Ukraine, EU: An incomplete debate on nuclear energy

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For some people in Ukraine, it has been striking to see how little awareness and discussion there is in Europe about Kyiv's plans to expand the lifetime of 12 old nuclear reactors, right on the doorstep of the EU and most likely at European taxpayers’ expense, writes Iryna Holovko, an environmental campaigner in Ukraine.

Iryna Holovko is Bankwatch national campaigner in Ukraine and a member of the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine. She submitted this commentary in exclusivity for EurActiv.

"In between anniversaries of Fukushima and Chernobyl, we are in a period when nuclear is a 'hot' topic.

The use of nuclear power has been analysed from all sides: from the claim that it is the only realistic means to combat climate change, to arguments that the serious risks associated with it are not worth the benefits or that, no matter the benefits, it is simply too costly to develop much more.

Yet for some of us in Ukraine, it has been striking to see how little awareness and discussion there is in Europe about our country’s plans to expand the lifetime of 12 old reactors, right on the doorstep of the EU and most likely at European taxpayers’ expense.

The Ukrainian national energy strategy for 2030 envisages the lifetime expansion of 12 out of the country’s 15 nuclear reactors, whose operations were scheduled to finish by 2020. Two of these 12 ageing reactors were supposed to be taken off the grid in 2010 and 2011 respectively but have already seen their licences extended to operate for an additional 20 years each. Ten more are expected to follow suit in the next five years. The national strategy also sees Ukraine becoming an important electricity exporter, including to the EU, and the union endorses this vision in its bilateral agreements with Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities now want to modernise all the country’s reactors. The estimated cost of the modernisation of the 15 reactors has been put at €1.4 billion, too much for Ukraine to handle alone. Hence, at the moment, both Euratom and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, public bodies in which all EU members have a stake, are considering lending around €300 million each for the modernisation of Ukraine’s old reactors.

Nominally, the money is for safety upgrades, not for lifetime prolongation. But an expert review published by Bankwatch last week shows that a number of modernisation measures included in the safety upgrade project currently considered for financing by these two bodies would not be necessary unless there is a plan to use them past their original design life time.

When told about the Ukrainian government’s plans to expand the lifetime of these reactors, the EBRD repeatedly responds that they are not going to finance lifetime expansion of reactors, but rather, their modernisation. But if these reactors are to close down in 2012 or 2014, as scheduled, we know that such costly measures for upgrading their component integrity and reactor protection systems are not needed. In effect, the two bodies are financing lifetime expansion.

Interestingly, with Euratom expected to make a decision over its financial support by the summer, and the EBRD to decide in the fall, it is unlikely that stress tests demanded by the EU from all reactors in its territory and in neighbouring countries are completed and their recommendations included in the safety upgrade to be financed with European public money. No Strategic Environmental Assessment has been completed for this safety upgrade project, but a much narrower Ecological Assessment has been conducted, which fails to take into account the real risks of running these 12 reactors past their designed life time.

And these are worth taking into account: with every year of operation after a reactor's designed lifetime, the risk of accidents involving radioactive emissions – for instance short circuits or the appearance of cracks in the covers of reactor vessels – significantly increases. Just a few days ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a warning that the world’s ageing nuclear reactors might not be able to fulfil enhanced safety objectives similarly to new ones, as it has come to be expected.

Despite such serious implications, we in Ukraine, activists and citizens, do not have much voice in decisions over the nuclear sector. We were never asked whether we want our country to continue to rely on nuclear. We were never asked whether we want to take such important risks so as to become exporters of electricity from nuclear to Europe. And clearly the European public is clueless about what is being decided these days about nuclear reactors in their near vicinity.

And yet today, unlike 26 years ago when Chernobyl happened, we supposedly live in democracies. And, these days, spurred by anniversaries of terrible nuclear accidents, we are supposedly having a broad, open debate about what space we want to allow for nuclear power in our lives. From Kiev, these debates ring a little hollow.

Central to any genuine discussion should be the full disclosure of plans regarding the nuclear sector, and a proper consideration given to safe closure and decommissioning of reactors alongside the study of alternatives to nuclear – this is not happening in the Ukraine.

Nor is it happening in the EU, as regards Ukrainian nuclear power, as European public bodies choose to merely endorse and finance the plans of our government, no matter how reckless. In 30 years of operation of the nuclear sector in Ukraine, the industry has failed to accumulate the necessary funds for decommissioning.

Prolonging the lifetime of reactors for another two decades is no guarantee that such funds will be collected. This might be a more worthwhile investment of EU public money. "

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