of course. elsewhere, were called the oil of tomorrow.

According to the FT article, Chukotka is rich in lithium reserves. It is difficult to determine how rich the wealth is, but it could be enough to be worth developing. Russia also has lithium deposits in Eastern Siberia and Yakutia, also in the Far East, and plans to become the source of 3.5% of the world’s lithium by 2025.

The arctic appears to be the modern version of the treasure cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. There is everything in the Arctic in terms of natural resources, but the harsh climate and the lack of even basic infrastructure in most of these regions have hampered the development of these resources. Nor have they been much needed in a fossil fuel economy.

However, with the expected surge in demand for most base metals and certain minerals deemed critical for the energy transition such as cobalt for example, or the group collectively called rare earths, there seems to be a strong motivation, at least in Russia, which has most of the Arctic, to forge ahead with the development of resources in the inhospitable Nordic region.

Rosatom, the company behind Akademik Lomonosov, plans to build five other floating nuclear power plants, all intended to supply mining projects. The nuclear option was preferred by the Kremlin to Novatek’s idea of ​​floating gas-fired power plants. The five floating power plants will cost $ 2.2 billion.

Floating power plants are the first step on the road to the development of Russia’s metallic and mineral wealth in the Arctic. Without electricity, the task of building roads and other vital infrastructure for a mining project is much more difficult. With electricity, the first big problem is solved.

“Russia should expand across the Arctic, because that’s where it has its main mineral resources,” President Vladimir Putin said in 2017 and has since ensured progress is being made.

“The world economy is aiming for a gradual transition to low-carbon energy, and this is already a new reality,” Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishoustine said earlier this year. “We must prepare for a gradual reduction in the use of traditional fuels: oil, gas, coal. [It is necessary] to improve energy efficiency, develop alternative energies, build appropriate infrastructure, ”Mishustin also said.

Russia, in other words, is starting to prepare for a post-fossil world, or at least a world that needs less of the hydrocarbons that have fueled it for nearly 200 years now. This world will replace hydrocarbons with metals and minerals. Fortunately for Russia, it has a lot of hydrocarbons, metals and minerals. Unfortunately for those who do not have a lot of metal and mineral resources, they could again find themselves dependent on imports from the country which now holds their gas supply.

By Irina Slav for Oil Octobers

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