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Ukraine: Nuclear Power Considered Key To Energy Independence

Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As it strives to achieve economic and energy independence, cash-strapped Ukraine has unveiled ambitious plans to upgrade its nuclear power industry.

Ukraine's 11 operating reactors supply some 46 percent of the country's electricity. Officials want to boost that to more than 50 percent. Ukraine has large uranium resources but no oil or natural gas. It has large coal reserves, but many coal-fired power plants have problems and coal pits are old and dangerous.

In spite of the fact that Ukraine suffered the world's worst civilian nuclear accident, at Chornobyl in 1986, Kyiv still views nuclear power as the key to energy independence.

Mikhail Umanets, first deputy minister of energy and chairman of the state department for nuclear energy, says the state nuclear concern Minergo is looking for a new type of reactor. He says the reactor must meet international safety standards; use Ukrainian resources; and solve the problem of storing spent fuel. Umanets said Ukraine wants to have a Western-style reactor operating by 2012 and eventually replace some of its Soviet-designed nuclear reactors with Western units.

Western nuclear outfitters, such as Siemens, Framatome, and Westinghouse, have already started courting the Ukrainians, emphasizing the benefits of their reactors. But Russia is not likely to stand idly by as the Western nuclear industry tries to move into its old market. Bulat Nigmatullin, Deputy Minister at the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, told the U.S. nuclear industry weekly "Nucleonics Week" last year that Russia could offer Ukraine many advantages.

Several components for Russian-type VVER reactors are already produced in Ukraine, including electrical transformers at Zaporozhe, turbines at Kharkov and pumps at Sumy.

Top Ukrainian nuclear energy officials met this month in Vienna with experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss Kyiv's nuclear strategy for the next century. An IAEA spokesman told RFE/RL that the agency is providing Ukrainian officials with information and various nuclear power options.

The advice will come in an IAEA project scheduled for 1999-2000, at the request of the Ukrainian government to develop a nuclear power strategy to 2030.

Ukraine's national power program currently includes plans to complete two nuclear reactors at Rivne and Khmelnitsky. The plan involves a possible $190 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to help cover costs estimated at $1.8 billion.

A 1996 study commissioned by the EBRD originally found the project to be unprofitable. Steve Thomas from Sussex University in England took part in that study. He spoke recently with RFE/RL:

"It became very clear that the case for completing the reactors was much weaker than had been suspected. One very strong element was that there didn't seem any reason to replace Chornobyl. Electricity demand had fallen so steeply after the fall of the Soviet Union that Ukraine had twice the generating capacity [it needed] to meet peak demand."

However, a later study, also funded by the EBRD, overturned the first report, and the possibility of EBRD support for completing the two new nuclear reactors was back on track.

The EBRD could approve the loan as soon as March. The loan approval would likely unlock further funding from the European Union's Nuclear Funding Agency, Euratom, to cover up to 50 percent of construction costs.

In 1995, Ukraine said it would close down Chornobyl by 2000 if the two reactors were completed to compensate for the loss of generating capacity. However, Ukrainian officials have vacillated on whether they will meet that target.

Jean-Pierre Baret, France's Electricite de France (EDF) representative for Central and Eastern Europe, says if Ukraine gets Western financing to complete the reactors at Rovno and Khmelnitsky, he believes Kyiv will shut down Chornobyl. Baret said, though, that Ukraine is seeking to overturn a decision by leading Western countries to seek the decommissioning of older Soviet-type VVER-440-230 plants, a different reactor to the one found at Chornobyl.

Nevertheless, the IAEA says these reactors are also plagued with safety and technical shortcomings and should be shut down.

(This is the third of six features from NCA on the status of the nuclear power industry in several nations, East and West.)
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.