Thirty-five years after the disaster, the nuclear industry is Ukraine’s most reliable economic lifeline. But critics say it faces a perennial crisis caused by corruption, safety problems and politicised decision-making.
By Mansur Mirovalev26 Apr 2021
Kyiv, Ukraine – The radioactive cloud that briefly hovered over most of Europe after the April 26, 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station had, after all, a silver lining, Petro Kotin says.
Thirty-five years after a botched security test caused the worst nuclear disaster in history, he is at the helm of Energoatom, a state-run consortium in charge of Ukraine’s four nuclear stations and their 15 reactors.
“We are unique because no other nation has the practical experience of overcoming such a disaster,” Kotin, who was appointed as Energoatom’s acting president in March 2020, told Al Jazeera in his office in central Kyiv.
The stations he manages generate half the electricity for the ex-Soviet nation of 43 million people, placing Ukraine on the list of the world’s top-10 nuclear energy producers.
After annexing Crimea in 2014, Moscow backed separatists in two southeastern provinces where most of Ukraine’s coal used for energy generation is mined. The Kremlin also spiked natural gas prices, hobbling Ukraine’s outdated, energy-inefficient industries and burdening average Ukrainians with hefty heating bills.
But domestic and international critics claim that the industry faces a perennial crisis caused by corruption; safety problems with ageing, worn reactors; disruption of ties with a Russian nuclear monopoly; and a politicised switch to US-made nuclear fuel.
Industry insiders, environmentalists and politicians claim that the construction of a spent fuel storage facility near the capital, Kyiv, and the proximity of Europe’s largest nuclear station in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia to Europe’s hottest armed conflict add to their concerns about the possibility of a nuclear incident, particularly in a nation that went through two popular uprisings since 2005 and lost a chunk of its territory to Russia.
Sounds simple. But uranium dioxide sealed in zirconium alloy tubes in the rods emits radiation that has to be contained in hermetically sealed reactors. Ukraine’s Soviet-designed rods are hexagonal, resembling bee cells, while Western-made rods are square.
The switch is far from simple – but necessary, because Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear monopoly that charged Ukraine hundreds of millions of dollars a year, is controlled by the Kremlin. And the Kremlin has a well-known proclivity to use energy supplies as a political cudgel.
In 2005, Ukraine’s first anti-Russian uprising, dubbed the Orange Revolution, installed a pro-Western government that immediately started looking for ways to wean the nuclear industry off the Russian fuel.
It chose Westinghouse Electric Company LLC, a Pittsburg-based nuclear energy giant. Some experts and politicians warned that Westinghouse-made fuel rods may unseal and potentially cause a reactor to melt.
“The switch to Westinghouse fuel is potentially dangerous,” Oskar Njaa, the Russia and Eastern Europe adviser for Bellona, a Norway-based nuclear industry monitor, told Al Jazeera.
In 2012, Westinghouse fuel rods had to be removed from the South Ukrainian power station after protective envelopes in two reactors were damaged.
Ukraine asked Rosatom for fuel and help – prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to remark gloatingly that Rosatom experts had “to solve complex technical problems, take [the Westinghouse fuel] out and load the Russian fuel back in”.
Ukraine’s losses amounted to $175 million, Mikhail Gashev, Ukraine’s top nuclear safety inspector at the time, claimed – and banned the use of Westinghouse fuel.
Apart from the fuel, observers are also concerned about Ukraine’s ageing, worn reactors, 12 of which began operating in the 1980s and were supposed to be shut down in 2020. But Energoatom extended their lifespan spending hundreds of millions on each, thanks largely to loans from the European Union.
This is a common practice worldwide – the average lifespan of almost 100 nuclear reactors in the US is 40 years, and 88 have been approved for another 20 years. But some experts are worried about the safety measures and upgrades.
“What we witness every time a decision [to extend the lifespan] is made, some of the safety upgrades have either not been made or have not been made in full,” Iryna Holovko, the Ukraine coordinator for Bankwatch, a Prague-based environmentalist group, told Al Jazeera.
Bankwatch has for years been urging Ukraine to stop extending the lifespan of its “zombie reactors” without correcting “safety deviations” and detailed assessments of all the environmental risks for the people living around the stations and in neighbouring nations.