Nuclear Plants, Nuclear Waste and the War in Ukraine

Zaporizhia, Ukraine  with nuclear plant in background. Image from wikipedia.

UKRAINE, More than 3,000 spent nuclear fuel rods are kept inside metal casks within towering concrete containers in an open-air yard close to a perimeter fence at Zaporizhia, the Guardian discovered on a recent visit to the plant, which is 124 miles (200km) from the current front line.“

With a war around the corner, it is shocking that the spent fuel rod containers are standing under the open sky, with just a metal gate and some security guards waltzing up and down for protection,” said Patricia Lorenz, a Friends of the Earth nuclear spokeswoman who visited the plant on a fact-finding mission.“I have never seen anything like it,” she added. “It is unheard of when, in Germany, interim storage operators have been ordered by the court to terror-proof their casks with roofs and reinforced walls.”  

Industry experts said that ideally the waste store would have a secondary containment system such as a roof.  Ukraine’s conflict in Donbass is 124 miles away from the plant, but Gustav Gressel, a fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations thinks the front line is too far away – for now – to be at risk from fighting.

However, locals still fear for the potential consequences if the conflict was to spread in the plant’s direction. Just three decades ago, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kiev released a radioactive cloud that poisoned vast tracts of land…

Plant security at Zaporizhia is now at a ‘high readiness’ level, while air force protection and training exercises have been stepped up. Officials say that if fighting reaches the plant, there are plans for the closure of access roads and deployment of soldiers.  But they say that no containment design could take the stresses of military conflict into account. “Given the current state of warfare, I cannot say what could be done to completely protect installations from attack, except to build them on Mars,” Sergiy Bozhko , the chairman of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) told the Guardian…..

However, a dry storage container with a resilient roof and in-house ventilation would offer greater protection….

“Nuclear energy is the only possible option for us to replace the generated electricity that we lost [from coal and gas],” a government source told the Guardian. “After the start of open war with Russia, it was understood that all our other strategies in the energy sphere would become impossible.” Some 60% of Ukraine’s electricity is now produced by 15 ageing reactors – concentrated in four giant plants. Nine of these will reach the end of their design lifetimes in the next five years, and three have already.  Most of Ukraine’s nuclear fleet depends on Russia’s Rosatom to supply its enriched uranium fuel – and to whisk away the resulting radioactive waste for storage…

But as fear and loathing in the war-torn region grow, government sources say that in the long term, Ukraine aims to forge a three-way split in nuclear fuel supply contracts between US-company Westinghouse, European companies, such as Areva, and Rosatom. This creates its own safety issues….

Last December (2014), the US firm signed a memo with Ukraine to “significantly increase fuel deliveries” to Ukrainian plants, though the details are sketchy. A similar deal was signed with the French nuclear company Areva on 24 April.  But fears of Russian retaliation have dogged past plans to shift supply or disposal contracts to the West, and market diversification will be a slow process….

The US has provided technology, training and hundreds of millions of dollars to help Ukraine’s push for fuel diversification, according to a US diplomatic cable from 2009, published by Wikileaks.  Westinghouse has also lobbied the Ukrainian government at ministerial level to commit to buying their fuel for at least five reactors. Plant managers say that it will be used in Zaporizhia by 2017.

Excerpts from Nuclear waste stored in ‘shocking’ way 120 miles from Ukrainian front line, Guardian, May 6, 2015

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