Categories: Chernobyl / Energy issues

26 April 2010

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Ukraine’s controversial nuclear future

Ukraine is piggy-in-the-middle, caught between Russia and the West. Its nuclear prospects are exciting on several fronts – but its overall energy-dependency means it has to be diplomatic.

The dilemma for Ukraine is that while it may no longer be on very friendly terms with Moscow [this was written in 2006], it is not yet fully integrated into the West either. This double jeopardy has been particularly galling as Ukraine also knows that it cannot survive without Russian fuel for its atomic reactors, or Russian storage facilities to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. In short, Ukraine depends on Russia for its nuclear fuel cycle almost as much as for its gas and oil.

Ukraine’s response is a fierce desire for as much nuclear independence as it can manage.

There are three big nuclear issues:

  1. The domestic production of new nuclear fuel or the continued reliance on Russian fuel to keep the country’s 15 working reactors running, as well as for the two now under construction.
  2. The continued transport of spent nuclear fuel to Russia, or finding a purely Ukraine-based solution for storing spent fuel safely.
  3. Removing and storing all the spent nuclear fuel from Chernobyl’s three undamaged reactors, and their cooling ponds, which is the first major act of the decommissioning process at the plant; as well as the pre-condition for placing the new protective shelter over reactor 4. (1)

The background
Just over 50% of Ukraine’s electricity is generated by nuclear power from VVER reactors, similar to western pressurised water reactors (PWRs). Ukraine is rich in uranium and it is a major supplier of the ore to Russia. In return, for a fee, Russia enriches the uranium and produces the fuel assemblies needed to keep Ukraine’s reactors operational. Russia also proposes to take back the spent fuel and either reprocess it or store it long term.

If Ukraine does not take control of its nuclear fuel cycle it will remain almost totally dependent on Russia for meeting all its energy needs from nuclear, gas and oil. So it should not have been a surprise when, immediately following the gas crisis between the two countries, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko said that his country should produce its own nuclear fuel for power plants. (2)

However, the establishment of uranium enrichment in Ukraine is a highly controversial proposal.

On the one hand, to Ukraine’s credit it made itself a non-nuclear weapons state by disposing of all of the 1,300 nuclear warheads it inherited from the USSR in 1991. Ukraine is also not barred by international treaty or IAEA rules from enriching uranium. On the other, the IAEA has called for a moratorium on any country developing new enrichment capabilities and the US backs this stance. If either the US or the IAEA were to make Ukraine a special case this could undermine their authority over other countries; Iran comes to mind. (3)

The temptation on the part of Ukraine to enrich uranium is clear. The secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Anatoliy Kinakh, has pointed out that the country’s uranium-ore deposits are “enough to satisfy domestic demand for 100 years.” (4)

However, President Yuschenko went further than that. He called for a national debate on Ukraine’s increasing determination to store all of Ukraine’s spent fuel at Chernobyl instead of sending it to Russia for reprocessing. He argued that the cost of developing waste storage facilities there would not be more than Russia currently charges to transport and store fuel today.

Yuri Nedashkovsky, President of National Nuclear Energy Generating Company (ENERGOATOM), the operator of Ukraine’s active reactors, recently clarified that, “Ukraine ships spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing and temporary storage for an annual fee of around $100 million.” He added that Ukraine takes back the resulting waste products for long-term storage. (5)

There is certainly a need for debate and more public information regarding President’s Yuschenko’s plans. As part of Ukraine’s current parliamentary election battles, a storm has erupted over the award of a multi-million dollar contract to the US-based company Holtec International.  The contract, for a centralized spent fuel storage plant in Ukraine at Chernobly, has been condemned by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko as part of a US conspiracy to dump their nuclear waste at Chernobyl instead of at Yucca mountain.

The more boring truth is that VVER fuel from Ukraine’s working reactors requires different storage facilities and treatment to the graphite moderated RBMK reactors’ fuel located at Chernobyl today.  As to storing foreign nuclear waste at Chernobyl, the Ukraine President has clearly ruled this option out. (6)

Meanwhile, all is not running smoothly at Chernobyl when it comes storing RBMK spent fuel. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has funded a dry storage facility for spent fuel at the plant designed to handle spent fuel from Chernobyl’s shutdown Reactors 1, 2 , 3 and their cooling ponds nearby. (7)

In a six-year project, the French nuclear contractor Framatome ANP, owned by Areva (which also owns the giant nuclear company COGEMA), has largely completed the dry storage plant. But it stands empty amid accusations of incompetence and cost overruns.

It transpires that the spent-fuel containers that the facility was designed to manage did not account for the corrupted, damaged, fuel that now rests in Chernobyl’s shutdown reactors.

