By Yoichi Shimatsu
Exclusvie to Rense
Clashes over energy in Ukraine between the West and Russia could prompt another Chernobyl-type accident or a catastrophe on the order of a Fukushima that will complete the nuclear devastation of the Northern Hemisphere. As news media fixate on conflicts over pipelines that supply Europe with Russian gas, another energy war is erupting over control of Ukraine’s nuclear-power industry, which generates half that nation’s electricity.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuk’s campaign for “energy independence” from Russian-sourced natural gas and nuclear fuel is not a study in cost control, economic security or even national sovereignty. His corporate-giveaway policies are actually a concession to Western energy interests in return for their influence over the EU, which can provide loans to avert an imminent default on Kiev’s debt to the IMF and World Bank. With an annual budget shortfall of $15 billion and a currency collapse, Ukraine is staggering under external sovereign debt estimated at between $140 and $200 billion.
The IMF and World Bank have halted further transfers of loan tranches to Kiev, which is now unable to make payments on its gas imports from Russia. Kiev policymakers are therefore desperately looking to expand their nuclear industry. Unfortunately two recent accidents at its largest nuclear-power plant highlight the serious risks to a nation still grappling with the long-term effects of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown.
Boom and Bust
In stark contrast with eco-conscious capitals across Europe, Kiev is unable to resist foreign demands to adopt the Texan model of boom-and-bust energy extraction. Chevron and Shell have launched fracking projects to tap shale-oil deposits across Ukraine, but exploration and revenues have been delayed by the fierce fighting in the Donetsk region.
Ukraine also possesses one of Europe’s few exploitable uranium reserves in its Kirovograd and Dnipropetrovsk regions, now being targeted by the French nuclear giant AREVA in cooperation with local partner VostGOK.
An ongoing series of nuclear-fuel deals between Toshiba-Westinghouse and Ukraine energy monopoly Energoatom is aimed at severing Kiev’s reliance on Russian technology and Kazakh uranium. The competition to supply the global market for MOX (mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium) is pitting a consortium of Westinghouse, AREVA and their US suppliers against their Moscow-based rival Rusatom and nuclear-engineering firm TVE.
Beset by losses of orders from Japan, the AREVA MOX fabrication plant in France is facing a new and strong challenge from the Rusatom pellet facility in Krasnoyarsk, western Siberia, which has replaced the aging Mayak fuel plant.
To reduce stockpiles of plutonium-laced spent fuel rods stored inside power plants, the global nuclear industry is pushing to introduce advanced prototypes of fast-breeder reactors, which burn a variety of nuclear fuels including plutonium. Rusatom is producing MOX pellets for a next-generation fast-breeder to start operation this year at Beloyarskaya. The Russian design is the chief rival for next-generation breeder reactors being developed by the French ASTRID program in the Rhone region and the Hitachi-GE Horizon project along Britain’s Irish Sea coast.
In this global race to revive the fortunes of the nuclear industry, Chernobyl and the ongoing Fukushima cataclysm spewing radioactive waste into the jet stream over Europe have all but been forgotten.
Salvaging Savannah River
The powerful explosion of MOX fuel rods at Reactor 3 in Fukushima nearly four years ago prompted Britain to close its Sellafield MOX fuel-rod production facility and convinced the Department of Energy to suspend construction on the US mixed-oxide project in Savannah River, South Carolina. These setbacks for the US-UK nuclear industry left the AREVA’s Mercoule facility in the southern French region of Languedoc-Roussillon as the only MOX producer in the West.
Ulterior motives lurk behind the Ukraine sales pitch. The year-end push by Toshiba-Westinghouse to supply nuclear fuel to Kiev is a backhanded tactic to overturn the DOE decision to halt construction on the Savannah River MOX fuel fabrication facility. Anti-Moscow rhetoric and geopolitical arguments for switching Ukraine to Western-based energy systems (fracking, tanker-delivered oil imports and MOX fuel) bolster the odds for congressional funding to complete the Savannah River MOX facility.
Started in 1999 to dispose of plutonium from warheads under nuclear-weapons reductions agreed between Washington and Moscow, the MOX plant has already cost taxpayers $4 billion while an added $3.8 billion in project overruns is the low estimate before the operations are scheduled to begin in 2019. Unfortunately for Toshiba-Westinghouse, the main arguments against completing Savannah River are based on security questions.
Since the planning stage, nonproliferation experts have come to recognize the threat of plutonium being hijacked from DOE facilities, as happened in the 2008 covert operation by Israeli agents at the PANTEX warhead-dismantling plant in Amarillo, Texas. (This investigative journalist penned an in-depth article on the PANTEX heist and the murder of CIA contract inspector Roland Carnaby.)
The technological factor behind abandoning MOX for nonproliferation purposes was the introduction of laser-extraction systems that enable nuclear engineers to efficiently remove pure plutonium from spent MOX fuel rods. Nations with nuclear-weapons ambitions just have to place an order for MOX fuel to obtain high-grade plutonium.
