“Russian Nuclear Garrote: Get Free Once and Forever”

Energy dependence of Ukraine on Russia is not limited to scandalous gas and oil-product problems. For a long time, the Russian Federation played also on the atomic strings of the national nuclear industry. How Ukraine managed to minimize cooperation with the Russian Federation in the nuclear field, why Russia-controlled mass media continue to sling mud on Ukrainian nuclear energy, how to oppose this, as well as on up-to-date transformations and development of the industry, Ihor SHEVCHENKO, Director of the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (SSTC NRS), informed in his interview for DT.UA.

Ihor Shevchenko, Director of the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety

– Mr. Shevchenko, along with arranging the gas crises, Russia always reminds us of the dependence of Ukrainian nuclear energy sector on it: starting from fuel purchase for nuclear power plants from Russian TVEL and ending with spent nuclear fuel storage. How has it become possible to reduce nuclear dependence, especially during the war, from Russia as an aggressor country?

– Today, dependence on Russia in nuclear power industry has been practically reduced to zero. Firstly, over the past two or three years, Ukraine has replaced a significant part of Russian TVEL nuclear fuel with the U.S. fabricated Westinghouse fuel. This is definitely a great achievement of Energoatom and the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU). At any moment, we are ready to renounce the Russian supplier at all. This is in no way a threat, but a statement of fact in the event of unexpected steps of the Russian Federation, which, as the regular gas crises prove, can be induced by Moscow.

Secondly, the risk of Russia’s political influence gradually decreases on account of spent nuclear fuel storage. Energoatom has substantially advanced in implementation of the project on construction of the centralized spent fuel storage facility (CSFSF), where spent nuclear fuel from our three plants, Khmelnitsky, Rivne and South Ukraine NPPs, will be stored after its commissioning. Zaporizhzhya NPP has its own storage facility since 2001.

Construction of the CSFSF will save up to $ 200 million every year and will completely eliminate possible manipulative means on our country. Non-removal of spent nuclear fuel from the NPP site is exactly the same problem as non-delivery of fresh nuclear fuel. If the spent fuel pools are completely filled up, there will be no place to unload spent nuclear fuel, and, in this case, operation of an NPP will be impossible.

Thirdly, active refocusing to national and western suppliers of spare parts for nuclear facilities and engineering support is ongoing. Therefore, critical dependence on Russia does not remain in principle.

— What is the ratio of Westinghouse and TVEL fuel today?

— Westinghouse fuel is under operation in mixed cores at six Ukrainian power units: Zaporizhzya-1, 3, 4, 5 and South Ukraine-2, 3. The process of gradual transition from mixed cores loaded with nuclear fuel from different suppliers to one core loaded with fuel from one supplier is ongoing. In the coming years, seven out of the fifteen power units will be operated using only nuclear fuel manufactured by Westinghouse Company. According to the recently signed contract between Energoatom and Westinghouse Company, Rivne-3 was chosen as the seventh power unit. The fuel loading process will start in 2021.

— Have there been any incidents at Ukrainian NPPs in testing Westinghouse fuel? Would you please speak on their causes, if any?

— There were no incidents related to operation of Westinghouse fuel in Ukraine. The human factor or failures in the performance of electrical equipment are the most often causes of incidents, which are not related to radioactivity or the core.

— The replacement of nuclear fuel for Ukrainian NPPs (TVEL fuel by Westinghouse fuel) is not a diversification of suppliers. However, it is clear that the diversification in nuclear industry is a much more complicated process than in other energy sectors. What opportunities are there for attracting new manufacturers of nuclear fuel?

— The nuclear fuel diversification is not intended to switch from fuel manufactured in the Russian Federation to the full-scale use of fuel produced by Westinghouse or another manufacturer. It is important that the fuel is supplied by several manufacturers. This will reduce risks not only from a commercial point of view, but also for the safety reasons.

The Ukrainian market is rather large, having 15 power units of WWER type. Therefore, we speak about big sums of money. It is obvious that Russian companies would not like to lose it. At the same time, the Ukrainian market cannot be simultaneously profitable for four or five nuclear fuel suppliers. In addition, the process of nuclear fuel design is complex, expensive and knowledge-intensive.

The Russians push their own agendas in Ukraine, launch compromising campaigns in mass media and manipulate facts to retain control. One of the most amusing things I have read is that “a nuclear disaster awaits Ukraine through the use of Westinghouse fuel”. Noteworthy is that this phrase was followed by a description of various events at the power units where Westinghouse fuel had never been used.

