Decades after Chernobyl, Ukraine hooked on nuclear more than ever
25 April 2016, Politico
It’s the result of war, politics and economics.
Three decades after the world’s worst nuclear accident, the home of the shuttered Chernobyl power plant remains more reliant than ever on nuclear power.
When a botched test in the early hours of April 26, 1986, blew apart the reactor’s core and spewed huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, nuclear power accounted for about a quarter of the energy mix of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Today, nuclear power produces more than half of Ukraine’s energy — the result of war, politics and economics.
As recently as 2012, nuclear power accounted for about 45 percent of Ukraine’s energy mix, with coal and gas making up most of the rest, but the conflict with Russia has dramatically changed the picture. In 2015, nuclear power generated 56 percent of the country’s energy as Ukraine desperately tries to reduce its reliance on Russia.
“The first thing we can be proud of is energy independence,” President Petro Poroshenko said during a January visit to the Rivne nuclear power plant.
Cutting ties with Moscow
Kiev has tried with some success to end its dependence on Russian gas. Natural gas consumption has dropped by a third from 2013 to 2015, according to a new study by the German Advisory Group on Ukraine, while imports of Russian gas have shriveled by 80 percent from 2012 to 2015.
Ukraine also lost control of many of its coal mines in the east of the country thanks to a Russian-backed insurgency that has seized control of the region.
Stripped of alternatives, the country is betting on the atom to power its listing economy and heat homes.
“Due to lack of supplies of gas and coal the country is forced to increase nuclear generation,” said Andrii Tiurin, head of the Brussels office of Energoatom, the state-owned nuclear company that operates the country’s nuclear power assets.
But its growing reliance on the atom is spooking anti-nuclear campaigners who worry about the safety of reactors and the country’s future energy mix.
Ukraine has 15 Russian VVER type nuclear units at four power plants. None of the working plants are of the RBMK type that was used in Chernobyl. Many were built in the 1980s, and had an initial operating life of 30 years.
“Our concern is that the reactor fleet is aging,” said Iryna Holovko of the NGO network CEE Bankwatch. With many of the reactors planned lifespan running out this decade, “the plan is to still rely on those reactors and prolong their lifetime.”
As of last year, four reactors have had their lifetimes extended after meeting the necessary criteria, Tiurin said. This makes it possible to keep them running for roughly 10-20 additional years.
Ukraine is currently in the process of extending the lifetime of two more reactors. The hope is to get approval by the end of the year, Tiurin said.
Ukraine also plans on building two more reactors at the Khmelnytska nuclear power plant. The €4 billion project has been plagued with delays and last year Ukraine scrapped an earlier deal with Russia’s Atomstroyexport to do the work, unwilling to continue relying on Moscow for crucial infrastructure. The government is now keen for a Western company to undertake the project.
Ukraine is also heavily dependent on Russia for its nuclear fuel, but is trying to diversify by switching contracts to Westinghouse.
No option but nuclear
To make sure that the country’s nuclear fleet complies with international safety standards, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Euratom each committed €300 million to a safety upgrade program of its nuclear reactors. The full safety upgrade is estimated to cost €1.4 billion, and is scheduled for completion by the end of 2017.
“They’re going to operate nuclear power plants anyway,” said Anton Ustov, a senior adviser to the EBRD in Kiev. “Because Ukraine has taken this decision anyway, it’s very important that the 15 nuclear plants are operating in line with international standards … In many respects, [nuclear] is a lifeline. There is no way it’s going to be substituted immediately.”
But CEE Bankwatch is warning that Ukraine is extending the lifetime of its ageing nuclear fleet without implementing necessary safety upgrades.
“In several cases, lifetime extensions were authorized before some of the most critical safety measures have been implemented,” said CEE Bankwatch’s Dana Marekova.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say that the lifetime of South Ukraine’s unit 2 was extended last December even though it had “at least 10 safety issues of the highest priority still pending.” Moreover, they say, the government postponed the deadline for implementing safety upgrades.
Energoatom meanwhile insists it was complying with the necessary requirements.
“The general conclusion of the regulator was that Energoatom passed all the preliminary stages of the procedure for extending lifetime of the reactor,” Tiurin said. Energoatom last year sued activists from the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, claiming they were spreading misinformation about the upgrade program.
Despite their qualms, even anti-nuclear campaigners concede there are no easy alternatives for Ukraine in the current challenging political and economic environment.
“It’s very difficult to quit nuclear power plants now,” said Rebecca Harms, co-chair of the European Greens. “At the same time, the installations have always been controversial.”
Industry insiders meanwhile say there is no issue with keeping the plants running.
“Are these units viable and capable of having their life extended? Indeed they are,” a nuclear industry executive told POLITICO. He said the same VVER 1000 units being used in Bulgaria have had their lives extended. “There’s nothing wrong with life extension work on this model.”
Analysts also point out that Ukraine’s nuclear program is under close international scrutiny.
“Worse things are going on in Belgium rather than in Ukraine, we should be much more worried there, because all eyes are on Ukraine,” said Zuzanna Nowak, an energy analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
Germany’s Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks last week asked Belgium to temporarily shut down two nuclear reactors located close to the border with Germany over safety concerns.
Despite worries from anti-nuclear campaigners, the European Commission seems satisfied with Ukraine’s activities.
Kiev’s compliance with international environmental treaties “is a pre-condition for disbursing the loan,” European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen wrote in a letter to the European Parliament last fall. And evidence “received so far” made possible to authorize disbursing €100 million from the Euratom loan, he said.
The EBRD has also already disbursed some of its loan, Ustov said. “If we’re not happy with something we certainly don’t disburse.”