This story is part of an ongoing Forum on Energy series on nuclear energy in emerging markets across the globe. See more entries here.
Ukraine, widely known as the site of the Chernobyl disaster, is an unlikely champion for nuclear energy. Yet the country supplies nearly half of electricity from nuclear energy, with strong support from government and populace. At its root, the country’s reliance on nuclear energy results from its desire for increased energy and political independence from Russia. For observers, Ukraine’s recovery from the Chernobyl disaster is a case study for how scientists, policy makers and the public are affected by radiation emissions and attendant effects on human and environmental health.
Ukraine straddles the political, cultural and geographic divide between Russia and the European Union. It struggles to balance influence from either side as it determines its economic policies. Ukraine’s energy infrastructure developed under Soviet administration and is based on Russian technology. Three Russian pipelines that Europe, the Balkans and Turkey run through Ukraine. Ukrainian nuclear reactors were constructed using Soviet technology and still rely mostly on Russia for nuclear services. But reliance on Russia has periodically exposed Ukraine to economic vulnerabilities, and political support to expand commerce with Europe as grown.
In the spring of 2014, a referendum on whether to join the EU sparked riots among a divided Ukrainian populace. The instability attracted Russian intervention, which by May 2014 looked primed to annex Crimea. The EU and the US have reacted with economic sanctions against Russian and aid for the fledgling interim Ukrainian government. In the energy sector, American companies are renewing nuclear operations partnerships with the current Ukrainian government. With Russia growing in influence, it is unclear how independent Ukraine’s energy sector will be in the near future.
Ukraine’s heavy dependence on nuclear energy can be seen as a result of the economic downturn of the 1990s – which caused the country cut down its fossil fuel consumption – and as a strategic decision – it lessens the country’s dependence on natural gas piped in from Russia.
Demand for nuclear energy by industrial and household consumers is growing and projected to continue to grow over the next 15 years. In 2010, double digit growth helped the nuclear energy industry account for years of stagnation. Analysts predict a steady demand increase for electricity, up from 307 billion kw by 2020 to 420 billion kw by 2030. The growth in nuclear is expected to rise from 13.9 GWe to 29.5 GWe. (Why do analysts predict this?)
Russia has used its natural gas resources as a geopolitical tool for decades. Two major pipeline systems carry Russian natural gas through Ukraine to Europe while third carries natural gas to the Balkans and Turkey. Disputes between Russia and the Ukraine over natural gas supplies, prices and debts have led to periodic interruptions in Russia’s natural gas supply to the country, with the latest occurring in 2009. Today Ukraine’s total energy consumption is nearly 70% dominated by fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, but nuclear energy supplies nearly half of its electricity. A side effect of the reliance on nuclear is an increase in domestically produced energy.
But even though energy independence has increased, Ukraine still relies on Russia for its nuclear services. Ukrainian uranium concentrate and zirconium alloy are sent to Russia to make fuel. Energoatom also has a long term contract with Russia’s TVEL for enrichment and disposal. In order to diversify its nuclear fuel supplies, Energoatom implemented the Ukraine Nuclear Fuel Qualification Project (UNFQP) that uses US-manufactured fuel in the VVER-100 reactors. The assemblies are supplied by Westinghouse. In addition to nuclear fuel supplies from Westinghouse, this project also aims to transfer the technology of nuclear fuel design. In April, Ukraine renewed its current contract with Westinghouse, amid criticism from nuclear experts in Russia.
To date, fifteen nuclear power plants supply the country with close to 50% of its electricity. Ukraine has Europe’s largest reactor unit, the Zaporozhe, which produces 5718MWe. Beyond nuclear, other sources of electricity include thermal energy and a small amount of hydropower.
Ukraine’s civil nuclear energy program began with the Chernobyl power plant in 1970. At the time Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and the reactors were built with Soviet nuclear technology. The first unit was commissioned in 1977. After the Soviet Union broke apart, the Ukrainian economy slowed and the electricity market collapsed. Most of the downturn was felt by the coal and natural gas sectors. the nuclear industry remained stable throughout the transition of governments.
The nuclear industry makes continued improvements to efficiency and operational safety. Ukraine has over 300 years of operating experience, which is calculated by adding the operational time of each individual reactor, subtracting the amount of time each reactor was idle. In 2004, the reactors operated 81.4% percent of the time, which is considered a highly efficient ratio.
Health and Environmental Health
The Chernobyl accident in 1986 was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel. It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture. The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere and downwind – some 5200 PBq (I-131 eq).
Two Chernobyl plant workers died on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation poisoning. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was originally diagnosed in 237 people on-site and involved with the clean-up and it was later confirmed in 134 cases. Of these, 28 people died as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more subsequently died between 1987 and 2004 but their deaths cannot necessarily be attributed to radiation exposure. Nobody off-site suffered from acute radiation effects although a large proportion of childhood thyroid cancers diagnosed since the accident is likely to be due to intake of radioactive iodine fallout. UNSCEAR says that apart from increased thyroid cancers, “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident.” There is evidence that many people who cleaned up the Chernobyl accident, as well as those who were evacuated suffered health problems, but many of these problems cannot be linked to the accident. Factors such as lifestyle, including smoking and heavy drinking, as well as post-traumatic stress and other mental stressors, have contributed to deteriorating health.
View a National Geographic slideshow of the “Chernobyl liquidators who worked to contain the damage of the nuclear meltdown.
View a TED Talk on the women – 200 “babushkas” – who still live in Chernobyl’s “dead zone.”
Recent scientific research reveals divergent opinions on whether the Chernobyl accident has had long lasting effects on the health of the environment and wild life. National Geographic researchers have observed an abundance of thriving flora and fauna in the 1,000 mile exclusion zone, due mostly to the lack of human activity in the area. But biologists featured in a recent New York Times article doubt that Chernobyl has become a post-apocalyptic Eden. In the hottest zones, some bird species show evidence of tumors, deformities or have disappeared.
Life Extensions and Upgrades
The original lifetimes of the Russian reactors is 30 years. Ukraine’s state-owned energy utility, Energoatom, succeeded in extending the operating licenses of three of its reactors by 20 years, based on its 2008/9 safety review of the internal systems and pressure vessels for all three units. It had, in collaboration with IAEA, spent $30 million upgrading Rovno units 1 and 2.Based on these successes, 11 of the oldest reactors will be granted extensions by 2030. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as well as Euratom, have donated substantial additional sums to the upgrading of the reactors.
New Build and Partnerships
Energoatom and Atomstroyexport have an agreement to build the Khmeinitsky units 3 and 4 which have been under construction since the mid-1980s. Construction stopped in 1990 due to the end of the Soviet Union. Construction resumed after 2012. Russia agreed to finance 85% of UAH 40 billion with the remaining 15% paid by Ukraine. The loan will be repaid five years after operations begin. The bid for the project was open to international competition, but only South Korea bid against the Russians, and lost the contract.
Despite obvious reasons to sway in Russia’s favor – familiarity with infrastructure, similar existing structures – other countries have won competitive bids. In February 2010 Energoatom signed a cooperation agreement with China Guangdon Nuclear Power cooperation for nuclear power plant design operations and maintenance.