Chernobyl Fallout: The Uncertain Future of Ukraine's K2/R4 Nuclear Project

Article excerpt

KIEV, UKRAINE -- The March 2002 parliamentary elections in Ukraine gave a mere 12 percent support to the party of President Leonid Kuchma, with a plurality of 45 percent going to the reformist bloc led by ex-prime minister Victor Yushenko. While many are celebrating Yushenko's political victory as offering Ukraine hope that its 11-year economic collapse may come to an end, his political gains may also revitalize Ukraine's controversial nuclear power program. Because Western governments and international financial institutions view Yushenko as virtually the only person in Ukraine they can seriously talk to, his victory may breathe life into a project which many would prefer to consider dead: the nuclear reactors known as K2/R4.

THE DEAL, THE CONCERNS

A 1995 Memorandum of Understanding between the G7 the group of seven leading industrialized countries), the European Commission and the Ukrainian government promised support to the country suffering from the consequences of the world's worst nuclear catastrophe. Ukraine promised to close the Chernobyl power plant in exchange for financial support to mitigate the consequences of the radioactive disaster and to build compensating facilities.

Kuchma has sought to use the money to complete the Soviet-designed nuclear reactors Khmelnitsky unit 2 and Rivne unit 4 (K2/R4). Construction on these units began in the 1980s and was about 80 percent complete in 1992 when building stopped due to a funding shortfall and parliamentary opposition.

Energy experts, public interest groups and some government officials and parliamentarians have questioned the need for the nuclear energy system, its potential profitability and its safety.

The K2/R4 project poses many serious safety problems, most of which are due to structural flaws in the original Soviet design. The International Atomic Energy Agency has identified a wide range of problems, including an increased risk of fire due to improper cable layout, faulty steam generators, reactor containment vessels which are susceptible to rupture, faulty control rods and poor and obsolete instrumentation and control. Standard probabilistic safety analyses for the reactors have not been performed, and will not be performed until after plant start-up. Also, serious safety issues regarding human error and safety culture have not been addressed.

The reactors at K2/R4 are far from meeting international safety standards and would not be allowed to operate in any Western country. Furthermore, Energoatom, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear energy company, is planning to begin operation of these reactors before remedying acknowledged safety problems, and it will only correct some of the known safety problems at the first refueling. The plant will not achieve even the Soviet-designed safety level until after three years of operation.

"It does not make sense to waste public funds investing in two unsafe reactors when almost half of Ukrainian power plants are unable to get enough money even to operate," says Yury Urbansky of the National Ecological Center of Ukraine. "Ukraine has tremendous potential for energy efficiency, and that is where investments should go."

The dramatic decline in economic activity in the Ukraine in the 1990s led to a significant drop in energy demand, leaving installed capacity at double the peak load demand. Over the last decade, many Ukrainian power plants have closed and been neglected due to a lack of demand. throughout much of the 1990s, only about 30 percent of consumers were paying their bills to Energoatom in cash. Today, only about 60 percent pay in cash -- many are not paying at all, and others are paying with bartered goods, such as tomatoes.

Foreign donors -- the source of monies for any new nuclear construction -- agree that the yet-to-be completed units must be upgraded to meet minimum safety standards. Doing so will require the involvement of Western companies like Raytheon, Framatom of France and Siemens of Germany. …