Nuclear power for Sri Lanka: a different perspective | Sunday Observer

Nuclear power for Sri Lanka: a different perspective

16 July, 2023
An artist’s impression of the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh.
An artist’s impression of the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh.

The “special operation” executed by the Kremlin in Ukraine as an effort of denasification of Ukraine has altered the current international order, where Russia’s image is marred and its soft power influence in the West has seen a decline.

Banning some of the Russian courses offered by Italian universities in Milan and cancellation of Russian ballet performances across the UK are palpable examples showing the reality of what Russian soft power symbols face in the aftermath of the Ukrainian invasion.

It is in this context, Russian strategy of approaching the East for a solid alliance comes to the fore and it takes further bent towards South Asia by extending its influence to Sri Lanka.

In general, Sri Lanka stands as an exotic travel destination among Russians, but diplomatic ties between the two countries dates back to 1956, when Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept to power. Since the Soviet era, Sri Lanka has been often viewed by Moscow as a friendly country, except during the administration of President J.R Jayewardene, whose close links with the West deviated Sri Lanka from the path of Non-Alignment.

However, the present Russian strategy towards Sri Lanka is largely culled by those halcyon memories from the past.

The latest manifestation of Russian diplomacy in Sri Lanka is its promise to build a nuclear power plant in the island nation that may run two reactors and generate 300 Megawatts of energy, which will be a firm solace for a nation tormented by a severe energy crisis.

The negotiations held between the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the Russian Federation and Russian nuclear giant Rosatom at the recently concluded St. Petersburg International Economic Forum has been a promising one as both parties agreed to forge the process, in which the onus is on the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) to get Cabinet approval to fasten the process. The cost is another factor, as even a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) could cost up to US$ 1 billion, depending on the output power.


The utter importance of energy and its impacts upon the geopolitical apparatus as a decisive factor was seen in the 1973 oil crisis. However, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, energy security concerns gained a level of prominence not seen in the 1970s.

Russia stands as the world largest natural gas provider and the second largest exporter of oil and coal, which strengthens Russia’s energy monopoly and makes it very formidable beyond all the tough Western sanctions.

In the meantime, Russia seems to have developed an interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) without making much of a stir in the international arena as Russia plans to establish its first naval base in Sudan, which will legitimise access for Russia as a major player in the IOR, where India and China are already strong in both economic and military terms.

The juxtaposition of these factors is important for assessing the proposed nuclear power plant in Sri Lanka as it would inevitably lead to elevating its status as another influencer in IOR affairs. It should be noted that “Nuclear diplomacy” by Russia as a soft power tool stands more effective in terms of its beneficial nature in the global south compared to the other soft power tools used by various Western countries.

In particular, Russia’s proposal to establish Sri Lanka’s first nuclear power plant comes after its completion of the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, which has aptly paved the path for Russia to enter South Asian geopolitics.

Atomic Energy

The nuclear power in Sri Lanka would come under Rosatom, which is the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation—the direct heir to the Soviet Ministry of Atomic Energy, which was established in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Reorganised as a State corporation in 2007, Rosatom is fully owned by the Russian State, and the President of the Russian Federation determines the Company’s objectives.

Since its inception, Rosatom has become increasingly active in the international nuclear power market and has become a leading provider of key services. The construction of 10 reactor units started between 2007 and 2017, and between 2009 and 2018, the company accounted for 23 of 31 orders placed worldwide for nuclear reactors and about a half of the units under construction worldwide.

The polemics of the West depict Rosatom as an integral part of the Russian State, which would accelerate accomplishing the geopolitical objectives of the Kremlin, which is partially true with regard to the current energy global energy domination of the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, Russia’s entry to Sri Lanka is likely to make conspicuous outcomes for the geopolitical nexus of the island.

First, the proposed power plant will tend to gain more Russian influence into the country as Moscow has agreed to train Sri Lankan scientists in Russia for a considerable period that will grant sufficient expertise for Sri Lankans.

Such a move will be an obvious portrayal of Russian soft power influence in the local intelligentsia in Sri Lanka as the Soviet Union successfully did in the past by providing attractive scholarships for the students and scholars from the global south. Secondly, the construction of a nuclear plant will be a factor in legitimising the growing Russian interest in the IOR, which has paved the way for closer cooperation between Russia and China as both countries engaged in a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean off Durban, South Africa, in early 2023. All these circumstances should be considered in depth as plans are made for nuclear power generation.

The writer teaches at the Scuola Superiore Universitaria Sant’Anna, Pisa, Italy.