At a meeting in Minsk, Petro Poroshenko said that the fate of the whole of Europe hangs on the development of the situation in Ukraine. And in a way he is right. Due to the inadequacy of the regime Poroshenko is in charge of in that part of the world, the growing concern over the threat posed by the country’s badly-managed powerful nuclear potential is becoming ever clearer.
The situation at Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station, the largest in Europe, is causing particular alarm. On 30 August, in an interview published in the German newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Greenpeace nuclear energy expert Tobias Münchmeyer said that at present, the front line of military operations is approximately 200 kilometres away from the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station, the reactors of which were built during the Soviet era and are inadequately protected from shelling. According to Münchmeyer, «there are many armour-piercing weapons in the region, which could penetrate these protective covers. Even a blow to the power grids could have disastrous consequences, since it would result in the failure of the nuclear reactor’s cooling system.» In this regard, Münchmeyer recalled the grave consequences of the accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power station in Japan, where it was the cooling system that failed. The German Society for Reactor Safety (GRS, Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit) has reported that it is following the development of events in Eastern Ukraine extremely closely and is maintaining close contact with the Ukrainian authorities.
There are genuine grounds for such concern. In recent months, reports of strategic industrial facilities coming under fire from the National Guard have become more frequent. On 27 August, the Makiivka coke plant in Donetsk Oblast announced its closure. The Ukrainian army allegedly shelled the plant’s workshop using a Grad missile launcher. Three rockets exploded in the immediate vicinity of the storage facility. The Stirol chemical plant in Gorlovka is also under threat of closure. A spokesman for the plant, Pavel Brykov, said that artillery strikes from Grad and Uragan multiple-rocket launchers on the Stirol plant could cause a catastrophic leakage of toxic substances leading to the deaths of people not just in Ukraine, but also in neighbouring Russia and Belarus.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has already issued warnings that there has been a recent increase in anonymous threats to blow up hydroelectric and nuclear power stations, «damage to which may have unforeseen and extremely serious consequences for the population of Ukraine and neighbouring states». There are also at least two instances where Pravy Sektor militants have attempted to seize nuclear facilities in Ukraine under the pretext of «protecting» them, but in fact for the purposes of blackmail. One took place at the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant, where armed henchmen of the notorious Sashko Bily, subsequently killed by the SBU, forced their way in. According to comments in the press, that time they simply wanted to «share the profits», i.e. basic racketeering. A similar incident, and the most alarming of all, took place at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station. According to the Pravy Sektor, its heavily-armed members, numbering around 40 people in total who were detained entering Enerhodar, had only «good intentions». They were allegedly intending to prevent the power plant from being seized by «separatists». The attackers, however, were stopped by armed police and guards from the nuclear power plant, and roads into the city were closed to be on the safe side. Some of the main theories behind their attack include their desire to keep the Ukrainian authorities at bay, and quite possibly create a ‘dirty’ nuclear bomb to also intimidate Russia.
