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Nuclear power development in Ukraine: Déjà vu?

Spring 2016 marked 30 years since the Chernobyl accident of April 26th 1986. The explosion at the fourth unit of the Chernobyl V.I. Lenin plant, which occurred during an experiment on safety equipment, contaminated about a tenth of the country as well as most of Belarus, parts of western Russia and many areas of Europe, especially mountain regions.

November 14, 2016 - David Marples - Articles and Commentary

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As a result of the accident, around 250,000 people in the zone around the reactor and later territories with over 15 cu/km2 of Cesium-137 in the soil were eventually evacuated from Ukraine and Belarus, and over 600,000 people took part in the clean-up operation. Cesium and Strontium-90 contamination of the soil proved a more protracted problem than enhanced radiation in the atmosphere.

After the explosion that destroyed Chernobyl’s fourth reactor, over 200 people required urgent medical attention with acute radiation sickness and over 1,800 were hospitalised initially. Short-term deaths (firemen, first-aid crews, operators) were in the fifties, but soon compounded by losses among clean-up workers—the Ukrainian Chornobyl Union has declared that 10 per cent of the total, that is 60,000, have died and 165,000 have become invalids—evacuees and residents of the area.

Questions were raised in Ukraine about the viability of nuclear power and an expansion programme controlled by Moscow-based ministries. An anti-nuclear movement, which eventually crystallised into a Green Party, opposed construction plans for new reactors at five different existing sites: Chernobyl, Rive, Khmelnyts’kyi, Mykolaiv (south Ukraine) and Zaporizhzhya; plans for new sites in Crimean and Chyhyryn region; and for nuclear power and heating stations near Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv.

These protests were largely successful though Chernobyl itself was only shut down in 2000 and the Shelter/Arch over the destroyed reactor, paid for by an international consortium, will not be completed until November 2017. The arch, similar to the Toronto Skydome in appearance, is being constructed by four Ukrainian companies, which will then transfer control to the French companies Bouyques and Vinci that are constructing the New Safe Confinement, with a minimum lifespan of 100 years.

The 30-kilometer zone, once termed the “zone of alienation” and uninhabitable, is a ghoulish tourist attraction. Today, visitors to Kyiv can pay for a coach trip to Chernobyl and the abandoned reactor town Pripyat at a cost of around $400 for the day. It has become not only a tourist site, but also one that inspires Western movies, mainly of the horror genre—the most recent was the 2012 Chernobyl Diaries.

This article addresses two major questions. First, should one accept the basic stereotype of the analysis of the accident propagated by UN agencies, but also by the governments of Belarus and Russia, that by will power and great sacrifice these governments overcame the consequences of Chernobyl, that the death toll is low, that the chief medical concerns today are psychological rather than physical, and that non-stochastic consequences are impossible to determine?

Second, how have the Ukrainian authorities addressed the question of nuclear power development at Ukraine’s four remaining nuclear plants, which are Russian built and use Russian fuel?

The first question probably cannot elicit a definitive answer. One can estimate that the long-term deaths from Chernobyl are much higher than the 4,000 predicted by the 2005 UN Report (Chernobyl Forum) and perhaps lower than the 90,000 from the one by Greenpeace International. Among the most affected personnel, there has been a marked rise in illnesses of all types, including certain types of leukemia, suicides, mental illness, and others.

In Belarus over 7,000 children contracted thyroid gland cancer and probably more than this number had benign tumors of the thyroid. In Ukraine in 2005 over 19,000 families were receiving benefits because of the loss of the family breadwinner “whose death is related to the Chernobyl accident.” Chemical worker Serii Mirnyi, who worked on decontamination after the accident, observes that incidence of thyroid gland cancer among children was 2-3 cases per 10,000 prior to April 1986 and increased about 100 times after the explosions.

Other losses occurred among helicopter pilots, filmmakers, and volunteers who were on the scene in the first days and months after the accident. But official information was classified by the Ministry of Defense from June 1986 and later by Moscow ministries. No one who died from Chernobyl radiation from the summer of 1986 to December 1991 was listed as a direct Chernobyl victim. Official secrecy had been manifest from the first and did much to discredit the Gorbachev administration in the eyes of the public.

