Moscow has been accused of trying to “undermine” Ukraine’s nuclear industry
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Moscow has been accused of trying to “undermine” Ukraine’s nuclear industry

Moscow has been accused of trying to “undermine” Ukraine’s nuclear industry by suggesting that only Russian fuel can be used in its nuclear power plants. The suggestions, which come on the eve of key energy talks on Thursday and Friday among European Union leaders, have been dismissed as “misleading” by the EU-Ukraine Business Council, a respected Brussels-based think tank.

Senior MEP Rebecca Harms said Ukraine had been put in an “awful” position and that the controversy highlights the “unexpected consequences” of relying too “deeply” on Russia for energy.

At their two-day summit in Brussels energy will be at the top of the agenda for EU leaders who are keen to loosen Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies.

Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear energy and has 15 reactors generating about half of its electricity.

It receives most of its nuclear services and nuclear fuel from Russia but is reducing this dependence by buying fuel from Westinghouse, the US-based company.

This fuel will be produced at the Westinghouse Electric Sweden AB plant at Vasteras in Sweden.

Under a US-Ukrainian initiative to reduce Ukraine’s dependency on Russia for fuel, Ukraine’s national electricity utility Energoatom recently extended its nuclear fuel supply contract with Westinghouse through to 2020.

Even though Russia has made strenuous efforts to regain its influence in Ukraine, the Ukraine government is looking to the West for both technology and investment in its nuclear plants.

However, it is now claimed that Moscow is attempting to undermine such efforts by suggesting that Russia is the only safe supplier of fuel cells for Russian-built and designed nuclear power plants in Ukraine.

An EU-Ukraine Business Council spokesman said pressure was being applied by a “huge counteraction” from a Russian lobby.

The spokesman said, “It is being argued by Russia that only it can supply Ukrainian nuclear plants with fuel. Moscow has said that, in taking fuel from other sources, Ukraine is playing a ‘dangerous’ game.

“This is both misleading and technically incorrect. The fact is that other fuels can be developed through careful technical co-operation in order to provide an alternative to Russian produced fuel; the alternative is 100 per cent safe and also at a fair price, enabling the company to apply prudent diversification of supply to ensure higher quality standards and fair price competition.”

He added, “What this media campaign amounts to is basically Russian black propaganda and an attempt to undermine the scientific and technical knowledge of Ukraine’s nuclear industry.

“Russia is obviously trying to protect its own nuclear industry; but it should not be allowed to claim a monopoly in this sector, certainly not when theirs case is based on false and misleading claims which have no basis in scientific fact.”

He pointed out that in May 2014 the European Commission said that as a condition of investment, any non-EU reactor design built in the EU must have more than one source of fuel.

Further comment comes from Rebecca Harms, a senior German MEP and deputy leader of the Greens group in the European Parliament.

The long-standing deputy said, “I agree that is feasible to change but not without risks and not without the technical modernization or adaptation of the reactor.

“Decisions must also be taken carefully regarding alternatives to prolonging the lifetime of those reactors because investment in modernization would mean a longer  lifetime.

“And, given the age, technical and other problems of nuclear power plants in Ukraine alternatives have to be checked. I know that it is difficult to talk about a fast phase out of nuclear in Ukraine but all investments in nuclear now must be compared to other scenarios for short, medium and long term alternatives.”

Harms added, “For Ukraine it is an awful situation and demonstrates to everybody else outside that deep dependency on Russia has unexpected consequences.”

Elsewhere, Westinghouse president and CEO Danny Roderick said the signing of its contract with Energoatom for VVER fuel design “testifies to the quality of our fuel design and demonstrates that it has, in fact, operated without issue at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant.”

He added, “The agreement recognises the excellent Westinghouse VVER fuel design performance and will allow Energoatom to continue diversification of its fuel supply.”

Traditionally, Russian TVEL was the only supplier of fuel cells for Ukrainian NPPs. But for several years Westinghouse has produced nuclear fuel cells for nuclear reactors of the VVER-1000 type. This accounts for 13 of the 15 reactors on Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

Ukraine has even started to use TBC-W fuel cells in two reactors.

A source in Ukraine’s energy ministry said he accepts the need to modernise the Internal Vessel Instrumentation (IVI) – the system that controls fuel inside the reactor – and that currently there are only two reactors in Ukraine with modernised IVI.

He said that while Ukraine is able to modernize IVIs without the Russians, insisting that it has “appropriate expertise and technical skills” to do so; the main problem is time.

It takes 6 to 12 months to modernize an IVI and it is impossible to modernise 11 IVIs at once. Modernisation can take up to two years.

However, in order to be safe on the nuclear fuel side Ukraine needs to start the modernization of IVIs now.

“We have a contract with Russian TVEL for only one year and, considering how Russians act towards Ukraine nowadays, no one can be assured that they will fulfil the contract,” said the source.

By Martin Banks