There are also serious questions being raised regarding the ability of the current Ukrainian government to take care of the country’s nuclear potential, and some of their decisions are making this extremely doubtful. For example, the government has declared its intention to move away from Russian nuclear fuel, replacing it with American assemblies. It is well known that previous such attempts carried out under Yushchenko almost led to disaster. Despite all its bravado in the pursuit of profit, Westinghouse, declaring that it will easily offset losses, has still not been able to achieve full technological compatibility between its assemblies and Russian fuel rods. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already commented on the subject: «It is no secret that the US company Westinghouse is actively trying to win a share of the European market. Due to the differences in fuel, attempts to introduce American rods into the Soviet-made reactors are far from being safe.» Lavrov recalled that there were serious problems when Westinghouse began working in the Czech Republic (where the nuclear power plant is also Soviet-made). As the country of manufacture, Russia is asking to be kept informed of such plans. «Such experiments may come to no good, especially in Ukraine, where the memory of Chernobyl still lingers on,» warned the minister. It «lingers on» in the memories of the Ukrainian people, but not in the memories of the government authorities, and Germany’s Green Party is sounding serious alarm bells on the subject. The Greens are worried that a new nuclear threat is once again brewing at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, and wrote a letter to the Foreign Affairs Minister calling for him to do something. Not everything has gone as planned at the ruins of the Chernobyl reactor. The construction of a new sarcophagus is not making any headway, and the old steel structure has dilapidated. On 12 February 2013, a section of the roof and the walls of the machine hall destroyed when Reactor No 4 exploded in 1986 collapsed at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Active construction of the new sarcophagus begun under Yanukovych has currently stalled. Independent experts interviewed by Deutsche Welle doubt the abilities of the Ukrainian government to ensure the radiation safety of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Moreover, even without hypothetical attacks on Ukrainian nuclear power plants, they all pose a considerable danger, since they have all outlived their initial life expectancy, and there are no funds available to build new reactors or carry out major renovations on those currently in operation. Instead of their much-needed closure, their service lives are constantly being extended. In particular, this concerns the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant in Mykolaiv province, which was built during the Soviet era in 1982. According to an independent survey carried out by the National Environmental Centre, its technical indicators imply that this nuclear power station is in a dangerous condition. Here is the conclusion: «The extension of the service life of the nuclear plant, and the amount of reactor cooling cycles that have been exceeded or that will soon have been exceeded, may lead to an accident at the power unit with a loss of pressure in the primary cooling system and a core meltdown, as well as the emission of radioactive substances into the atmosphere.» The ecologists suggest that the extension of the plant’s service life be postponed, and preventive maintenance be continued until all measures to eliminate the identified hazards have been completed in full. The authorities, however, are ignoring the warnings of these independent experts. The situation with the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant is no different from that of the country’s nuclear power industry as a whole. According to the government’s «Energy Strategy of Ukraine till 2030», it is planned that the work of 12 out of 15 nuclear units that came to the end of their technical service life between 2010 and 2012 will be extended for another 20 years.
It is perfectly clear that the solution to the complex problems facing Ukraine’s nuclear power complex, which is fourth in the world in terms of the share of its energy generation in its gross national production, depends on much more than just financial resources. Achieving such a solution is inconceivable without the close cooperation of scientific, technological and industrial partners in Russia and the Ukrainian nuclear scientists who built this extremely complicated and gargantuan complex; otherwise, there will only be complete collapse and total degradation further on.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Kiev, with fanatical tenacity, are also continuing to destroy all existing Ukrainian-Russian ties in the nuclear industry, naively and ignorantly believing that with just the «energy of the national recovery» alone they will be able to carry out any breakthrough. They have already announced that as well as moving away from Russian nuclear fuel, they «themselves» are going to complete reactors 3 and 4 at the Khmelnitskiy Nuclear Power Plant, build their own centralised repository for spent nuclear fuel, and construct a plant for the production of nuclear fuel in Kirovohrad Oblast, close to Smolino, which will «strengthen the country’s energy independence». How much it will cost, whether it will be cost-effective and, most importantly, safe does not matter. The most important thing is themselves, not ‘Moskals’. But they do not understand the fact that these facilities are absolutely impossible to build without purchasing the relevant equipment from Russia (they have completely different standards abroad, but in Ukraine itself there are simply no conditions for its issue). Attempts to replace Russian equipment with their own imperfect ‘homemade’ products are very dangerous in terms of the reliability of the planned facilities.
It is a shame for our fraternal neighbours, who are suffering from the inadequacies and incompetence of the regime that has established itself in Ukraine. It is also a shame for the joint projects and developments that are being broken up, including in the nuclear energy sector, which could have brought a number of benefits to the people themselves. In the case in question, however, it is not just about yet another economic failure of the new authorities in Kiev. What could happen with the country’s nuclear complex as a result of this regime is a problem for the whole of Europe and requires urgent attention.