Conversely, the lack of public information elicited hyperbole and sometimes there circulated wild stories about the medical effects—termed “radiophobia” by the authorities. In Ukraine there were bitter debates on the impact of low-level radiation. In Belarus, scientist Yuri Bandazhevsky was fired from the Homiel Medical Clinic on a trumped up charge of bribery after circulating a paper that outlined the dangers of exposure to low-levels of Cesium-137. The lack of mental health institutes in Ukraine signified that little help was provided to those suffering from psychological problems. The entire period was one of social upheaval and the newly independent Ukrainian state incapable of dealing with the problems for financial reasons.

But it is the second question that ultimately is more disturbing in the contemporary context. Far from being a distant memory, nuclear power accounts for over 55 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity today, despite the fact that most of Ukraine’s reactors have passed their originally prognosticated expiry dates. The nuclear industry in Ukraine has also become secretive, reluctant to share information and jealous of its prerogatives.

The turnaround began early. By 1993 Ukraine had removed a 1990 moratorium on the construction of reactors and, as Tatiana Kasperski notes in her 2015 paper, the Energy Strategy of Ukraine issued in 2006 forecast that all 15 reactor units in operation would continue until 2030. In all but two cases, it means extending their licenses with a further 7,000 megawatts of capacity to be installed at Khmelnytsky station (at Netishyn on the border with Rivne Oblast) on the recommendation of Enerhoatom, which has been responsible for the operation of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants since 1996.

To put this more simply, according to the original schedule six out of Ukraine’s fifteen reactors would have been shut down by 2019—in order: Rivne-3, Zaporizhzhya-3, Zaporizhzhya-4, Khmel’nyts’kyi 1, South Ukraine-3, and Zaporizhzhya-5. Today the earliest anticipated closure of any nuclear reactor is South Ukraine-2 in 2025, followed by Rivne 1 and 2, in 2030 and 2031 respectively. The usual extension period is fifteen years.

The nuclear lobby in Ukraine supported by the EU, which through its agencies has been providing the funding for the expansion of the lifespans of old reactors, thus far has managed to avoid its commitments to the UN Espoo (1997) and Aarhus Conventions (2001), requiring consultation with the public before going ahead with such plans. As noted in a recent article by Iryna Holovko and Dana Marekova, Ukraine did not carry out public consultations when it renewed the operation of two first-generation VVER reactors at the Rivne station in western Ukraine (located in Varash, formerly called Kuznetsovsk).

Nuclear power has become in theory an instrument by which Ukraine can avoid its former dependence on Russia for energy imports. The irony of that statement is that these reactors are Russian made and until recently all operated on Russian fuel. With Ukraine and Russia practically at war, the country is hastily taking over the programme using its own sources of uranium and extending contracts for fuel parts to the US Westinghouse Company. The European Union, through agencies such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is the main financier of modifications to extend the lifespans of the VVER-1000 reactors.

At Enerhodar on the Dnipro River, on the border of Zaporizhzhya Oblast, stands the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with 6 VVER-1000 reactors. Just 240 kilometres to the east is the city of Donetsk, currently under the control of a violent Russian-supported separatist regime. That is not much more than the distance from Donetsk to the Russian border, which gives one some perspective of the proximity of the giant station to the war zone. The only plant with immediate prospects of expansion—Khmel’nyts’kyi AES—has run into various problems and little work has taken place there.

The hostilities have changed other aspects of Ukraine’s nuclear power programme. On October 24th 2016, the energy and coal industry minister, Ihor Nasalyk, announced that Ukraine is building its own spent nuclear fuel storage enterprise, and that spent fuel will no longer be sent to Russia for storage from 2017. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and although Ukraine is developing a base for dry spent fuel in Zaporizhzhya region, the only functioning centre for the highly radioactive waste fuel is the Chernobyl radioactive waste management and disposal unit, formally opened by the then president Viktor Yushchenko in 2008. By March 2017, it will be the central used fuel storage facility for all Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

In this way, aside from any conflict-related questions, Ukraine can save $200 million annually, though Rosatom in Russia responded that advance payments are covering the current Russian fuel costs to Ukrainian station (Interfax Ukraine, Oct 24, 2016). At the same time, Nasalyk informed that Westinghouse fuel would eventually supply 40 per cent of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, thus gradually decreasing reliance on Russia.

