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Ukraine's nuclear power program going from bad to worse

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Author: Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Ukraine's nuclear regulator, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate Council, has approved further reactor lifespan extensions despite the country's failure to implement safety-related requirements under international conventions and safety-related obligations attached to loan funding.1

The 30-year-old Zaporizhye-1 reactor was taken offline when it reached its design lifespan in December 2015, but restarted following approval of an extension in September 2016. Then in October 2016, the Zaporizhye-2 reactor, shut down when it reached its 30-year lifespan in February 2016, received approval for a 10-year extension.

This is the latest chapter in a long-running saga. Iryna Holovko from Bankwatch / National Ecological Centre of Ukraine takes up the story:2

"Here's how this atomic debacle unfolded so far. In December 2010 the Ukrainian authorities approved the first lifetime extension. Unit 1 in the Rivne power plant, working since three decades, was allowed to continue operations for 20 more years. Barely a month later an accident happened, and the reactor's output had to be reduced by half.

"Unit 2 in the Rivne power plant was also granted a 20 years lifetime extension. Activists and civil society organisations criticised the decision-making process allowing these nuclear reactors' expiry dates to be rewritten. In March 2013, the Espoo Convention's Implementation Committee ruled the decision indeed was in breach of the treaty, since Ukraine did not carry out assessments of the impacts the project can have on people and the environment in neighbouring countries.

"But this did not deter the Ukrainian government. In December 2013 it approved another lifetime extension, this time for unit 1 in the South Ukraine power station. Energoatom, Ukraine's national energy operator, conducted technical checks of the nuclear reactor prior to the decision, but these might not have been thorough enough. An independent expert assessment3 released in March 2015 criticised the re-licensing process that led to the approval of the lifetime extension, and warned that the reactor is suffering critical vulnerabilities.

"South Ukraine's unit 2 was suspended in May 2015 when it reached its original expiry date. But this was only temporary, to allow necessary safety improvements. Seven months later, in December 2015, Ukraine's nuclear regulator decided the reactor can be brought back online and continue working for ten more years, even though 11 safety measures4 of the highest priority had not been implemented."

And now two Zaporizhye reactors have been granted lifespan extensions, bringing the total number of extensions to six. Kiev plans another six lifespan extensions.5 Until the extension program kicked in, 12 out of Ukraine's 15 power reactors were scheduled for permanent shut-down by the end of this decade.

Espoo and Aarhus Conventions

Disputes remain unresolved regarding Ukraine's compliance (or non-compliance) with both the Espoo Convention (the UN Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context) and the Aarhus Convention (the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) yet Kiev continues to approve reactor lifespan extensions.

In 2013, Ukraine was found to have breached the Espoo Convention for failing to adequately assess the potential impacts of lifespan extensions of the Rivne 1 and 2 reactors on neighboring countries, failing to consult neighboring countries, and failing to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment.6

Ukraine's neighbours ‒ Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria ‒ have sent multiple questions for clarification and requests for participation in trans-boundary consultations regarding Ukraine's reactor lifespan extension program. But Kiev, in response, has denied its obligation to conduct any such consultations.2

The Espoo Convention's Implementation Committee is the only body with the power to rule on violations of the Convention. The Committee is currently preparing a report, for the June 2017 Meeting of the Parties, on Ukraine's adherence to (or violation of) the Convention.7

Obligations attached to European funding

Numerous European institutions are involved in this complex saga. In March 2013, the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) announced a €300 million loan for reactor safety upgrading in Ukraine, matching €300 million from Euratom. That €600 million (US$660m) amounts to one-quarter of the total EU support to Ukraine's energy sector between 2007-2014.8

Funding for safety upgrades is welcome ‒ but the program is badly undermined by Ukraine's failure to abide by safety-related obligations attached to the funding.

Earlier this year, Bankwatch approached the European Commission requesting documents related to Euratom's loans to Ukraine. Bankwatch believes that Ukraine has not met the loan conditions, that it is violating the Espoo and Aarhus Conventions, and that the Espoo Committee's 2013 ruling regarding Ukraine's non-compliance should be considered a precedent applicable to similar cases. Following an inadequate response from the European Commission, Bankwatch took the case to the European Court of Justice. That case is still pending ‒ yet reactor lifespan extension decisions are still being made in Ukraine.7

In addition to obligations arising under the Espoo and Aarhus Conventions, each of the two €300 million loans for safety upgrades is conditional on full compliance with international environmental law, include the Espoo Convention. The European Commission has reiterated this obligation on several occasions.7

Iryna Holovko from Bankwatch / National Ecological Centre of Ukraine said: "Ukrainian authorities need a clear message from the European Commission that disrespect for international obligations comes with consequences. No respect for conventions, no money."1

Energy Community

Ukraine is also under scrutiny by the Energy Community (established by an international treaty in 2005) for its failure to implement the EU's Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, one of the obligations tied to the safety upgrade funding.9

