Ukraine announces its dependence on Russian made nuclear fuel is waning

2016_Chernobyl-NB-3 The road barrier at the checkpoint into the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Photo: Nils Bøhmer

Igor Nasalyk, Ukraine’s Minister of Energy and Coal took the step of saying his country can survive without nuclear fuel imports from Russia, and can easily replace the supply for its Soviet built reactors by buying fuel from other countries.

The remarks represent a major departure for Kiev, which since 1991 has been heavily dependent on Moscow to fuel the four operating nuclear power plants built on its territory while it was still apart of the Soviet Union.

The fuel shift also represents an assertion of Kiev’s budding political independence from its hostile neighbor. As recently as three years ago, when Moscow began its military incursions into Ukraine’s east and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Russia was still supplying 95 percent of Ukraine’e nuclear fuel.

Over the course of 2017, Nasalyk said in remarks late last month that the percentage of nuclear fuel Ukraine was importing from Russia had fallen to 60 percent.

He added that over the next year, that figure would fall even further to 45 percent, with 55 percent of the country’s nuclear fuel coming from the US company Westinghouse and a handful of other western firms.

2016_Chernobyl-NB-27 Amusement park attractions abandoned after the evacuation of Pripyat on April 27, 1986. Photo: Nils Bøhmer

Despite the healthy public suspicion still resonant in the country following the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, nuclear power produced by Ukraine’s 15 Soviet-built VVER type reactors accounts for more than half of the energy produced in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s nuclear fuel dependence has not been lost on Moscow. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s pugilistic deputy prime minister for military affairs, threatened in May of 2014 to cut off Ukraine’s supply of nuclear fuel after Moscow’s military incursions and propaganda war heated up – a freeze that would have threatened the safe operation of Ukraine’s reactors.

Moscow’s use of fuel embargoes to hammer away at political points is far from unheard of. On two separate occasions, during the frigid winters of 2006 and 2009, Russia choked off natural gas supplies to the European Union when the Europe’s capitals chose to quibble about Moscow’s policies toward Kiev.

Europe has since moved to diversify whom it relies on to heat it through the cold months, but in 2014, when Rogozin made his threat – backed up by the smiling silence of President Vladimir Putin – no one questioned Moscow’s willingness to force a nuclear disaster to bring Ukraine to heel.

2016_Chernobyl-NB-13 The New Safe Confinement structure wtih Chernobyl NPP in the background. Photo: Nils Bøhmer

It eventually fell to Sergei Kiriyenko, then head of Russia’ state nuclear corporation Rosatom, to walk that threat back, as well as to deliver considerable reassurances to the Ukrainian people that Moscow didn’t want to force a second Chernobyl to make its point.

But for Kiev the lesson had been learned. The Ukrainian capital immediately began a not-always-smooth collaboration with Westinghouse to start testing western nuclear fuels, and in the heat of hostilities with Russia, Kiev hastily announced that by 2015 it would begin importing loading the US company’s fuel in some of its reactors. Over the past year, the Westinghouse supply to Ukraine has evened out, and stands to increase.

In the meantime, Kiev is making some attempt to wean itself off its oversized dependence on nuclear energy by opening up parts of its territory to solar energy.

One of those areas is in the carcinogenic wastes surrounding the Chernobyl disaster zone. An investment program announced by Ukraine’s Ministry of Ecology is seeking to offer cheap land leases and access to power transmission infrastructure to European and Asian companies willing to build solar panels on the site of the disaster.

If the investment program bears fruit, its predicted that Chernobyl zone solar power could end up supplying half the energy that the ruined plant used to produce.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no