Ukraine’s nuclear authorities are playing with fire
Ukrainian politicians have made one more move aimed at easing their dependence on Russia’s nuclear fuel supplies.
In late March, Ukraine’s nuclear power company Energoatom signed a five-year contract with US-based Westinghouse Electric Company to provide nuclear fuel to three Ukrainian reactors at the Yuzhnoukrainsky nuclear power plant in 2011-2015. Last year, it held energetic talks with Canadian companies on the construction of CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) reactors, the older relatives of the Chernobyl reactor, which exploded in 1986. These two instances show Ukraine’s desire to ease its dependence on Russia. Ukraine has 15 VVER water-moderated water-cooled reactors built during Soviet times, which use fuel imported from Russia. Westinghouse is to supply 630 fuel assemblies for the annual recharging of at least three VVER blocks.
Although diversification is a noble goal, the operation of nuclear power plants is highly complicated. Safety alone should encourage Ukraine to use nuclear fuel for which its nuclear power plants were designed, i.e. fuel made in Russia. The Chernobyl tragedy should have been enough warning for Ukraine, but political ambitions have proven to be stronger than fear. Khusein Chechenov, a member of the Russian parliamentary subcommittee on nuclear energy, said, “It was a political decision taken without due regard for economic or scientific considerations.” According to him, the contract is a mistake made deliberately to spite Moscow.
Westinghouse’s fuel assemblies are 25% more expensive, than those provided by Russia’s TVEL Corporation and their quality is questionable. Ukraine acted impulsively, signing the contract with the US company during negotiations on Russian fuel deliveries after 2010. The contract includes quite a few reservations, such as Ukraine’s right to terminate it if its regulators do not permit the use of American fuel, or if the assemblies malfunction.
Why sign an agreement with such reservations? Experts say, that the use of Westinghouse assemblies in Russian-made reactors will considerably increase the risk of an accident at the Yuzhnoukrainsky nuclear power plant.
Finland has recently decided to continue buying Russian fuel for its Russian-built reactors and declined Westinghouse’s offer, and the use of American fuel at the Temelin plant in the Czech Republic nearly caused an accident. Accordingly, Czech authorities have decided to use Russian technologies despite political considerations.
The management of the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary entrusted the cleaning of fuel assemblies at its second block to the French-German company Framatome ANP. The use of an “alien” technology resulted in the malfunction of 30 fuel assemblies and almost caused an accident. The Hungarian authorities called on Russian specialists for help, who managed to remedy the situation only three and a half years later. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which investigated the fuel-cleaning incident at Paks, rated it Level 3, a serious incident, by the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
The transition to new technology is a very expensive and difficult process that entails changing the mentality, infrastructure and technical policy, and retraining specialists. Countries hardly ever do this without proper preparation. Sergei Komarov, deputy director of the Russian Institute of Regional Energy Development, said, “Using Westinghouse fuel in Russian-made reactors at Ukrainian nuclear power plants is highly risky. I would say that using equipment that has proved unreliable is an irresponsible decision.”
Yuri Stuzhev, former director of Russia’s first nuclear power plant in Obninsk, near Moscow, said, “Ukraine should have studied the experience of other countries. Or are diversification plans more important to it, than the safety of its people? What if an accident happens at the nuclear power plant because of the use of low-quality American fuel assemblies? Who would be held responsible?” (rian.ru)
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of BBJ.
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