Ukraine was required to transpose the Energy Community's Environmental Impact Assessment Directive into national law by 1 January 2013 but still hasn't done so. Issues of concern include, in the Energy Community's words, "provisions on transboundary environmental impact assessment and the improper or incomplete transposition of the provisions on the projects to be covered by an environmental impact assessment, on the information to be included in the impact assessment report and on public participation."9

In a 6 September 2016 statement, the Energy Community gave Ukraine two months to "react to the allegation of non-compliance with Energy Community law".9

Growing accident rate at Ukrainian nuclear plants

Nuclear Engineering International reported in August 2016:10

"[T]here is growing concern about the condition of Ukraine's NPPs. Former Chernobyl NPP director Mikhail Umanets told a recent press conference in Kiev that he is concerned by the growing number of emergency situations being reported at the plants. He warned that the possibility of an accident at one of Ukraine's four operating NPPs nuclear power plants is increasing.

"The Ukrainian nuclear industry has faced several high-profile incidents recently. In July, a unit at Khmelnitsky NPP was disconnected from the grid following a steam generator leak. In late May, unit 2 at the South Ukraine NPP was forced to stop operations, after operators tripped the station's safety systems. In April, energy production at the Zaporozhye and Rovno plants stopped while faults were investigated. In the spring, all the reactors were at risk of being closed, after Energoatom's foreign currency accounts were frozen and there were no funds to pay for nuclear fuel.

"Umanets noted out that 15 violations were recorded at the plants in 2015, based on the International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale (INES), which documents both minor incidents and major accidents. That is 1.5 times more than the number of recorded in 2014. In 2016, he added, the INES has already recorded seven violations, double the amount reported during the same period in 2015.

""We run the risk of a serious incident. Since 16 October 2014, Ukraine has not had a chief inspector for nuclear and radiation safety. The position was eliminated, and no self-respecting professional would agree to take it after the cabinet proposed a bill to Ukraine's parliament which stated that 'the inspector's decisions may be cancelled by the head of the state regulator or his designated representative'," he said."

Build them on Mars

Any number of scenarios could potentially develop from the simmering Ukrainian‒Russian conflict and the broader geopolitical conflicts surrounding the regional conflict ‒ attacks or accidental strikes on nuclear plants by sub-national groups or nation-states, regional conflict sparking conflict between nuclear-armed superpowers, cyberattacks11, insider attacks12, the possibility that Ukraine's small atomic bomb lobby will grow in strength, etc. Most of those scenarios are low probability but potentially very high impact.

Nuclear waste is another concern. Poorly shielded spent fuel casks, lacking a secondary containment system, at the Zaporizhye plant ‒ the closest of Ukraine's nuclear plants to the conflict in eastern Ukraine ‒ are potential targets of a deliberate attack or a stray missile. The Guardian reported in May 2015 that more than 3,000 spent fuel rods are kept inside metal casks and concrete containers in an open-air yard close to the perimeter fence at Zaporizhye. Gustav Gressel from the European Council of Foreign Relations said "the Russians use a large amount of multiple rocket-propelled systems that are not entirely precise, and they don't really care where they land." Around 770,000 people live in the city of Zaporizhye.13

There was nothing reassuring in the comments of Sergiy Bozhko, chair of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, to The Guardian in May 2015: "Given the current state of warfare, I cannot say what could be done to completely protect installations from attack, except to build them on Mars."13

Numerous security incidents have been reported since 2014. For example, in May 2014, the Zaporizhye nuclear plant was the backdrop to an armed confrontation between men from Right Sector (a pro-Ukrainian paramilitary force), security guards from the plant and police. The Right Sector men said they had come to remove pro-Russian agitators who, they claimed, had been operating inside the plant. The Right Sector men were eventually disarmed.14

But it's near-impossible to accurately gauge the scale of the nuclear security problem over the past 2.5 years ‒ too much of the available 'information' is colored by the Ukrainian and Russian governments' attempts to downplay or exaggerate risks and problems.

And while much of the discussion focuses on sub-national groups threatening nuclear plants, nation-states also need to be considered. Bennett Ramberg, a former policy analyst with the US State Department, wrote in an April 2014 article:15

"History offers little guidance as to whether warring countries would avoid damaging nuclear sites. With the exception of the 1990s' Balkan conflict, wars have not been fought against or within countries with nuclear reactors. In the case of the Balkans, Serbian military jets overflew Slovenia's Krško nuclear power plant in a threatening gesture early in the conflict, while radical Serbian nationalists called for attacks to release the radioactive contents. Serbia itself later issued a plea to Nato not to bomb its large research reactor in Belgrade. Fortunately, the war ended with both reactors untouched.

"While that case provides some assurance that military and political leaders will think twice about attacking nuclear reactors, the sheer scale of Ukraine's nuclear enterprise calls for far greater global concern. ... Concentrated in four locations, Ukraine's pressurized water reactors differ from the less stable Chernobyl RBMK design, yet still remain capable of releasing radioactive contents should safeguards fail. Given that Russia, too, suffered serious consequences from the Chernobyl accident, it is to be hoped that the Kremlin would recoil at the idea of bombing the plants intentionally. But warfare is rife with accidents and human error, and such an event involving a nuclear plant could cause a meltdown.

