Ten things the Ukrainian government doesn't want you to know about its nuclear energy plans
The Ukrainian government appears willing to go to great lengths to make sure that people don’t talk too much about the plans it has for its ageing nuclear stations.
On Wednesday, March 23, the Supreme Economic Court if Ukraine will hear an appeal case by activsts who were sued for defamation for warning about the risk of the country’s continued dependence on outdated nuclear reactors.
The lawsuit was brought by Ukraine’s state-run nuclear operator Energoatom and the governmental nuclear energy regulator (SNRIU) in what appears as an attempt to discourage public participation in the important debate on this issue.
But this move is indicative of the Ukrainian government’s approach. Kiev has also been ignoring the opinions of people in neighbouring countries who could be affected by its nuclear plans, despite a legal obligation to consult them under international treaties.
So, what is it that Ukraine is so keen to hide? Here’s the complete lowdown:
1. Ukraine has 15 nuclear energy reactors and 6 of them will reach their expiry date by May 2020.
Four others are already operating beyond their design lifetime, and two more were shut down as soon as they exceeded their original lifespan, in December and in February. Yet, Kiev is determined to keep all eight units going for at least 10 more years beyond their original expiry date.
2. Ukraine’s nuclear power plants currently supply over half the country’s electricity. But this is a political choice of the government.
Originally, the share of nuclear is less than 30 percent of the country’s total installed capacity. The rise in the role of nuclear power is the result of a decision to shut down other electricity production. And still, falling demand means nuclear power plants are not working to full capacity.
3. All of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants are completely dependent on Russia for their fuel.
And that’s not all. Three of the four nuclear stations are also dependent on Russia for either the reprocessing of spent fuel or its storage.
4. Even though most of these nuclear units will reach their expiry date in the next four years, EU taxpayer money is used for their renovation.
How much? EUR 600 million from Euratom and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. For proportions, this is a quarter of the total EU support to Ukraine’s energy sector between 2007-2014.
5. International conventions oblige Ukraine to launch public consultations with neighbouring countries that could be affected by the prolonged operations of these nuclear stations. But so far, Kiev has consistently refused to do so.
The Aarhus Convention and the Espoo Convention also stipulate that transboundary environmental impact assessments need to be carried out in such cases. Complying with these requirements is also an explicit condition of the European loans. But the Ukrainian government remains defiant.
6. Ukraine has already been found in breach of the Espoo Convention.
The ruling came after it had authorized lifetime extensions for two of the units at the Rivne nuclear power plant, located less than 200 kilometres from the border with Poland. Ukrainian authorities are, unsurprisingly, challenging this ruling.
7. The Ukrainian government cannot guarantee the safety of any nuclear power plant.
Since January 2015 a governmental decree prevents the nuclear energy regulator from carrying out inspections in nuclear facilities on its own initiative.
8. At least one of the four nuclear reactors already working beyond their design lifetime is in a dangerous condition.
An independent expert analysis released in March 2015 found that the pressure vessel of unit 1 at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant suffers critical vulnerabilities that could potentially lead to a dangerous nuclear emergency. The state nuclear regulator disputes these findings, of course. But no matter how much is invested into renovations, a nuclear unit’s pressure vessel is one of the elements that simply cannot be replaced.
9. The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in southeast Ukraine is Europe’s largest. It is also just 250 kilometres from the frontlines of the ongoing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
This has officials at the power plant obviously concerned:
10. And all of this is even more urgent than you think.
Two of the oldest units in the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant were taken off the grid once they reached their expiry dates. But in two months, on May 12 and May 28, Ukraine’s nuclear regulator will consider again a lifetime extension for both reactors. Worried? So are we.
But this can be changed.
The European Commission, the European Parliament, and EU governments - particularly in neighouring countries that could be affected by the Ukrainian government’s reckless nuclear adventure - need to demand Ukraine complies with its international obligations, especially when EU public money is involved.
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