Ukraine takes major steps toward swearing off Russian nuclear fuel

A radiation warning sign near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
A radiation warning sign near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Nils Bøhmer

Publish date: August 6, 2018

In a major step toward declaring energy independence from Moscow, officials in Ukraine have announced that they have loaded a unit at one of their nuclear power plants entirely with fuel fabricated by Westinghouse Electric Co.

In a major step toward declaring energy independence from Moscow, officials in Ukraine have announced that they have loaded a unit at one of their nuclear power plants entirely with fuel fabricated by Westinghouse Electric Co.

And while Ukraine’s nuclear industry is still scrambling under the yoke of the Chernobyl disaster, Kiev’s intention to buy more fuel produced by the Japanese-American consortium could serve to ensure that catastrophe doesn’t repeat itself within its shaky nuclear apparatus.

Last week, Ukraine’s nuclear energy monopoly, Energoatom, said that a third unit of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant near the town of Yuzhnoukrainsk had become “the first power generation unit operating solely using Westinghouse fuel.”

The use of Westinghouse fuel is part of a broader scheme to edge Russian produced fuel out of the Ukrainian market. According to a June release from Energoatom, four of the South Ukraine plant’s six reactors will be fulled loaded with Westinghouse fuel by 2021, followed by an eventual phase out of Russian supplied fuel for the county’s remaining nine reactors.
At that time, Igor Nasalyk, Ukraine’s Minister of Energy and Coal, made the fiery declaration that Kiev could easily survive without Russian produced fuel.

Despite Kiev’s overtures to Westinghouse, Nasalyk’s was a bold statement. Since 1991, Kiev has been almost wholly dependent on Moscow to fuel the nuclear power plants built on its territory while it was still apart of the Soviet Union. The shift to Western-supplied fuel, a report by Bellona has found, would to much to bolster Kiev’s independence from its hostile neighbor.

zaporozhianpp Credit: Wikipedia

Yet Kiev’s energy dependence on Moscow hasn’t changed much over the years, despite the country’s efforts to reach westward, and as recently as three years ago – just as Moscow began its military incursions into Ukraine’s east and annexed the Crimean Peninsula – Russia was supplying 95 percent of Ukraine’s nuclear fuel

But that figure took a precipitous dive in 2017, when Nasalyk revealed that only some 60 percent of the nuclear fuel Ukraine was using had come from Russia. And by the end of 2018, Nasalyk claimed, that percentage would drop yet again, to only 45 percent, with the remaining 55 percent furnished by Westinghouse and a handful of other western energy firms.

But beyond weaning itself off Russian energy supplies, Ukraine’s westward turn for its nuclear fuel serves to quell some very real safety concerns.

Even in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster Ukraine continues to rely on its four nuclear power plants for more than half of its energy.

This dependence hasn’t been lost on Moscow. In May of 2014, at the height of tensions between Kiev and Moscow, Russia’s pugilistic deputy prime minister for military affairs, Dmitry Rogozin, threatened to cut off nuclear fuel shipments to Ukraine – an abrupt freeze in supplies that would have critically jeopardized the safe operation of the country’s nuclear power plants.

It was a threat that had both teeth and a history. During the frigid winters of 2006 and 2009 Russia choked natural gas supplies to the European Union when Europe’s capitals quibbled with Moscow over its policies toward Kiev.

Europe has since, with varying degrees of success, moved to diversify who sells the gas it uses, but in 2014, no one doubted Rogozin’s willingness to push Ukraine to the brink of a civilian nuclear disaster to force Ukraine’s political hand.

It eventually fell to the soft-pedaling 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 cause 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 start loading Westinghouse fuel in its reactors. Over the past year, it’s becoming clearer that this gamble seems to be working as the number three unit at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant apparently shows.

But just because it’s being run on Western fuel doesn’t mean Ukraine’s nuclear industry is suddenly on par with its many of its safer European neighbors. As the Soviet Union split in 1991, Ukraine inherited not only the bulk of the Chernobyl cleanup, but a fleet of VVER-style Soviet reactors as well.

To be sure, Ukraine has seen unprecedented international funding focused on bringing the Chernobyl disaster to heel, but the country’s operational nuclear reactors have long been hobbling toward retirement in circumstances the outside world doesn’t know much about.
Given Ukraine’s dependence on them for 52 percent of its energy, most if not all of these reactors will be green lighted to operate several more years than they were designed for – a less than ideal solution for a country that can’t afford to decommission them.

At the same time, they will continue to add to a supply of radioactive waste that is the second biggest in Europe for decades longer.  In 2018, this problem will only get more burdensome when Russia, as per a long standing agreement, returns to Ukraine the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste it has been accepting and reprocessing since the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

But at least the Westinghouse fuel supply will thwart any attempt by Moscow to force disaster in what is already a deteriorated industry.