Even as gas crisis shows signs of easing, former Soviet-Bloc states are anxious to take nuclear out of mothballs

wikimedia commons

Publish date: January 17, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

Languishing under a lack of energy and heat alternatives as the gas battle continues between Russian and Ukraine, Bulgaria and Slovakia are considering taking their recently closed and aged Soviet reactors out of mothballs and restarting them, while Poland is considering a nuclear build of its own.

The Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis has left many European countries searching frantically for energy independence from Russia, and many are turning to their rusty old Soviet-built nuclear technology to assure this.

Nuclear momentum may be hard to stop
Even though much of the news about breaking the Ukrainian-Russian deadlock has been positive over the weekend, many of Europe’s smaller nations who are new inductees into the European Union see not only energy independence from the Russian gas behemoth Gazprom, but the opportunity for energy profits of their own, which they predict will come of dusting off their recently shutdown nuclear reactors.

The Russian-Ukrainian gas debacle has thus sparked a new environmental crisis for Europe in general, as former Soviet satellite states ponder reviving outdated technology, and for Russia specifically, which has been in the past and will continue to be required to accept – on the cheap – spent nuclear fuel from these reactors.

Russia’s nuclear fuel giant looking for a payday
Interviews conducted by Bellona Web with a high ranking official at Tekhsnabeksport (Tenex), Russia’s nuclear fuel producing monopoly, over the weekend indicated the company thinks it is in a propitious position to turn an extra profit – thanks specifically to the fragile relationship between western leaning Ukraine, and Russia’s punitive use of its vast natural gas supplies.

“If these counties can’t buy gas from Gazprom, let them buy nuclear fuel from us,” bluntly said one Tenex official, who asked his name not be used as he is not authorised to speak to the press.

“The situation can be said to be a winning one for the Russian nuclear fuel industry.”

Poland proposes elaborate Baltic deal
Poland Friday announced it wants to build two nuclear plants, and announced that it wants a stake in replacing the final reactor at Lithuania’s Ignalina nuclear power plant, which is set for shutdown at the end 2009 under Lithuania’s EU accession agreement. In making the announcement, Poland was clear that its nuclear steps would be taken in response to the gas feud, news agencies reported.

“Poland is determined for this project to work, but a successful venture is a power plant in Ignalina that will produce enough power for Poland,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told a press conference after talks with his Lithuanian counterpart Andrius Kubilius.

Slovakia and Bulgaria following suit – and see profits
Slovakia and Bulgaria made the announcement over the weekend that they may revive their nuclear stations as the gas crisis depends, and at peril to their membership in the European Union, which required they abandon their decrepit Soviet-built reactors.

But a harsh winter and the prospect of arbitrary gas losses as the feud between Russia, who has shut off gas supplies to Ukraine, and Ukraine, who has shut down transit pipes on its territory transporting gas to other of Russia’s European customer, has caused Slovakia, Bulgaria and a host of other nations to rethink revising their past agreements to shut down dangerous energy sources, and possibly imperil their relationships with the European alliance.

bodytextimage_KozloduyNPP.jpg Photo: wikimedia commons

Bulgaria’s Kozloduy nuclear power plant shut down its Russian built No. 3 and No. 4 reactors on January 1st, 2006 in accordance with Bulgaria’s accession agreement with the EU.

Yet, even as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko approached a deal on Sunday that would allow gas exports to flow though Ukraine to countries afflicted by the shut-down, Bulgaria particularly, which was reluctant to shut down it’s Kozloduy nuke plant to begin with, were already speaking of extra profits to be garnered by cranking up their outdated nuclear power machine.  

Bulgaria’s prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, said Friday on Bulgaria’s Darik Radio that preparations where underway to restart a reactor at the country’s controversial Kozloduy nuclear power plant.

"Technical preparations (for the restart) have been started by the government and the nuclear power plant," he told the radio station, according to its web site.

"A decision would be taken in a dialogue with our partners and based on the developments of the gas crisis," he said in reference to discussions with European Union leadership.

Bulgaria, a European Union newcomer, is one of the hardest-hit nations in the Moscow-Kiev gas price row, and fears cuts in Russian gas supplies threaten to bring local power blackouts.

