Editor’s note: In this article, Pinar Demircan examines the present Russian occupation of Ukraine as one that signifies the dead end of capitalism. The author argues that foreign dependency has made even the Russian nuclear industry giant Rosatom aggressive and vulnerable at the same time, and points to the possibility of similar occurrences across other geographies, including in her country, Turkey by looking at it from the perspective of nuclear energy.
The military occupation of Chernobyl turned public attention towards the radiation levels at the beleaguered plant that are believed to have increased 20-30 times. Even more interestingly, it was stated that this increase had occurred due to the military vehicles which entered the facility area, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust present in the surface soil. What needs to be asked is whether such a claim was made to lay to rest adverse public opinion that was concerned that Russian forces could potentially cause radioactive pollution in Chernobyl, or was it made to hide the many questions that were emerging about another operation? Another important question that has emerged is why were the measurement monitors used for measuring the spread of radiation in the field, deactivated? What about reports that there was fighting between Russian forces and Ukrainian soldiers at the Chernobyl facility, that the latter were taken prisoners and the management of the Chernobyl facility changed hands? In addition to the 21 thousand fuel rods in the pools of the 4th reactor, which is covered by a sarcophagus, at the Chernobyl site itself there are 4,000 cubic meters of high-level nuclear waste in the nuclear waste warehouse that was built and opened for new use at the facility site.
Moreover, was it not a risk for the Russian forces that the technical officers in these facilities were forcibly brought under Russian command and control? Were there nuclear experts and scientists within the occupying Russian side? Some political scientists and experts say that Chernobyl is the shortest way to Kyiv, and therefore, the facility had been surrounded because it was ‘on the way’. However, the seizure of the facility requires us to think more deeply, which is what this article is about, a perspective that shows the big picture about nuclear energy. Because accumulation by dispossession is in the very nature of capitalism, and underpins all inequalities, therefore, what is happening in Ukraine today may possibly be pointing us towards closely observing this practice of usurpation/confiscation in the context of nuclear energy. Now let’s fill in the missing pieces so we can see the big picture.
Nuclear waste is “precious”
Russia had a nuclear waste recycling agreement with Ukraine. According to this arrangement, Ukraine would send the waste from its 15 nuclear reactors operating within its borders to Russia at the cost of 200 million dollars every year. However, in 2005, Ukraine’s then Minister of Energy, Yuriy Nedashkovsky concluded a new agreement with the US-based company Holtec to establish a storage facility promising 100 years of protection in the Chernobyl plant site for 250 million dollars, thus, bringing to an end the earlier deal with Russia. The dry-storage facility, built by Holtec with the financial loan support of the US-based Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which committed to offering protection for a maximum of 100 years, was to be put into operation on November 6, 2021, with trial tests at the end of 16 years. Although there are currently 4,000 cubic meters of waste, this warehouse is now the key facility where nuclear waste from 15 nuclear reactors, which produce 51 percent of Ukraine’s energy needs, will be
stored. Thus, Ukraine was spared from paying $200 million every year to Russia for the removal
of nuclear waste, and had to bear only a one-time expense of 250 million dollars under the new agreement. In other words, with the construction of this warehouse by the US corporate, Russia had lost both the supply of nuclear waste for nuclear fuel production and an income of 200 million dollars per year. Moreover, the Russian-origin nuclear fuel company TVEL, which has been operating since 1991, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars to produce fuel from nuclear waste and had even started a new facility in Moscow.
Another reason why Russia currently faces a bottleneck for producing nuclear fuel is that since 2014, Australia has suspended uranium exports to Georgia and Ukraine, and has justified doing so in the face of Russia’s attempts to invade Georgia and Ukraine. As a matter of fact, in an official statement made in parliament, the Australian Prime Minister asserted that “Australia has no intention at the moment to sell uranium to a country like Russia that is openly violating international law”. This move also confirms our assessment that Russia has been exposed to an implicit international embargo on the supply of nuclear fuel that it needs for its nuclear power plants. Ukraine was dependent on Russia for its fuel supply, as well as for its waste. As a matter of fact, in order to end the dependency of its 15 reactors, it decided to increase uranium production within its borders by 2026, and for this, the USA made a 335-million dollars agreement through Westinghouse. To clarify, we can say that till 2015 Ukraine got most of its nuclear services and nuclear fuel from Russia, but it also gradually reduced that dependency by purchasing fuel from Westinghouse.
Moreover, Russia, which has been internationally declared as an “occupying power” since its declaration of war on Ukraine, will be excluded from the global nuclear industry market, much in the same way as it may be excommunicated from all other markets at the current juncture. The first signs of this have already arrived in the form of Finland’s decision to announce that the Hanhikivi-1 project is already dead. Similarly, the Swedish state-owned energy company Vattenfall, which supplied nuclear fuel to Russia within the framework of the agreement signed with the state-run TVEL in 2016, has announced that it will not provide nuclear fuel to Russia until the next announcement. There is no prospect of a resumption of uranium supplies from Australia, and other suppliers are also blacklisting Russia. As mentioned above, domestic mines can currently provide only half of Russia’s annual uranium needs, while blockades against uranium imports to the country means that its hands are tied further. It is likely that similar announcements will be made by other companies and public enterprises involved in civil nuclear trade with Russia in the coming days.
The invasion of Ukraine should serve as an opportunity for other states to learn lessons and give up nuclear energy. While the world debates whether or not nuclear energy should be considered for tax-exemptions as a green solution in the context of climate crisis, it should be taken into account that the nuclear option inherently imperils world peace as it perpetuates the power asymmetries and conflicts rooted in the capitalist system. The occupation of Ukraine should ignite the start of a campaign where nuclear opponents around the world should remind the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and global citizens against nuclear cooperation with Russia and demand to abandon Rosatom projects.
Read more at Rosatom’s woes before and beyond the war: implications of Russia’s embattled nuclear industry