Ukraine prepares to handle its spent nuclear fuel independent of Moscow

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

Ukraine is preparing to reshuffle how it handles its spent nuclear fuel as the reprocessing contracts Kiev has with Moscow reach their end this year.

On the one hand, Ukraine will have to accommodate several thousands of tons of nuclear waste generated by Russia as it reprocessed spent fuel from Ukraine’s Soviet-built reactors. This waste, under the agreements with Moscow, will soon be returned to Ukraine for permanent storage.

On the other, Ukraine must now figure out how it will process the spent fuel produced by its VVER-1000 reactors in the future.

The question of handing spent nuclear fuel in Ukraine is a fraught one, given the country’s dark history with the Chernobyl disaster 32 years ago, in 1986. But far from abandoning nuclear power, Kiev relies on the 15 reactors that were built when was still a Soviet republic, to produce more than half of its electricity.

All of these reactors are hobbling unsteadily toward retirement age, but the country’s ongoing political and economic turmoil, caused by Moscow itself, have prevented Ukraine from developing alternative energy structures that fall outside the Soviet mold.

As a result, the lifetimes of these reactors will likely all be extended by decades, meaning that Ukraine, which is already second among European countries in terms of the quantity of nuclear waste it possesses, will be struggling to safely store its nuclear heritage.

In recent communications with Bellona, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, said it has 3,360 tons of spent nuclear fuel that was sent to it by Ukraine. This spent fuel has been arriving in Russia since 1993, the first year Ukraine, as an independent country, contracted with Russia to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel.

Rosatom said it hasn’t reprocessed the fuel yet, and doesn’t expect to send the waste that will be generated as a result until 2025.

In the meantime, Ukraine earlier this week signed a contract with France’s Urenco to reprocess the spent fuel from its VVER-1000 reactors. This contract, too, will likely result in more nuclear waste that will have to be stored on Ukraine’s territory.

The problem of Ukraine’s overabundant radioactive waste would seem less critical if the country were taking steps to build a long term repository, such as finding a suitable location for one – or indeed even had plans to do so. But, as revealed in a recently published Bellona report, the bureaucracies in Kiev that are responsible for this are inefficient if not, in some instance, entirely lacking, and in any case have little in the way of public faith in their competent operation.

Prospects are slightly brighter when it comes to dealing with spent fuel from Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. Officials know how much there is and are wise to the fact that they have to build a centralized facility to store it. But, as is the case in other parts of the industry, Kiev has little hope of building it without significant funding from other countries.

Overseeing all of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors and the waste and spent fuel they produce is a national nuclear regulator whose basic structure is, like the industry itself, a hand-me-down from Soviet days, and it lacks independence from the structures it is supposed to be regulating. And even this imperfect arrangement is suffering financially.  As our report reveals, event the computers the regulator uses are donated from abroad.

Charles Digges