The project should have cost €68 million ($84.2-million). According to a well-researched piece in Nucleonics Week, costs were revised upward to €90 million ($111.5-million), then to about €150 million in 2003, when Framatome discovered that even more fuel than expected was corrupted by water. And then the estimate rose yet again by an additional €125-million ($155-million) after Framatome said it discovered that some spent fuel also contained reprocessed uranium, which has a different neutron spectrum than spent natural uranium fuel. (8)

EBRD has refused substantial additional funding. Instead it urged both parties to find a reasonable compromise. That has not been reached. Rather, the two parties have fallen out. The Ukrainians accuse Framatome of “a less than professional approach” in tripling the original estimate. In return, the company says the Ukrainians kept them in the dark about the true extent of the corrupted fuel and expresses outrage that its expertise, which is world-leading, has been attacked. Now the EBRD is investigating the next steps using independent consultants. (9)

UA says it will go-it-alone
Today, Ukraine says it will do the job independently. Chernobyl plant management, frustrated by ongoing delays, is beginning to move some of the spent fuel from Reactors 1, 2 and 3 into an existing wet fuel storage plant located onsite. This move has required modification of what was previously considered to be an ageing Soviet-style facility with no more than an official ten-year or so lifetime left. And there can be no doubt that the wet-storage option is an interim measure – a second choice option.

There is understandable pressure on the Chernobyl plant management to remove the fuel from the shut down reactors quickly. Not least because fuel stored in reactor 3 must be removed before serious construction of the new shelter over reactor 4 begins; the covering arch will partly encase reactor 3 too in 2009.

One must also understand that a nuclear plant really only begins decommissioning as the fuel is removed – hence a shutdown should not be confused with decommissioning – and that Framatome is now estimating a completion date of 2010. (10)

Nucleonics Week reports that there are 21,352 fuel assemblies at the site, including 65 fresh assemblies. Cores of the first and the third reactor units contain 812 and 1,563 assemblies, respectively; there is no fuel in Unit 2. In the cooling ponds of Units 1, 2, and 3 there are 1,288, 1,057, and 961 assemblies, respectively.

Delays in the decommissioning work due to the lack of the new spent fuel storage facility (officially entitled Spent Fuel Storage-2) costs the Ukraine’s state budget €15 million annually, according to Ms. Tetyana Amosova, first deputy minister at the Ministry for Emergencies (which handles Chernobyl issues). (11)

Is this a disaster?
It is not unusual for any large construction project to experience escalating costs and delays. Moreover given the complexity of the funding and the complexity of dealing with anything at Chernobyl, it is not surprising that the project didn’t run smoothly.

It is difficult for outsiders to detect the real situation through the fog of competing negotiating positions. But there are some clues we can examine.

Framatome says that to ensure safe dry storage of the spent fuel costly design modifications are required.

The company’s brief is narrow. At the top of its agenda is the technical and safety analysis for the storage project it is responsible for. Clearly, Framatome cannot compromise its reputation for high standards. On the other side of the equation, the plant management at Chernobyl is keen to get on with decommissioning their reactors – that’s their job. And the removal of the fuel into the existing wet storage facility onsite is, after all, a tried and tested practice. But it is certainly a short-term measure, rather than the medium-term solution that dry storage provides. (12)

The long term
Some commentators argue that Ukraine is full of bravado when it talks about creating its own nuclear fuel cycle and decommissioning Chernobyl without the West’s money and expertise.

The posture could be a tactical move: a show designed to attract more G7 and EBRD funds and attention; not just for Chernobyl but for the nation as a whole as it struggles to meet its energy needs. Ukraine may back down, it is argued, if the West offers serious assistance to help the country gain independence from Russia’s grip on its energy supply.

Ukraine is in any case at least finding solutions which should enable progress to be made on dealing with the ageing and decaying Sarcophagus built to keep the worst of the weather out of  the ruined Reactor 4. If temporary wet storage allows sufficient decommissioning of neighbouring reactors, then that is one less obstacle to starting on the new protective shelter over Reactor 4 – which is, by the way, a shining example of international co-operation at its best, though it too has experienced some inevitable bumps.

Moreover, the Holtec contract, which is funded by Ukraine taxpayers rather than international aid, highlights the country’s commitment to handle its radwaste within its own borders.

It is possible that Ukraine is striking out for a genuine and bold independence. It may assess correctly that Western aid for developing its own nuclear fuel cycle will not be forthcoming. And, given how Ukraine is an emerging nation, distrustful of its old alliances, and not secure with its emerging ones, it may really mean it when it says energy independence is the only secure way forward.

If Ukraine plans to seriously go down this path, it will not want to replace its dependence on Russia with dependence on the EU, or anybody else. Perhaps it wants to be more of a lion than a pig in the middle.


(1) The new shelter planned to cover stricken Reactor 4 is formally known as the Shelter Implementation Project (SIP). The first phase of SIP – the creation of new safe confinement over the existing shelter – is underway. The second phase – withdrawal of radioactive-fuel containing elements from the existing Sarcophagus – needs to be formulated by the Memorandum of members comprising of Ukraine and G7.
(2) Associated Press January 14, 2006.
(3) Ibid
(4) December 14 (Interfax-Ukraine), Kininakh calls nuclear energy and energy security development state priority
(5) Yuri Nedashkovsky, President of ENERGOATOM, Ukraine’s national operator, interviewed on Ukraine TV
(6) Kiev, December 15 (Interfax-Ukraine)
(7) Nucleonics Week, September 15, 2005, Ukrainians say they will ditch Framatome from spent fuel project
(8) Ibid
(9) Ibid
(10) From a speech given at the IAEA Conference on Chornobyl 20 anniversary in Vienna, September 6-7, 2005, attended by the author.
(11) Briefing by plant management and safety experts at Chernobyl NPP, in November 2005
(12) Ibid.

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