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Ukrainian-Russian conflict: atomic details

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Nuclear Monitor #789, 21 Aug 2014,

Author: Andriy Martynyuk

NM789.4404 Realizing the truth of Zbigniew Brzezinski's words that "Russia will stop being an empire without Ukraine", Russia is taking shocking steps. These include the annexation of Crimea, comprehensive support for terrorists in the Donbas region, blocking the gas supply into Ukraine from Russia, and many other openly-hostile steps. But, against the background of gas and other conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, the subject of nuclear relations between these states has remained almost out of focus of the media, politicians and citizens. These nuclear relations have a lot of interesting, little-known details.

In 2013, 56% of gas consumed in Ukraine was purchased in Russia. The topic of gas dependence is widely debated at all levels, and Ukraine's objection to paying the price proposed by Russia was the formal reason for the gas supply cut-off by Russia. At the same time, the majority of Ukrainians do not realize that almost 100% of the nuclear fuel in Ukraine comes from Russia − all except the use of Westinghouse fuel on a trial basis in the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant. Ukraine pays nearly US$600 million (€450m) a year for fresh nuclear fuel and also nearly US$100 million (€75m) a year to send spent spent nuclear fuel back to Russia.

Against the background of US$12 billion (€9m) paid by Ukraine for Russian gas in 2013, these figures look negligible. However, they are gigantic in the context of the budget of the state operator of all 15 Ukrainian nuclear units of Energoatom, National Nuclear Energy Generating Company of Ukraine. Energoatom posted a loss of more than US$500 million in 2013. The reason for this is that nuclear power plants have been selling electricity for blatantly populist price throughout the entire history of independent Ukraine. In April 2014, the price was increased to US$0.025 /kWh. (€0.019) This is not enough even for carrying out priority measures to improve safety standards, and the company is forced to take multibillion-dollar loans to fulfill the requirements of the regulator – the State Inspectorate of Nuclear Regulation − as well as to extend the lifespan of the reactors. And no-one even seriously talks about funds for reactor decommissioning and long-term solutions for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive wastes.

100% dependence on Russian nuclear fuel has long aroused concerns of the Ukrainian political leadership. The responses are as follows. Firstly, spent fuel storage, which has already been built at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station, and the construction of centralized spent fuel storage for the three remaining nuclear power plants in the Chernobyl zone. The official justification for such actions is the reduction of payments to Russia for the storage of spent fuel, and preserving a valuable resource for future generations. Secondly, the signing of the contract with Westinghouse for the research and industrial exploitation of its fuel at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant.

Ukrainian spent fuel storage in Russia is a concern − but it is a concern that is ignored by the Russian media. A spent nuclear fuel processing plant is to be built by 2020−2025 at Zheleznogorsk in the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia. But there is already an accumulation of spent fuel in the same city, raising objections from local authorities. The fact that Russia is not going to keep Ukrainian spent nuclear fuel forever remains little-known − Russia will only process it and then send back it to Ukraine. Ukraine does not even have facilities for handling spent fuel, and it is often just piled in the open air. That is why the lever of pressure on Ukraine will be the possibility of sending some spent nuclear fuel back from Russia, and Ukraine does not have any solution for it.

The contract with Westinghouse has provoked much greater opposition from Russia. In 2009, the Ukrainian edition of the Mirror of the Week posted the secret plan which compels cooperation with Russia's Rosatom. Among other things, Russia openly planned (and used) political pressure and economic blackmail to bar the Ukrainian fuel market from using any fuel of non-Russian origin. All Russian−Ukrainian nuclear cooperation plans − plant construction for fuel production, new nuclear units and credits for them, use of Ukrainian uranium − were developed under the harsh conditions of purchasing exclusively Russian fuel.

So far, Russian nuclear lobbyists have confined themselves to high-flown statements. The work did not even come down to public safety and economic comparisons of fuel from Rosatom's TVEL fuel company and Westinghouse. The whole rhetoric boils down to charges about the impossibility of using the fuel of other producers in WWER Soviet units, and conversely, the need to diversify fuel supply. Obviously, Rosatom realizes the uncertainty of its own position in the international arena, and does not dare to take any steps in the style of Gazprom such as sharply increasing in the cost of nuclear fuel, limiting fuel supply or refusal to accept spent nuclear fuel from Ukraine. But our current experience shows that such a scenario is quite possible, and it will be implemented if the political leadership of Russia considers it reasonable.

Trying to develop nuclear energy, Ukraine as a state does not act in its own interests. Research by the International Energy Agency suggests that investments in energy efficiency in Ukraine are several times more profitable than the construction of any new generating capacity. Instead, we plan to build new reactors and a plant for uranium fuel production, and we opened a new uranium mine. Since the implementation of such plans is impossible without Russia's participation, it would lead to an increase in our energy dependence. We should immediately start a wide discussion about the real cost of nuclear power and its necessity, as well as introducing an economically-justified tariff on nuclear electricity.

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