In September 2014, a new law allowed Enerhoatom to sell 40 per cent of the company to a foreign investor. To date the arrangement with Westinghouse appears to have had mixed results. In June 2010, Enerhoatom had signed an agreement with the Russian company TVEL to supply fuel for all its reactors. By 2015, it purchased $611 million worth of fuel from TVEL and $33 million from Westinghouse, Sweden—a reduced amount from the previous year. Thus almost 95 per cent of nuclear fuel came from Russia last year despite the poor relations between the two states.

There are of course two ways of looking at this problem. One is that the Russian Federation, from the early years of independence, has used energy as a cudgel to wield influence in neighboring states that were formerly part of the USSR, particularly Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. The state-owned Gazprom has been a particularly difficult partner that has caused disputes with Ukraine and within the Ukrainian political leadership over energy prices and payment of debts. In this respect, Enerhotatom might be seen as a defender of Ukraine’s economic and even political independence.

The reality is quite different. Nuclear power, more than gas, renders Ukraine part of the Russian economic spectrum. Moreover, Ukraine’s renewed commitment to nuclear power has resulted in a bureaucratic conflict for power within an industry plagued by endemic corruption and in-fighting. Moreover, as noted above, Ukraine has only partially addressed the fuel cycle and technology dependence on Russia. Today, all four nuclear plants need Russian equipment.

In her excellent paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kasperski points out another obstacle, namely that Ukraine’s leading nuclear specialists are trained in Russia, and specifically Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. She notes that in 1996 Ukraine created a National University of Nuclear Energy and Industry, but located it in Sevastopol, which is now under Russian control after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ukraine wishes to expand an industry that traditionally has been closely controlled by Russian agencies and experts. It is very difficult to start anew, and even if that was possible, support is needed.

In Belarus, which is building its first nuclear power plant at Astraviec, close to the Lithuanian border, not only is the plant based on Russian reactors made in Rostov region, but it is being built by a Russian company, it will need Russian fuel and Russia has even loaned Belarus $9 billion to complete the project.

By taking the nuclear route, the country is not addressing a much more fundamental problem, namely the need to focus on energy conservation. In 2015, imports covered half of Ukraine’s total consumption of gas and plans are reported to introduce a program of cutting consumption and exploring alternative sources by the end of 2017. But such plans have been repeatedly announced over the years and, as noted, nuclear power is a bigger issue than gas given current state reliance on this form of energy.

Paradoxically, all the problems that were evident at Chernobyl in spring 1986 are present in contemporary Ukraine: a bureaucratic and corrupt management structure, a lack of attention to safety procedures, financial problems and cost overruns, a lack of consultation with the public over lengthening the operation periods of old reactors, the expansion of very large complexes such as Enerhodar and Mykolaiv, and continued dependence on Russia. The only difference is that in 1986, Russia and Ukraine were in theory working together under the auspices of the Soviet Union. Today there are few direct communications between the presidents’ offices in Moscow and Kyiv.

None of this is to say Ukraine should abandon nuclear power; only that it should be operated safely and responsibly, no matter how desperate the situation, while exploring the alternatives and wasteful energy expenditure.

David R. Marples is a Distinguished University Professor of Russian and East European History and currently Chairman of the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta. He is the author of fourteen single-authored books, including Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War (2014) and Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (2008). He has published over 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He has also edited three books on nuclear power and security in the former Soviet Union, contemporary Belarus, and most recently Ukraine’s Euromaidan: Analyses of a Civil Revolution (Stuttgart: ibidem Verlag, 2015, co-edited with Frederick Mills).


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