On the Brink of Disaster: Why Ukraine Is Preparing a Second Chernobyl


Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

22nd April, 2016


Kiev authorities continue to follow the course of the rejection of everything Russian. And after food, gas (as it happens it is easier, although not cheaper, to get the reverse flow from Europe), and goods in daily demand, the country decided to not involve Russia in the implementation of joint projects in the nuclear energy sector.

Now they have decided to gamble on cooperation with Western companies, primarily American ones. It was decided to completely stop the previous contacts with Russian nuclear scientists, including critical facilities such as NPPs, which required professional maintenance.

Fuel from another continent

A few years ago, the Ukrainian leadership was talking about a possible transition from Russian nuclear fuel  shipped under US contracts. Back then, the idea of strong partnerships with overseas suppliers was tied to the narrow self-interests of lobbyists in Kiev. With the arrival of the openly Russophobic authorities, this theme has received new a development. In 2015, it became known that Westinghouse – an American energy giant – was embarking on the development of a large part of the Ukrainian nuclear power market.

Ukraine declared its readiness to accept fuel that will be loaded into unit #5 of the Zaporizhia NPP. Head of Westinghouse Danny Roderick, in an interview with Ukrainian media, spoke about the prospect of introducing the materials to all Ukrainian power units. For the implementation of this task, as was noted by Roderick, they will run a plant in Sweden, whose capacity is under-utilized.

Of course, the question of choosing a supplier for power plants, even nuclear, can be attributed to normal commercial relations and competition between companies. However, not everything is so unambiguous. Experts immediately warned that the fuel produced at Westinghouse is not suitable for the reactors in Ukrainian nuclear power plants, which were designed with a focus on the use of rods produced in Russia.

At one time a joint Russian-Ukrainian project was even developed to build a plant for the production of nuclear fuel in the Kirovohrad region. But the government of Yatsenyuk came to power, and it was one of the contracts that was torn up first. What was a purely industrial project immediately became a political issue, and then fell victim to anti-Russian sentiment.

According to one Russian expert in the nuclear field, candidate of technical Sciences associate Professor Igor Mikheev, Ukraine today “obediently follows the lead of the Americans.” The expert is perplexed as to why Europe doesn’t offer suggestions to its “allies”. “Hope for Western wind? But it may not be so lucky, and it will carry radioactive dust to Poland, the Baltic States, or Norway. They want a new Chernobyl?” – asks Mikheev.

Nuclear bomb

His concern about what is happening in the nuclear industry of the neighboring country was stated by the Russian Foreign Ministry a year ago. The comments of the Press and Information Department noted that “the desire of the Ukrainian side to dramatically expand the use of existing units with American fuel, whose reliability is not verified (no power unit of Ukraine has worked with a full load of American cassettes), cannot but cause alarm”.

As was emphasized by the Russian Foreign Ministry, no self-respecting specialist can predict the “behavior” of these devices on the results of four tests. In addition, the statement expressed concern about the American company’s plans to hold on to the Ukrainian units’ activities in order to increase their capacity by 10%. “The implementation of such plans without the consent of the general designer of the reactor – Russian design Bureau “Gidropress” – is the equivalent of conducting a dangerous experiment,” emphasized the statement of the Foreign Ministry of our country.

As an example of such a failed experiment, the inconsistent application of the equipment from the French company “Framatom” in the Russian-designed Paks NPP reactor (Hungary), which led in 2003 to a radiation accident, was cited. By the way, they had Russian specialists to eliminate the effects.

In an interview with TV channel “Zvezda”, Director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies Anton Khlopkov stressed that the use of native and non-certified fuels, which in the past created problems for the safe operation of nuclear power plants, is a challenge that cannot be ignored.

“In the current circumstances, Ukraine’s decision to begin replacing Russian fuel with fuel produced by an American company is a political decision,” said the head of the center. However, he said that just five years ago, Ukraine, working with the same US fuel in test mode, was forced to suspend one of its units because of problems, and to turn to Russia to urgently supply replacement native Russian fuel.

We are talking about the south Ukrainian nuclear power plant where the Americans tried to “push” the rods of the fuel cells, which begin to warp directly in the reactor. With the help of specialists from Russia, the situation was brought under control. Because of problems with the fuel of Westinghouse, its use declined in the Czech Republic. After several dangerous situations, they decided to unload poor-quality raw materials from the reactors and load fuel of Russian production.

Currently operating in just Ukraine are four nuclear power plants with 15 generating units, which produce about half the electricity of the country. However, despite the importance for the state, the attitude towards the nuclear industry in the country remains shallow. As a result, the number of incidents has multiplied. The most recent example can be considered the November 2014 shutdown of one of the units of the Zaporizhia NPP due to a damaged transformer winding power supply section.