Energoatom has been cooperating with Westinghouse Company for a long time. In the late 1990s–early 2000s, the U.S. government allocated funds for manufacturing a test batch of nuclear fuel for Ukrainian NPPs. The first test batch of six assemblies was supplied to South Ukraine-3 in 2005. They were under operation for four years. Considering the positive operating experience, Energoatom decided to expand the diversification process. The first pilot batch of 42 assemblies was supplied to South Ukraine-3 in 2010.

The diversification process in Ukraine was not cloudless at the beginning. In 2012, visual inspection of the Westinghouse fuel revealed damage of assembly spacer grids that interact with adjacent assemblies and reactor in-vessel components. There were no damage of fuel rods. In terms of nuclear safety, the situation that occurred in 2012 can hardly be called critical. However, the Ukrainian nuclear regulator decided to terminate the diversification process. Only after the Westinghouse fuel was upgraded, its operation continued in Ukraine.

Therefore, a balance in fuel supplies in needed. I believe that three suppliers would be an optimum solution for Ukraine.

— Response of the Russians, particularly in mass media, on the competition between the Russian and Westinghouse fuel is predictable since the Russian Federation is losing its market. Considering that the international market is tightly divided between nuclear fuel manufacturers/suppliers, who else can supply fuel for Ukrainian nuclear power plants and under what conditions? Who will ensure safety for the Ukrainians and how?

— China is among the potential nuclear fuel suppliers for Ukraine. China already has a fabrication plant of nuclear fuel for Russian NPPs. However, in my opinion, Ukraine should first fully complete the licensing process of U.S. fuel and transfer it from trial commercial operation to commercial one, and only then can reasonably look for the third supplier. At the same time, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate will ensure safety since this is its authority. It fulfills completely its task with the use of Westinghouse fuel.

— Supply of not only fuel but also spare parts for NPPs has been Russia’s monopoly for a long time. Is there any progress in this sphere?

—Ukraine’s dependence on the supply of Russian spare parts has been minimized. Our country has hundreds of companies that manufacture spare parts for nuclear power plants. The manufacturing of heat and mechanical equipment, cables, automation systems, up-to-date digital systems related to reactor operation, etc., has already been established.

— Has the problem related to spare parts for diesel generators whose supply made a lot of noise last year been solved?

— Not yet. Nevertheless, it will be solved in the near future. Energoatom (operator) has already developed necessary documents and performed the first tests of samples manufactured in Ukraine.

— Some time ago, there were discussions related to the construction of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Ukraine (in cooperation with the Kazakhs and Russians). Is this idea relevant or not today? Why?

— Ukraine will not construct this plant neither in cooperation with Kazakhstan nor with Russia. All previous agreements concluded with Russia on the construction of this fuel fabrication plant have been already canceled. Moreover, the construction of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant is economically unprofitable for our country. Theoretically, we can construct such a plant that will produce 400 to 800 fuel assemblies annually. However, we will still have assemblies after meeting the needs of national nuclear power plants. It is not clear yet what to do with them.

— The construction of the centralized spent fuel storage facility in the Chornobyl exclusion zone is a concern for some experts and citizens. SSTC NRS participated in the review of documents justifying safety of the facility. Have you identified hazards that might occur in future?

— It is reasonable here to tell how we assessed safety of the facility. Since the U.S. technologies were completely new for Ukraine, SSTC NRS analyzed in detail not only a number of Ukrainian but also U.S. regulations to establish the most acceptable requirements for each specific component of the facility. As a result, the most severe option for ensuring safety was chosen in each individual case.

At the same time, SNRIU and Energoatom established specific requirements for spent nuclear fuel containers. The defense-in-depth concept using a double-wall container was chosen. This requirement is more conservative compared to the requirements of other countries, including the United States. Although this choice increases the cost for manufacturing the containers, it will contribute to their significant safety improvement.

It is certainly a complex high-tech facility, and there are always risks. Nevertheless, the storage facility will remain safe even in possible external natural and man-made events including extreme ones.

CSFSF is a very powerful social project, 10% of its construction costs will be allocated for underdeveloped Polissia and Ivankiv districts in the Kyiv oblast. These funds can become a significant impetus for economic growth of the region. This will ensure not only construction of roads and railway infrastructure, but will also provide jobs and houses to the population.

— What is the progress with construction of the interim storage facility for high-level radwaste to be returned after reprocessing of spent fuel from the Russian Federation in the Chornobyl exclusion zone?

