Ukraine’s nuclear power plants: What should, what can be done?

Author: Thomas Sattich

Ukraine’s power system can stand representative for the country’s geopolitical situation: Consisting of several sub-systems, one part of the country’s power system in the West is integrated in the continental European, whereas the Eastern parts of the country remain part of the post-Soviet power system. On the other hand Ukraine is independent when it comes to electricity supply: Most of the generated power is also consumed in the country, with balanced import-export figures. Limited interaction with neighbouring countries is rather the rule than the exception in Europe, but the given these figures, Ukraine can be described as highly self-sufficient in electricity supply.

15 nuclear power reactors back Ukraine’s independence: Atomic energy accounts for more than half of generated electricity in Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine is the second-largest producer of Uranium in Europe after Russia.

The significance of nuclear energy for the country’s economy can hence hardly be overstated. But Ukraine seems to be at the brink of anarchy: Despite several initiatives to bring the country’s unrest to a halt, Ukraine has fallen into a bloody civil war between army, right wing extremists and armed separatist groups. The situation also indicates increasing economic tension, political unrest, and continuing street violence. As if the situation was not worrying enough, several reports mention threats for the country’s nuclear programme. Europeans are therefore confronted with a very serious question: What to do with Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure?

Since the Euromaidan events in early 2014, Ukraine is sliding into an abyss of civil war and chaos. International negotiations so far failed to stop this downward spiral, as apparently not all sides are equally interested in a peaceful development. The question, who is to blame for this situation, certainly is a very important one. In view of the threats for Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, the blame game has, however, little meaning: Ways have to be found to secure the plants against immediate threats. This should be one of the first priorities during the negotiations.

It is of course difficult to forecast the country’s future course. Yet despite this distinct insecurity, medium and long-term solutions have to be found to neutralise the threat originating from Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure. At least in this regard the conflicting parties should be able to agree. Insofar Ukraine’s nuclear power plants might be a somewhat neutral item for constructive negotiations. In any case, a survey of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, their current state and their potential future is necessary, before further analysis of what can be done.

Only in a second step reflections on potential ways to take action can be discussed. Ultimately this is an older debate, as the state of the country’s nuclear programme was cause for concerns long before February 2014. But the current crisis accelerated developments and put Ukraine on a trajectory that demands renewed thinking about this issue. The author of this blog will  therefore ask what means and programmes the EU (possibly) has to deal with Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure and the Ukrainian power system. Given the highly political nature of the Ukrainian issue, a European contribution can, however, be only one part of a bigger puzzle.

Update 07 August 2014:

Electricity generation in Ukraine, 1992 - 2011
Electricity generation in Ukraine (in billion kilowatthours), 1992 – 2011

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