Ukraine to step up efforts to produce a domestic uranium supply

Warning sign at control post Chernobyl Zone.
Warning sign at control post Chernobyl Zone.
Nils Bøhmer

Publish date: January 7, 2022

Ukraine, facing a lack of fuel for thermal power plants and surging gas prices, aims to increase its uranium production to fully cover the needs of its ageing nuclear power units after 2026, the government said last week.

Ukraine, facing a lack of fuel for thermal power plants and surging gas prices, aims to increase its uranium production to fully cover the needs of its ageing nuclear power units after 2026, the government said last week.

Under a national program the government adopted before the end of the year, Ukraine will invest $335 million over the next five years to increase uranium mining and processing facilities in the center of the country.

The program would also help wean the country off its dependence on Russian-produced uranium fuel for its reactor fleet, which was built while the country was still a republic of the Soviet Union and which still provides more than half the country’s electricity.

The new program would see production at four Ukrainian uranium deposits total 995 tonnes in 2022 and should rise to 1,265 tonnes in 2026, according to figures reported by Reuters. The government gave no uranium output figure for 2021 but said current production meets around 40% of Ukraine’s needs for nuclear fuel.

The majority of that fuel comes from Russia, with additional supplies coming from the United States.

“The main purpose of this concept is to create conditions for increasing uranium production to fully meet the needs of domestic nuclear energy, as well as increase Ukraine’s energy independence,” Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said in remarks reported by World Nuclear News. Although its production dipped in 2020 and 2021, Ukraine’s VostGOK uranium mining company has historically produced up to 830 tons of uranium per year, which World Nuclear Association rates as about 30% of the country’s requirements.

Shortly after taking office in May of 2019, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky committed the country to further development of nuclear power amid pushback from many of its European neighbors.

The new efforts at expanding uranium  production come as work to fully clean up the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is still ongoing. Since 2015, an enormous steel dome, called the New Safe Confinement, has enclosed Chernobyl’s exploded  No 4 reactor, trapping radiation and facilitating risky dismantlement efforts.

But most experts say it will take another 20,000 years before the area immediately surrounding the plant – called the exclusion zone from which more than 100,000 people were evacuated – will again be fit for human habitation.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine inherited not only the embers of Chernobyl, but also four other nuclear power plants: The Rivne plant in the country’s northwest; the Khmelnitsky plant, to Rivne’s south; The South Ukraine plant, near the Black Sea, and the Zaporizhia plant, whose six VVER-1000 reactors make it the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.\

All but three of Ukraine’s reactors began operations in the 1980s, putting most of them troublingly close to the end of their engineered lifespans of 40 years. In fact, 12 of Ukraine’s reactors were slated to retire in 2020, but nonetheless continue to operate.

To continue to produce some 54 percent of the country’s energy, it is presumed that all of these reactors will eventually be granted extensions on their runtimes of several decades.

Given the age of the nuclear industry as a whole, such lifetime extensions have become common practice worldwide. But two Bellona publications – one on Ukraine’s nuclear industry, and another on the practice of reactor lifetime extensions – have cast light on the dangers of this approach.

One study by Ukrainian experts, cited in Bellona’s report, shows that Ukraine’s older reactors are becoming more prone to accidents and malfunctions. It is hoped that safety upgrades that should precede their operational extensions would eliminate such technical glitches.

But the Bellona study highlighted two reactors at the Rivne plant that had been given lifetime extensions without any safety upgrades at all.

The longer Ukraine’s reactors operate, the more they will contribute to the country’s supply of radioactive waste, which is currently the second largest in Europe. This problem has only gotten more serious since 2018, when Russia began returning to Ukraine the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste Moscow had been accepting and reprocessing after the Soviet Union dissolved.

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  if Kiev even had plans to do so. But as the Bellona report reveals, the bureaucracies in Kiev that are responsible for such questions 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. Ukrainian nuclear officials know how much there is and they intend 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.

While it’s unclear Ukraine’s continued embrace of nuclear energy has taken full account of the issues facing its aging reactors, it is hoped that any continued reliance on its Soviet inheritance will do so.