Ukraine inks deal to fuel older reactors with Westinghouse fuel

Control room The control room of a nuclear reactor. Credit: Getty Images

Ukraine’s nuclear corporation has signed on to have Westinghouse Electric Co fuel the Soviet-era reactors at its Rivne plant in the country’s northwest in another step that could help mark the country’s energy independence from Moscow.

The company currently supplies fuel for six of Ukraine’s Russian-built VVER-1000 reactors, with a seventh due to switch to Westinghouse assemblies next year. The new contract, signed on September 30, will encompass fuel for older Soviet-built VVER-440 reactors running at Rivne – a step that means the western firm will now supply fuel to more than half of Ukraine’s operating reactors.

Westinghouse also signed a letter of intent with Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear operator, to start fabricating the fuel within the country.

By using Westinghouse fuel, officials in Kyiv are seeking to break a dependence on Russian nuclear fuel, which has lingered since 1991. All of the country’s nuclear power plants – including the infamous Chernobyl – where built while the Ukraine was still a republic of the Soviet Union.

The shift has been underway since 2000, when the government in Kyiv signed an agreement with the United States. But it took on new urgency in 2014, when Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented a proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

“With this major agreement, we extend further our commitment to Ukraine’s energy security and focus on further improving the operational excellence of its nuclear fleet,” Westinghouse President and CEO Patrick Fragman said, according to World Nuclear News.

The outlet quotes Energoatom head Petro Kotin as saying, “We are taking another step in our combined need for continuing to improve the performance of our plants and diversifying our supply,” “This is an important decision not only for Ukraine, but for all countries of the European continent with VVER-440 units.”

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. When the Soviet Union split in 1991, Ukraine inherited not only the bulk of the Chernobyl cleanup, but a fleet of 15 Soviet- designed VVER reactors.

To be sure, Ukraine has seen unprecedented international funding focused on bringing the 1986 nuclear 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, however, 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 became more acute  when Russia, as per a long standing agreement, began returning to Ukraine the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste it has been accepting and reprocessing since the Soviet Union’s dissolution.