Ukraine eyes more nuclear reactor construction after war ends

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

Officials in Ukraine are mulling the construction of more nuclear reactors when the country’s grinding nearly 3-month-old war with Russia eventually ends, Petro Kotkin, head of Energoatom, the country’s state nuclear corporation, told a Ukrainian newswire last week.

An existing deal between Kyiv and Westinghouse could see a total of five AP1000 type reactors built throughout the country, with the first two slated for the Khmelnitsky nuclear plant in Ukraine’s northwest to begin construction  “as soon as the war is over,” Kotkin told the Ukrainian newswire on May 13.

The ambitious remarks came as the Russian invasion continues to imperil all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, including its four Soviet-era nuclear power plants, which collectively host 15 reactors supplying more than half the country’s electricity.

The largest of those facilities, the Zaporizhzhya Plant – whose six reactors make it the biggest nuclear plant in Europe – has been held by Russian forces since March 4, when it was shelled in a dramatic attack that raised the specter of a nuclear catastrophe.

Located in the Zaporizhzhya Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, the plant has fallen into Russia’s crosshairs as Moscow’s troops look to establish control of the neighboring Donbas region.

Since the takeover, Ukrainian staff have been held at gunpoint and are made to answer to officials from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation – a situation the International Atomic Energy Agency has called “fragile” and “unsustainable.”

Rafael Grossi, the agency’s head, has implored both the Ukrainian and Russian sides to allow agency monitors to launch a safety mission the plant, so far with no success.

Russian forces also held, then later withdrew from, Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986. An influx of heavy armored vehicles at the site churned up plumes of radioactive dust and fighting in the area knocked out electricity to spent nuclear fuel cooling at the site twice, though it was restored on each occasion.

All of these developments stress a nuclear industry that was already in questionable shape before the war began. Each of Ukraine’s reactors were built in the 1970s and 1980s when it was still a Soviet republic, and nearly all of them are running on lifetime extensions that will push them well past their originally engineered retirement dates.

At a political level, Ukraine has doubled down on its nuclear industry, with President Volodomyr Zelensky pledging in 2020 to move forward on the additional reactors at Khmelnitsky – despite urging from Europe to develop renewable power sources.

In his interview, Energoatom’s Kotkin said the government was considering building yet more nuclear power plants – one in the Cherkasy region of central Ukraine and another in Odessa, which has weathered numerous Russian missile attacks.

He also suggested that future reactor construction will include security reinforcements to repel military attacks, saying the new Westinghouse reactors would incorporate double confinement shells to protect them from missile strike.

“But this problem is not solved only by technological design. You can strengthen the shell, but you need to take other measures,” Kotkin said.  “I visited a nuclear power plant in Pakistan  –  in Karachi, they built a triple perimeter of protection around their facility. In 2020, the IAEA recognized that the Karachi nuclear power plant has one of the best protection concepts.”