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Time for Europe to stop supporting Ukraine's risky nuclear power sector

This article first appeared on Energy Post.

Three decades after the Chernobyl catastrophe and five years after the Fukushima disaster, Europe appears to be slowly coming to terms with the risk of keeping nuclear power as part of its energy mix. In Ukraine, however, the government is eager to maintain, even enhance, its reliance on nuclear energy as if neither Chernobyl nor Fukushima ever happened.

In fact, generous financial support from the EU now effectively enables prolonging the operation of Ukraine’s Soviet-era nuclear reactors well beyond their original expiry date.

The country’s ageing nuclear fleet has had a disturbing track record of mishaps and failures over the past few years. Yet, Ukrainian authorities only make minimum efforts to ensure due process when extending these nuclear units’ lifetimes, overlooking the risk to people in Ukraine and across Europe.

Since 2010 Ukraine has already approved lifetime extensions for four of its 15 nuclear units. Two more could be greenlighted later this year. (A decision was originally planned for this month, but this has been postponed due to the financial crisis of Energoatom, Ukraine’s national nuclear energy generating company.) Yet, time and again what followed cast serious doubts over the reliability of these power plants and the decision-making processes behind their continued operation.

Expiry dates

Here’s how this atomic debacle unfolded so far. In December 2010 the Ukrainian authorities approved the first lifetime extension. Unit 1 in the Rivne power plant, working since three decades, was allowed to continue operations for 20 more years. Barely a month later an accident happened, and the reactor’s output had to be reduced by half.

Unit 2 in the Rivne power plant was also granted a 20 years lifetime extension. Activists and civil society organisations criticised the decision-making process allowing these nuclear reactors’ expiry dates to be rewritten. In March 2013, the Espoo Convention‘s Implementation Committee ruled the decision indeed was in breach of the treaty, since Ukraine did not carry out assessments of the impacts the project can have on people and the environment in neighbouring countries.

But this did not deter the Ukrainian government. In December 2013 it approved another lifetime extension, this time for unit 1 in the South Ukraine power station. Energoatom, Ukraine’s national energy operator, conducted technical checks of the nuclear reactor prior to the decision, but these might not have been thorough enough. An independent expert assessment released in March 2015 criticised the re-licensing process that led to the approval of the lifetime extension, and warned that the reactor is suffering critical vulnerabilities.

South Ukraine‘s unit 2 was suspended in May 2015 when it reached its original expiry date. But this was only temporary, to allow necessary safety improvements. Seven months later, in December 2015, Ukraine’s nuclear regulator decided the reactor can be brought back online and continue working for ten more years, even though 11 safety measures of the highest priority had not been implemented.

Reckless adventure

Ukraine’s neighbours are also concerned. Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria have sent multiple questions for clarification and requests for participation in trans-boundary consultations. But Kiev, in response, denied its obligation to conduct any.

One might think that this experience, or perhaps civil society’s repeated warnings, would make decision makers reconsider this reckless adventure. But not the Ukrainian government.

The 30 years’ old reactor in unit 1 of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant has reached the end of its design lifespan just before last Christmas and was taken off the grid. Unit 2 in the same power plant, Europe’s largest, was also switched off once it exceeded its original lifetime in February.

The Ukrainian nuclear regulator will be deciding on lifetime extensions for both units this year. But a series of incidents in late 2014 were Zaporizhia’s latest signs of instability. Blackouts in large parts of Ukraine in November have been aggravated by an emergency shutdown of unit 3 of Zaporizhia following an accident, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk revealed only several days later. The following month unit 6 in the same power station was briefly taken off the grid after one more incident.

These might sound like minor hiccups, but they should be seen as warning signs of these reactors’ precarious state. In fact, Energoatom is currently in dire financial straits and it is unclear whether the implementation of all necessary safety upgrades in the Zaporizhia nuclear units will be completed any time soon.

Frontlines

Even people working in the Zaporizhia power plant, located just 250 kilometers from the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, are worried. In April last year the chief specialist on the ground told a Bankwatch team that nuclear power plants were simply not designed to withstand an armed conflict.

Yet, Ukraine’s addiction to nuclear energy would not have been possible without the EU’s support. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Euratom have each contributed €300 million to a so-called safety upgrades programme, which effectively enables these lifetime extensions.

Acknowledging the risks involved, Germany, Switzerland and Italy have already decided to end their nuclear energy programmes without waiting for an accident, small or large, to happen. But taxpayer money from the very same countries is still being used to fuel the Ukrainian government’s nuclear energy fixation.

We reached out to the European Commission’s Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs which oversees half of the EU’s financial support to the safety revamp of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. They argued there is no connection between the safety upgrade programme’s timeline and that of the lifetime extensions project.

Sustainable solution

Ahead of the decision on prolonging the operations of the two nuclear units in the Zaporizhia power plant, the EBRD and the European Commission should reflect on the experience from previous reactors which have been granted lifetime extensions. It is high time for the EU to acknowledge its responsibility and suspend its support until Kiev starts taking into account the safety of both Ukrainians and Europeans beyond its borders.

Ultimately, patching up these ailing nuclear reactors is no sustainable solution. The experience so far shows that the Ukrainian government’s stubborn attempts to keep its nuclear fleet on EU-funded life support are futile at best, and outright dangerous at worst.

If Europe truly wants to stand with Ukraine, both should recognise the urgency in exploring a better, safer energy path. In 2014 nuclear made up less than 30 percent of total installed capacity, and even now, when the share of nuclear power is over 50 percent due to a drop in overall demand and a shrinking share of coal in the energy mix, reactors are not working to full capacity. Materialising the country’s vast wind and solar potential and investing in energy efficiency, particularly to cut losses in distribution grids, could effectively make Ukraine’s outdated nuclear energy array completely redundant.

The alternative might be history repeating itself.

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