New Internationalist

Back from the grave

Issue 320

Capitalism has hit the ex-Soviet Union. But free markets are rarely free of politics. Lily Hyde looks at the West’s attempt to revive Ukraine’s moribund nuclear power plants.

It’s basically the same imperfect design and we’d wind up with the same dangers as Chernobyl

At the Chernobyl Museum in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, solemn-faced schoolchildren examine the documented source of their own ill-health. Evacuees from one of the world’s worst nuclear-power accidents weep over photos of their lost homes.

Streets away, a group of Western nuclear experts are working with the Ukrainian energy company Energoatom to complete two sub-standard nuclear power plants – with the encouragement of major Western governments and the European nuclear industry. The reactors are planned for Khmelnytsky and Rivne, two small industrial cities 250 kilometres west of Kiev. They are Soviet-designed, 1,000 megawatt, light-water-cooled nuclear plants, generally deemed safer than those at Chernobyl but still far from Western safety standards. ‘It’s basically the same imperfect design,’ says Andrey Odinenko of Greenpeace Ukraine. ‘And we’d wind up with the same dangers as Chernobyl.’

The project was agreed in a deal signed by Ukraine, the G7 group of industrial nations and the European Union (EU) in 1995. The G7 pledged to help Ukraine make up for electricity lost when Chernobyl shuts its doors for good next year. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) offered a $190-million loan towards the one-billion-dollar-plus project. That support would open the door to a further $500 million from Euratom, the EU-funded nuclear organization. And the G7 pledged millions more to guarantee payment from Ukraine for reactor parts exported to the country by Western suppliers.

Yuri Kostenko, former Minister for Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety, says the Government initially suggested a gas power plant ‘but experts from the G7 said it would be cheaper’ to go nuclear. The reactors at Khmelnytsky and Rivne were started under the old Soviet regime, then abandoned nearly 80-per-cent complete after the Chernobyl disaster.

Western power companies have been keen supporters of the plan, since new orders for nuclear plants in Europe and North America have dried up. Nuclear giants Electricité De France, Tractabel from Belgium and the Finnish firm IVO International are already acting as consultants in Ukraine. Companies likely to win lucrative contracts if work goes ahead include the German corporation, Siemens. A large proportion of the loan package would consist of export guarantees, with Ukraine obliged to buy equipment and services from designated Western firms.

Heidi Bradner / Panos Pictures
After the meltdown: a Ukrainian boy holds a drawing of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Heidi Bradner / Panos Pictures

But there are also political motivations. The West wants Ukraine as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Generating its own electricity from nuclear power would make the country less dependent on Russian gas, for which it has already incurred vast debts.

The irony is that Ukraine doesn’t need new generating capacity to replace Chernobyl. Since the collapse of the USSR and the economic stagnation that followed, energy demand has plummeted. The country now has the capacity to generate more power than it needs, according to a study by economist John Surrey commissioned by the EBRD. Surrey concluded Ukraine already has excess generating capacity of 100 per cent and recommended instead that the West help the country repair its existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. For Surrey the nuclear scheme has always been a ‘highly political project looking for economic justification that has never existed’.

A much bigger problem is distribution and waste. People open windows to cool overheated apartments from October to April. Ukraine uses many times more energy per person than the European Union average. Local environmentalists have been arguing for years that the system needs a complete overhaul and that energy-saving devices should be installed in houses, apartments, factories and offices.

Inefficiencies in the current system of electricity supply have done little to dampen Western interest in the nuclear project which environmentalists say is potentially disastrous. Neighbouring Austria has concluded that an accident at either of the new plants could contaminate all of Central Europe. And David Kyd of the International Atomic Energy Agency says scrapping the Russian design in favour of a total revamp along Western lines would cost more than a billion dollars and is simply too expensive. Kyd also says the reactors would never be licensed in the West.

There is a slim ray of hope the project can be halted. The EBRD has not yet approved the loan – perhaps because of increased pressure from the German Green Party after last year’s elections. But there is also a strong pro-nuclear lobby in the Ukrainian Government which clings doggedly to the project, holding the West to its original commitment.

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry the Khmelnytsky and Rivne reactors may open the door to more Western-funded nuclear projects in Eastern Europe. Tobias Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace International says Euratom is considering nuclear power loans to Russia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Lily Hyde is a freelance journalist based in Kiev.

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This article was originally published in issue 320

New Internationalist Magazine issue 320
Issue 320

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