The authorities hastened to refute the information about excess background radiation at the station. However, this incident caused a stir both within Ukraine and in European countries. In particular, the German magazine Der Spiegel printed an article that analyzed the situation in the nuclear power industry of Ukraine. The article noted that since the end of the 1990’s, there were at least five serious incidents at Ukrainian nuclear power plants. In addition, the station in Zaporizhia is located about 200 kilometers from Donetsk, which is not far from the area where the Armed Forces are actively fighting, but it is also fraught with potential incidents.

“Cash cow” for global business

The same Anton Khlopkov drew attention to the fact that Ukraine is involved in the supply of nuclear fuel for international businesses, which a fairly large market with an annual turnover of no less than $600 million. The fact that large companies are ready to compete for this market says that interest comes not only from American contractors, but also French and Japanese ones too.

The expert from the Austrian website Contra Magazin Marco Maier noticed that the French company AREVA, which constructs energy facilities, and the Japanese-American Toshiba-Westinghouse, a manufacturer of equipment for the nuclear industry, successfully lobbied their interests in Kiev recently. Maier is sure that the foreign company will supply rods for nuclear reactors to Ukraine.

However, as was noted by the Contra Magazin author, the use of western equipment at Ukrainian stations is a “dangerous game”. “Western technology is incompatible with Soviet nuclear power plants,” emphasized Mayer, adding that “the new rods with the old Soviet reactors, in technical terms, are potentially dangerous”. Referring to expert data, the author notes that experiments with the reactor cores of Toshiba-Westinghouse MOX-fuel (mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium) risk “causing powerful accidents in Europe, which will become the third after Chernobyl and Fukushima”.

“But Kiev politicians seem to be absolutely indifferent,” reflects Mayer. “The main thing is that, having refused the Russian rods for this type of reactor, they can annoy the “evil Russians”. In addition, in the event of a major accident, the proximity to the territories of the militia facilitates the opportunity to blame “terrorists” in Donbass”.

The Ukrainian authorities, it seems, really don’t care much about the opinion of experts. They only care about opportunities for profit. Not so long ago there was information that the Ukrainian Finance Ministry, headed by former employee of the US Department of State Natalie Jaresko, had prepared a list of enterprises for privatization for pittance. Among them is the operator of all NPPs in the country – NJSC “Energoatom”.

At the same time, the Ukrainian authorities transferred the rights to build so-called “dry” storage for spent nuclear fuel to the American company Holteс International. This large-scale nuclear waste dump is to be built in a symbolic place – on the territory of the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl NPP. The boundaries of this zone are located just 100 kilometers from the capital and the most populous city of Ukraine – Kiev.

Time to sound the alarm

President of the National Research Center “Kurchatov Institute” Mikhail Kovalchuk called a spade a spade. In his view, today the great powers use colonization technology against weaker and less developed countries, replacing the military colonization that took place in past centuries.

“Why rattle the sabre and use it to conquer other people’s territories if you can accomplish the same thing without firing a single shot? Before those who were colonized were mainly backward states, but now the emphasis is on developed countries,” said the head of the Kurchatov Institute.

The Russian side’s concerned over what is happening in the nuclear sector of the neighbouring country is not accidental. And it is not in their desires to maintain relationships just to keep contracts. Russia remembers the Chernobyl disaster – a largest man-made disaster that affected large parts of the current Russian territory.

Concerns over nuclear safety in Ukraine has recently been expressed in a special statement by the deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation. In it, they drew attention to the violation of technological requirements in the operation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, shown in the transition to the unauthorized use of American nuclear fuel. In addition, members drew attention to the fact that, despite repeated promises by the European Union, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, after a shutdown in 2000, a permanent sarcophagus of the fourth power unit has not been established, and the stopped reactors have not been decommissioned.

“Most of the existing power units in Ukraine have developed or will develop a fixed period of operation. Despite this, the government of Ukraine, in violation of international norms and safety measures of the IAEA, has adopted a decision to increase the power of several nuclear power plants without the involvement of the designer of the reactor in the plant,” said the statement of the Russian Parliament.

“Construction of a pan-European storage of nuclear waste has begun in the Chernobyl zone. Meanwhile, the continuation of Ukraine’s domestic conflict, the lack of political and economic stability in the country, and the presence of an unlimited amount of armed groups all pose a risk of the uncontrolled spread of nuclear waste materials in Europe and worldwide. Particularly disturbing is the threat to commit acts of terrorism at Ukrainian nuclear power plants”.

In this regard, the state Duma urged Ukraine and the EU “to remember the lessons of tragedies at Chernobyl and the Japanese nuclear power plant “Fukushima-1″ in March 2011, to comply with international obligations in the field of nuclear safety, to abandon the political environment in assessing the state of nuclear safety in Ukraine, and to take all measures to protect Europe from the threat of man-made disasters at Ukraine’s NPPs, including preventing the creation of a source of uncontrolled spreading of nuclear and radioactive materials in the center of the continent”.

To summarize all of the above, all the experts emphasize that Ukraine, not in theory but in practice, can actually threaten a second Chernobyl. Why the authorities are leading to this, nobody can understand, perhaps neither can the politicians themselves.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x