A Bridge Too Far
To anyone with a rational mind, shipping nuclear fuel to the land of Chernobyl might seem not only criminal and unethical but also an act of sheer madness. Yet, under a 2008 contract, Westinghouse (which is majority-owned by Toshiba), has already started supplying uranium fuel assemblies to three reactors at the South Ukraine nuclear plant.
What’s profitable for the nuclear industry in the US and Japan is toxic for the EU, particularly its more environmental and anti-nuclear member-nations including Germany and Austria, which will have no choice but to accept this legal precedent for continent-wide fracking and a revival of nuclear power.
Ukraine serves as the bridgehead for US-Japanese takeover of the European energy industry, but it is a “bridge too far” because the strong possibility of a Fukushima-type MOX fuel explosion at its aging nuclear plants would exterminate all of Europe.
The European public should find little reassurance in that fact that Toshiba built the Fukushima Reactor 3, which blew apart in a mushroom cloud sending microparticles of plutonium as far as Scandinavia and the French Alps. Now the very same company responsible for Fukushima radiation spreading to Europe is toying around in the EU’s backyard.
A coalition of AREVA and Toshiba-Westinghouse have been lobbying the Parliament in Kiev to approve construction of a western-designed nuclear-power plant in Ukraine’s Black Sea region. According to an Energy Ministry press releases in June, “a new concept for the development of nuclear power is expected to be adopted and will include the technical and financial aspects of the construction of new power units, as well as advancing plans for a fuel fabrication plant and a waste repository.”
No doubt Ukrainian nationalists might rejoice at the sudden prospects of Kiev regaining its nuclear-weapons production capability, which was surrendered to Washington’s nonproliferation soon after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. That proud national aspiration, in the cold light of geopolitics, will remain only a dream. Any nuclear deterrence will be provided by NATO missile launch pads and bomber airfields, transforming Ukraine into a battlefield and radioactive graveyard. Instead of gaining real independence, Ukraine has sadly reverted to its traditional place as a brutal buffer zone.
The truth is bitter, indeed. Ukraine is getting a raw deal. The proposed high-level waste repository is the predictable price for steep discounts on nuclear technology shipped in modules onto the docks at Odessa along with casks of spent fuel. Japan is in dire need of a foreign nuclear-waste dump, especially for its damaged Fukushima fuel rods, following rebuffs from Russia, China and Mongolia. The US, also straddled with decades of spent-fuel rods, needs an alternative to the canceled Yucca Mountain repository site. Thus, under this unsavory “international partnership”, Toshiba-Westinghouse and AREVA make the profits while Ukraine gets stuck with piles of nuclear waste.
At this point in time, the easiest way to dump nuclear waste is to provide unsuspecting nations with MOX fuel rods, which actually a repository for surplus plutonium. The Energy Ministry’s “new concept of nuclear power” and a proposed “fuel fabrication plant” are code words for the planned conversion of the Russian-built VVER pressurized water reactors for MOX fuel rods. Retrofitting has sizable risks, as shown at Fukushima.
Westinghouse has recently negotiated a deal with to provide an undisclosed type of nuclear fuel for two additional reactors to be built at Energoatom’s Khmelnitsky plant in northwest Ukraine. The deal eliminates fuel rods from Russian nuclear-engineering company TVE, the main contractor for plant construction which operates its own mine and fuel plant in Kazakhstan.
Since then Energoatom director Natalia Shumkova stated the company might start shipping its nuclear waste to the AREVA recycling facility in La Hague, France. AREVA states that its facility separates uranium (95%) and plutonium(1%) as ingredients in new fuels. MOX, in short, is garbage fuel.
The 15 reactors in Ukraine’s four nuclear plants have Russian-designed VVER (pressurized water) reactors of the type that can be converted from enriched uranium to MOX fuel rods. The problem is that many of the Russian-built reactors have reached their 4-decade lifetime limit and are now in permanent disrepair, a fact underscored by shutdowns at the giant Zaporozhye nuclear-power plant’s Reactor 3 in late November and at its Reactor 6 a month later.
Energoatom reported the causes of both accidents as minor electrical problems and denied late November reports from a Baltic monitoring station of wide-ranging atmospheric radiation releases. Also ignored were reports from the nearby Donetsk area, where surges in radiation levels were detected at the end of December. The Ukraine nuclear industry must have adopted the TEPCO standards for public disinformation. Or perhaps lying about the dangers of radiation is a homegrown legacy of Chernobyl.
One last point needs to be considered as a spur toward civil peace in unfortunate Ukraine: Zaporozhye with its six reactors is the largest nuclear plant in Europe and lies within easy artillery and rocket range of the battle lines in eastern Ukraine. Collateral damage or a plane crash onto Plant Z would make Chernobyl seem like a picnic in the countryside.
Yoichi Shimatsu is a Hong Kong-based science journalist and environmental consultant who has conducted radiation studies inside the Fukushima exclusion zone and the Hanford and San Onofre nuclear plants.