Nuclear energy's share of Ukraine's electricity mix is "rapidly approaching" 60%, President Petro Poroshenko told a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council on 16 February, according to a statement on the presidential website.
"I am pleased to inform [you] that we have increased the share of nuclear energy in the overall energy balance. From 47% we are rapidly approaching 60%. This is [equivalent to] millions of tons of coal that Ukraine no longer needs," Poroshenko said. He also welcomed plans to upgrade the generating capacities of coal-fired power plants, noting that work to significantly increase the efficiency and improve the operation of all types of power plants in the country "must be started immediately" as it will take two to three years.
Ukraine has 15 nuclear units in commercial operation at four sites - Kmelnitsky, Rovno, South Ukraine and Zaporozhe - which are all operated by state-owned Energoatom. The units comprise 13 VVER-1000s and two VVER-440s with a total capacity of 13,835 MWe. Ukraine receives most of its nuclear services and nuclear fuel from Russia, but is reducing this dependence by buying fuel from Westinghouse, the US-headquartered subsidiary of Japan's Toshiba.
Energoatom said on 17 February that it is carrying out a series of activities at Rovno unit 3 to improve safety and prepare for a possible lifetime extension. The statement said the operational licence of Rovno 3 will expire in December 2017 and a decision on whether or not to extend it is scheduled for 2018. According to Energoatom, a general state programme for improving safety at Ukraine’s nuclear plants has been approved by the government and is scheduled for completion in 2020. Completion of the programme is a prerequisite for the life extension of existing nuclear units and involves 96 activities at Rovno 3, 46 of which have already been completed. Another 37 need to be completed before the operating licence expires, while the remaining 13 will be finalised in stages if the operating extension is confirmed. Energoatom said funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) was instrumental in buying equipment for refurbishment of Rovno 3, a 950MWe Soviet-supplied VVER-320, which began commercial operation in May 1987.
However, all this should be viewed in the context of the serious financial and technical difficulties facing the energy sector. Dmitri Marunich, the co-chair of the Kiev-based Energy Strategies Fund, said Ukraine could face rolling blackouts within weeks. On 13 February, Energy Minister Ihor Nasalyk warned that reserves of coal for Ukraine's power plants will be depleted in 14-45 days, and proposed the introduction of a state of emergency in the energy sector. He said Ukraine has about 927,000 tonnes of anthracite coal in reserve, with the energy sector consuming up to 40,000 tonnes a day. The breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics have some of the richest coal-mining areas in Ukraine, particularly the anthracite coal necessary to power many of Ukraine's thermal power plants.
The same day, Nasalyk told ICTV television stressed that in spite of the imminent energy crisis, Kiev would not be importing emergency electricity supplies from the Russian grid. "We will do everything possible to refuse this option," he said. Electricity supplies to Ukraine from the Russian grid stopped in January 2016. However, there have been precedents of limited emergency cooperation with Russia sending 600MWe of electricity to Kiev last summer during a similar crisis.
Earlier, Nasalyk had said Kiev has two options if coal deliveries are not resumed from the breakaway territories. "We cannot take coal from South Africa because it is sold out until April. There are only two options left: Russian [coal] import or Russian gas for gas and oil [plants]," he said. Experts say that Kiev can hypothetically purchase coal from Australia or New Zealand, but supplies would take at least six weeks to deliver, and would overload Ukrainian sea ports.
Marunich warned that power cuts would also put Ukraine's NPPs at risk. "Nuclear plants cannot work without an external power source, so there is a possibility that their nuclear units will have to be temporarily stopped. The threat of power cuts can cause serious accidents, so they will need time to disconnect them. But I hope that we do not get to that point."