Stanishev said technical preparations to restart on of the Kozloduy’s Russian- built 440 megawatt VVER reactor would take at least 45 days.

Bulgaria has nothing to lose by restarting reactor: Officials
Rasho Parvanov, head of head of the Kozloduy’s Nuclear Power Plant’s Exploitation Department, was far more specific in interviews with the Bulgarian paper Standart on Sunday, claiming the country could restart Kozloduy’s No. 4 power unit for free – and that the turn on would net Sofia a tidy profit.

“Bulgaria will face no costs, if the cabinet really decides to put Kozloduy’s unit 4 back in use, as there is still some leftover nuclear fuel, which would be enough to have the reactor run for at least half a year,” Parvanov told the paper.
“The worth of power that would be generated over this period is estimated at 100 million levs  (€51.1 million) of net profit to Bulgaria."

Executive director of Bulgaria’s Kozloduy Plant, Ivan Genov, further told Darik Radio that the plans to Restart Reactor No. 4 would only be the beginning, and that Reactor No. 3 would be fired up as soon as Bulgaria was able to secure fresh fuel supplies for it.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov has further added to the momentum of restarting the No. 3 and 4 reactors at Kozloduy by saying he will put the question to a national referendum.

“I do not exclude the possibility to organize referendum on the re-commissioning of units 3 and 4 of Kozloduy NPP”, President Parvanov said in a speech Friday, according to Bulgarian newspapers.

“We hope that the European Union and the European Commission will realize that the closure was a mistake,” the president added, saying that re-commissioning will give a push to Bulgaria’s economy and energy.

Slovakia read to fight EU for its nuclear reactors

Adding to the list of those countries hardest hit by the Ukrainian-Russian gas wrangles is Slovakia, whose prime minister, Robert Fico, also announced Friday that his country is technically ready to restart an aging Soviet nuclear reactor to cope with a natural gas shortage  – despite threats by the EU to take action if it does.

Fico says authorities can ensure electricity deliveries for only few more days and will restart the reactor at the Jaslovske Bohunice nuclear plant when "a critical moment occurs," the Associated Press reported.

Slovakia, too, had been required to shut down its decrepit Soviet-built reactor as a condition of joining the EU.

Fico last week that Slovak officials are holding intensive talks with the European Commission "to minimize the damage" and would accept international monitors at its plant.

Kozloduy’s shady past spent nuke fuel deals with Russia
One of the biggest losers in the gas crisis, should the pledged nuclear restarts go forward, will be Russia’s environment, which is already languishing under 20,000 tons of foreign spent nuclear fuel.

In preparation for its accession into the European Union, Bulgaria was given a mandate to clear out as much of its spent nuclear fuel as possible prior to becoming an EU member at the beginning of 2006.

Ironically, Ukraine was at the fulcrum of this deal, as Kiev’s permission to transport old Soviet-made fuel across its territory was required. Shipping toxic waste to other counties was prohibited in the accession agreement, thus – admitted one highly place official in the Bulgarian government in an interview with Bellona Web in 2002  – Sofia intended to unload as much spent nuclear fuel on Russia as quickly as possible.

Russia readily agreed, and even granted Bulgaria a stiff markdown to accept its spent fuel. Then Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev widely advertised that Russia would accept spent nuclear fuel for a third to a half less than its closest competitors, England and France, for an approximate price of $1000 per kilogram of spent nuclear fuel.  

But the deal that was inked with Bulgaria granted even deeper cuts than that, and Rumyantsev eventually settled on a price of $620 per kilogram for taking Bulgaria’s spent nuclear fuel.  

Ukraine’s permission for Bulgaria to transport nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel across its territory to Russia was valid for 10 years when it was granted in 2002, meaning Russia is technically obligated to accept spent nuclear fuel and other waste from Kozloduy for another four years.

If Kozloduy’s No. 4 reactor is fired up again, the Tenex spokesman said he has “no doubt that (Russian State nuclear corporation) Rosatom will continue to take spent fuel indefinitely.”

Rosatom officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday.