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Nuclear power plant safety upgrades, Ukraine

Ukraine plans to extend the lifetimes of its fifteen nuclear reactors, most of which will soon pass their expiration date. The EBRD has agreed to finance a Safety Upgrade Programme that is a crucial stepping stone for the reactors’ prolonged use.

The lifetimes of two old reactors at the Rivne nuclear power plant have already been expanded. More are to come. (Image by Dyakov Vladimir Leonidovich - CC 3.0)

Instead of supporting the dangerous lifetime extension of aged nuclear reactors, the EU and the EBRD should help Ukraine with the reactors’ safe closure and decommissioning, while supporting alternatives to nuclear power: the development of local renewable energy sources and utilising Ukraine’s enormous potential for decreasing the energy intensity of the economy.

Ukraine’s nuclear reactors: ripe for closure

These are the same reactors that are to be connected via the transmission lines of the EU-backed Second Backbone Corridor that would enable nuclear electricity exports to the EU.

Read more on the Second Backbone Corridor project

12 of Ukraine’s 15 reactors were designed to finish operations before 2020; two of them have already got their licenses extended (see table below).

Ukraine’s national energy strategy for 2030 envisages that all of the country’s 15 nuclear reactors will have their lifespan expanded.

The Safety Upgrade Programme (SUP) includes safety modernisation measures for all 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine and is partly necessary for the reactors’ for lifetime extension, as an independent expert’s review has shown.

But even with safety upgrades, with every year of operation after a reactor's lifetime has ended the risk of accidents involving radioactive emissions significantly increases, for instance short circuits or the appearance of cracks in covers of reactor vessels.

Accident at the Rivne NPP - a telling example for the (un)safety of old nuclear reactors

In December 2010, operations at Rivne nuclear power plant’s Reactor 1 were extended for another 20 years in spite of its lifetime having expired. Then just one month later, an accident occurred and the reactor's output was taken down to 50 percent.

While no radiation leaked in this case, the nuclear industry claims safety as long as no terrible accidents like Fukushima happen. Extending the lifetime of Ukrainian nuclear reactors - some of them from the 1970's - will create a situation prone to disaster. The EU should not to get involved in such plans and the risks they pose to the people in Ukraine and beyond.

Short-sighted and incomplete plans

What to do with radioactive waste and spent fuel?

While investments in the safety upgrade programme are being pushed for with full force, Ukraine’s government has made no preparations for the obvious need to dispose radioactive waste and spent fuel:

  • If the nuclear plans go ahead, the total amount of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in Ukraine could increase to 200 million tons annually.
  • The Ukrainian government has made zero investments in infrastructure for the long-term, safe isolation of spent fuel and radioactive waste.
  • Neutralisation of this hazardous waste could cost exceptional sums – costs which are so far not being mentioned.

Inadequate Environmental Assessment

Particularly after the accident in Fukushima, the project’s nuclear nature and potential impacts should clearly require a full Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). But the EBRD agreed on (and funded) only a much narrower Ecological Assessment.

Despite the requirement to be “in accordance with the principles of the UNCE Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) protocol”, the assessment does not pay attention to all the risks and negative impacts posed by the lifetime expansion and provides misleading information as to the objectives of the programme:

  • The role of the SUP measures in enabling the lifetime extension of reactors was omitted. This allowed Energoatom not to assess potential risks and impacts of reactors operating beyond their designed lifetime.
  • Alternatives were not properly assessed, including the most obvious of shutting down the reactors at the end of their designed lifetime.
  • Neighbouring states were not informed as required by the Aarhus and ESPOO Conventions.

Risky decisions were made behind closed doors

Ukrainians were not informed or asked about the plans that will shape the countries energy sector for the coming decades.

Image from a public action on March 12, 2012 (anniversary of the Fukushima accident) against the governments lifetime extension plans

The decision to continue relying on nuclear power (from Soviet-era reactors) has been made without public oversight, let alone the involvement of Ukraine’s citizens:

  • The Nuclear Power Plants Safety Upgrade Programme is based on the recommendations of a joint study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Commission and Ukraine from 2010.
    The study is a restricted document; the public had no access to the information.
  • Since 2009 Ukrainian legislation does not require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the lifetime expansion.
    One year before the first nuclear reactor’s lifetime (Rivne 1) should have expired, the respective law was changed to exclude public and local authorities from the decision-making. Lifetime expansions are now a 'private business' of Energoatom – a situation that contravenes international best-practices in the nuclear energy field.

Trans-boundary context

International conventions breached?

The Safety Upgrade Program was a requirement for the lifetime extensions of Rivne 1 and 2 (granted in 2010 and 2011 respectively) - a proof for the SUP's role in the lifetime extensions.

A strategic assessment should have therefore analysed alternatives to keeping old reactors running as well as the programme's consequences, including its trans-boundary impacts according to the ESPOO Convention.

Currently, the ESPOO Implementation Committee is inquiring a violation in case of the Rivne 1 and 2 lifetime extensions.

An independent European expert’s review commissioned by Bankwatch shows that no information on the safety upgrades was provided outside of Ukraine.

The review concludes that the EBRD’s approach of preparing limited-scale ecological assessment instead of an SEA, was

    ”far from best practice in the nuclear field and not complying with international conventions like ESPOO on trans-boundary impact assessment or Aarhus on environmental information, nor coming even close to fulfilling EU legislation.”

One year after the Fukushima accident, the European public would welcome information about the lifetime extension of NPPs that are already three decades old.

Before any such extension is granted public European support, the alternatives should be carefully considered. This includes safely closing down ageing reactors - another costly activity that may be better suited for investing public money.

For more information contact our Ukrainian Bankwatcher Iryna Holovko



Latest developments


Press release | March 17, 2015

Prague, Kiev - In December 2013, Ukraine's State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate (SNRIU) has granted a 10 years lifetime extension license to unit 1 in the South Ukraine nuclear power plant. But a new independent study reveals critical vulnerabilities in the 32 year old nuclear unit that could have dangerous ramifications.

Press release | December 3, 2014

Statement on an incident at the Zaporizhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine, where a power transformer dysfunction occurred on November 28th.

Bankwatch in the media | May 20, 2014

One of the most disappointing aspects of the Ukrainian crisis has been the failure of many, especially on the left, to understand the nature of the revolution that took place there over the winter that led to the literal departure of former President Victor Yanukovich from the country, established an interim–and rather weak–transitional government, and set the stage for new elections later this month.

Blog entry | February 6, 2014

Before claiming the moral high ground on fighting corruption in Ukraine, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should first of all brush up its own transparency policy and drop old-fashioned arguments in favour of confidentiality and secret conditionalities in its projects.

Press release | January 27, 2014

The project through which the life time of old Ukrainian nuclear reactors is being prolonged with EBRD financing would not be economically feasible without a doubling of electricity tariffs, shows a document leaked to EurActiv last week.


Advocacy letter | March 30, 2015

In this letter 46 non-governmental organisations alarm European Union representatives involved in the decision-making at the EBRD and Euratom to the fact that Ukraine is pressing ahead with its plans to extend the life-time of its old nuclear reactors even though they are in breach of international law (Espoo Convention) and without proper impact assessments and despite UKraine's obligations under the loans provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Euratom.

Briefing | March 17, 2015

This independent study reveals critical vulnerabilities in the 32 year old nuclear unit 1 in the South Ukraine nuclear power plant, whose lifetime was extended by 10 years in December 2013. The study shows the reactor pressure vessel in unit 1 has several dangerous vulnerabilities that could lead to the appearance of micro-cracks in the vessel's metal casing. The observed wear in a number of elements in the reactor vessel already exceeds tenfold tolerable levels.

Advocacy letter | February 16, 2015

In a bid to help the recession-hit Ukrainian economy, the country’s government has significantly reduced regulatory obligations for businesses and state-owned companies. This includes Ukraine’s nuclear power plants which have been plagued in the recent past by ageing reactors and accidents and whose safety upgrades are receiving support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Euratom.

Bankwatch Mail | May 14, 2014

Twenty years of limited – if not downright poor – transitional progress has demonstrated the inability of European and global institutions to effectively impact development processes in Ukraine.

Briefing | May 9, 2014

Public finance can play a role in ensuring nuclear safety and the transparency and accountability of government decisions related to nuclear energy by encouraging governments to fully apply Espoo procedures at earlier stages of the programme or plan and to provide more information about loan conditionalities. However, only a limited positive effect has been seen in Ukraine due in part to a lack of transparency by the financial institutions and to the selective application of convention requirements.