— Unfortunately, Ukraine is not ready today to accept high-level vitrified radwaste from Russia resulting from reprocessing of Rivne-1, 2 spent nuclear fuel. We already have an approved project related to the storage facility; its construction should be funded by the state. The project cost is almost 400 million UAH. Considering annual allocations of Energoatom to the radioactive waste management fund, 4.5 billion UAH is not such a large sum. The fact is that before last year, fund costs were used for other needs. There are not only economic issues regarding the construction of the storage facility to be solved. It is also required to agree specifications for vitrified radwaste packages, certify radwaste packaging to transport these packages, and conduct special design studies since not all equipment is standard. Nevertheless, I hope that the storage facility will be constructed after all in the near future.

— There is a fear in society, at the level of rumors, that CSFSF will accept spent nuclear fuel from other countries. Current legislation does not allow this. However, laws are written and adopted by people, both laws and people adopting them or their views change from time to time…

— My answer to this question is unchanged: spent nuclear fuel from other countries will not be accepted by CSFSF. I will explain it as an engineer. The storage facility is designed exclusively for the amount of spent nuclear fuel operated in Ukraine. In order to place spent nuclear fuel from other countries, CSFSF would have to be expanded. This would include approval of a new project, documents and reports. Without this, nobody will be able to transfer spent fuel from other countries to the storage facility.

— It is clear that it is more difficult to solve issues in nuclear energy than in other areas, because first of all it concerns safety of citizens and country. What reforms could contribute to the strengthening of Ukraine’s nuclear independence?

— Issues of nuclear industry are inseparably linked with national problems. In the context of law-making, there is a lack of a law that would strengthen the role and independence of the national nuclear regulator. A strong independent regulatory body means safety of nuclear facilities and, hence, safety of the country.

— Nuclear experts of Ukraine are in demand in the world and leave Ukraine in recent years. Do you know to what countries? Who does not spend resources to train experts, but “buy” them? Who will remain in national nuclear industry?

— New projects of Russian nuclear power plants in China and Iran were mostly implemented by Ukrainian experts. Today, unfortunately, there is a significant outflow of our experts to Turkey, where the Russian Federation is planning to construct NPPs in the near future. Very often Russian companies recruit Ukrainian experts.

Ukraine has a very recognized nuclear training system: from universities to training centers at NPP sites. Training centers in Ukraine work at each NPP and allow professional development of personnel. The most advanced center is at Zaporizhzhya NPP, where maintenance personnel are trained.

— Is there any information about nuclear facilities on the occupied territories of Ukraine – the research nuclear reactor in the Crimea and facilities of the Donetsk specialized plant for radioactive waste management of the Radon State Corporation?

— Unfortunately, we do not know what is happening on these facilities. The regulatory authority has no information about the research reactor in the Crimea or radioactive waste storage facilities in Donetsk due to aggression of the Russian Federation.

— In addition to the storage facilities located in the Chornobyl exclusion zone, the new safe confinement is under construction now. The commissioning date for this facility has been postponed several times. Who impedes the process?

— As of now, the nuclear regulator reasonably slows down the commissioning of the new safe confinement because there are a number of shortcomings and failures made by the Novarka Company, which builds this facility. Until they are eliminated, SNRIU will not allow the dismantling of Chornobyl Unit 4 and Shelter unstable structures.

The State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, which coordinates the project on transformation of the Shelter into an environmentally safe system, will require financial support from foreign partners. Without this support, it will hardly be possible to complete this project.  

— The lifetime of the Ukrainian power units expires from year to year. From 2030 to 2040, the extended lifetime of 12 out of the 15 power units will expire. Is there a future for Ukraine’s nuclear energy?

— In my opinion, it is too early to talk about decommissioning of the Ukrainian power units in the period through 2040. The lifetime of Ukrainian NPP units is commonly extended for ten years, while the lifetime of power units of the same type in Russia is extended for more than 20 years.

I think that in the period from 2030 to 2040, Energoatom will reassess the safety of the Ukrainian power units. If the feasibility of their further operation is confirmed, the lifetime of NPP units will be extended after replacement of required equipment.

Meanwhile, Energoatom is negotiating possible implementation of SMR technologies (small modular reactors) in Ukraine.

— In the above regard, it makes sense to develop renewable energy in Ukraine.

— Indeed, this issue is not as simple as it seems. When it comes to the development of renewable energy, one should not forget about the load-following modes and powerful energy storage systems, without which renewable sources cannot function.

By the way, Energoatom is moving in this direction. In the near future, it plans to place a solar energy park on the Zaporizhzhya NPP site.

In my opinion, the future is with renewable energy.

Dzerkalo Tyzhnia