"A loss of off-site power, for example, could be an issue of serious concern. Although nuclear plants are copious producers of electricity, they also require electrical power from other sources to operate. Without incoming energy, cooling pumps will cease functioning and the flow of water that carries heat away from the reactor core ‒ required even when the reactor is in shutdown mode ‒ will stop.

"To meet that risk, nuclear plants maintain large emergency diesel generators, which can operate for days ‒ until their fuel runs out. The reactor meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power station in 2011 demonstrated what happens when primary and emergency operating power are cut.

"Such vulnerabilities raise troubling questions in the event of a war. Fighting could disrupt off-site power plants or transmission lines servicing the reactor, and could also prevent diesel fuel from reaching the plant to replenish standby generators. Operators could abandon their posts should violence encroach.

"Moreover, combatants could invade nuclear plants and threaten sabotage to release radioactive elements to intimidate their opponents. Others might take refuge there, creating a dangerous standoff. A failure of military command and control or the fog of war could bring plants under bombardment.

"Serious radiological contamination could result in each of these scenarios. And, though no one stands to gain from a radioactive release, if war breaks out, we must anticipate the unexpected.

"In Ukraine, nuclear emissions could exceed both Chernobyl and Fukushima. Wartime conditions would prevent emergency crews from getting to an affected plant to contain radiological releases should reactor containments fail. And, with government services shut down in the midst of fighting, civilians attempting to escape radioactive contamination would not know what to do or where to go to protect themselves."

Clean energy solutions

Clean energy solutions ‒ renewables and energy efficiency and conservation ‒ offer a way to reduce the myriad risks associated with Ukraine's nuclear power program. Ukraine is highly energy inefficient due to decades of subsidies that artificially reduce energy costs to the public and frequent failure to even collect on the energy bills that are charged to consumers and institutions.16 So there's plenty of low-hanging fruit in the fields of energy efficiency and conservation.

And there's plenty of untapped renewable energy potential. Jan Haverkamp and Iryna Holovko wrote in an April 2016 paper: "Ukraine could cover its entire energy demand in 2050 with wind, solar and water and a 32% decrease in primary energy need. A move towards clean, renewable energy sources (such as wind, water, sun, biomass and geothermal) would seem a logical route, especially given the potential savings in health costs and increase in energy independence. Here, in these countries most afflicted by Chernobyl, economic realities make this switch to a clean energy future inevitable: the old centralised energy economy is collapsing, slowly but surely, and an awareness movement is growing."17


1. Bankwatch, 3 Oct. 2016, 'New life for old nukes in Ukraine means more risk for people and planet',

2. Iryna Holovko, 18 May 2016, 'Time for Europe to stop supporting Ukraine's risky nuclear power sector',

3. Bankwatch, 17 March 2015, 'Summary of an independent review of the proposed lifetime extension of Unit 1 at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant and its compliance with relevant nuclear safety standards',

4. Bankwatch, 8 Dec. 2015, 'Ukraine snubs safety concerns and European donors, extends lifetime of fourth Soviet-era nuclear reactor',


6. Bankwatch, 22 April 2013, 'Ukraine's Nukes Are in Breach of UN Convention',

7. Dana Marekova, 5 Sept. 2016, 'Ukraine's nuclear energy fixation puts its European financiers to a test',

 8. Bankwatch, 17 Nov. 2015, 'Analysis of EU investments in Ukraine's energy sector, 2007-2014',

9. Energy Community, 6 Sept. 2016, 'Secretariat initiates dispute settlement case against Ukraine for non-compliance with the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive',

10. Nuclear Engineering International, 24 Aug. 2016, 'Ukraine looks to NPP life extension amid safety concerns',

11. Michael Toecker, 1 May 2016, 'Why Power Generators Can't Ignore the Ukraine Cyberattack',

12. Matthew Bunn and Scott Sagan, April 2014, 'A Worst Practices Guide to Insider Threats: Lessons from Past Mistakes', Occasional Paper, American Academy of Arts & Sciences,

13. Arthur Neslen, 13 May 2015, 'Nuclear waste stored in 'shocking' way 120 miles from Ukrainian front line',

14. Oliver Carroll, 28 Dec. 2014, 'Ukraine turns off reactor at its most powerful nuclear plant after 'accident'',

15. Bennett Ramberg, 16 April 2014, 'The Chernobyl factor in the Ukraine crisis',
16. Michael Mariotte, 25 March 2014, 'Nuclear industry's wishful thinking knows no bounds: No, Ukraine crisis is not going to boost nukes in Europe',

17. Jan Haverkamp and Iryna Holovko, 25 April 2016, 'Towards a post-nuclear Ukraine',