Nuclear power in Ukraine – 40 years of unease

25 October 2017

Alexey Kovynev looks back at over four decades of nuclear power in Ukraine.

In the history of nuclear energy in Ukraine 26 September 1977 is an important date. On this day, the first nuclear power unit in the territory of Ukraine was connected to the grid – a 1000MWe RBMK, unit 1 at Chernobyl. Chernobyl 2 started up a year later, by which time construction of the next units was actively underway.

At that time Ukraine was one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union (formally the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR) the second both in population and industrial production (it represented about 20% of each). The 1980s was the heyday of nuclear power in the USSR. The Nuclear Power Development Programme, approved in 1980, planned construction of 143 nuclear units with capacity 440MWe, 1000MWe and 1500MWe. That would be a total capacity in 1990 of 100GWe. It was not dreams: it was a plan that was actively being realised. Between two and four units were started up every year in the USSR and the period between pouring ‘first concrete’ and grid connection for some units was less than four years. In the present day, the global nuclear industry no longer has such colossal plans and is proud of much more modest achievements.

In the first half of the 1980s eight nuclear power units started up in Ukraine: Chernobyl 3 and 4, Rovno 1 and 2, South-Ukraine 1 and 2, and Zaporozhye 1 and 2. All were 1000MWe units except Rovno 1 and 2, which were 440MWe. Ten units were in operation and 16 more units were planned, at existing sites and at two new ones – Khmelnitsky and Crimea. Preparatory works began on other new sites at Chigirin, Odessa and Kharkov. The latter two were intended to supply heat to nearby cities, which had a population of more than 1 million people.

During the period, most units were connected to the grid just before 22 December – the day of the Soviet energy worker. It was a matter of honour to make announcements about new energy achievements on that day. Now it is difficult to imagine placing a system under this kind of strain, with this rigid task carried out at any cost and safety often ignored. April 1986 – a watershed in the history of nuclear power in the Soviet Union and the world – was not foreseen.

Post-Chernobyl era

After the night of 26 April 1986 the word Chernobyl became known to the whole world. A reasonable experiment, which would assess the possibility of using the running-out turbine’s energy to power the safety systems, ended in a catastrophe. The unit was completely destroyed, only two years after it started up. The accident cost, according to various estimates, $50-100 billion during the Soviet period and in independent Ukraine. That included technical measures at the nuclear power plant. It also included social payments to workers involved in responding to the accident and to people evacuated from the exclusion zone.

The Communist Party and the government threw enormous material and human resources at the liquidation. More than 600,000 people were employed in the process, many of whom received more than the maximum permissible radiation dose. In late 1986 an enormous task was accomplished – construction of the sarcophagus over the emergency unit and the restart of two units at the plant (unit 3 was started up a year later).

Now it seems that only those who were involved in the accident received a powerful shock from it. In general, the country continued to live its own life. Soviet television periodically reported on successes in eliminating the consequences of the accident, which was still perceived as an occasional deviation in the path of socialist development. Inertia in the huge nuclear power system meant it continued to grow – in this “emergency” year, two new units were started up in Ukraine – Rovno 3 and Zaporozhye 3. But the rapid growth began to slow down. However, it is fair to note that the USSR entered into the era of democracy and a protracted crisis. Deterioration of the economy across the entire Soviet Union was no less significant a factor in the nuclear slowdown.

There were protests against nuclear energy, which grew. In 1989 the Ukrainian government, still subordinate to Moscow but already taking some independent decisions, declared a moratorium on commissioning and constructing new nuclear units in Ukraine. At this point four more units – South Ukraine 3, Zaporozhye 4 and 5, and Khmelnitsky 1 – had been started up. Startup activity at four units – Zaporozhye 6, Khmelnitsky 2, Rovno 4 and Crimea 1 – was postponed. Construction at Khmelnitsky 3 and 4, South Ukraine 4 and, of course, Chernobyl 5 and 6 was stopped. Chigirin, Odessa and Kharkov remained as “paper” plants.

At Crimea a decision was taken in 1990 to end construction (there were additional concerns over seismic safety). Unit 1 was 80% complete. The equipment was initially conserved, but later moved to other nuclear sites in Ukraine. The containment and turbine hall structures remained, and for many years very popular music and dance festivals were held in the turbine hall, where the locals used to drive the visiting thrill seekers. Now the structure has deteriorated and is dangerous to visit (although after 2014 it is unlikely to be a significant problem for Ukraine).

In October 1991, another accident occurred at Chernobyl, this time at unit 2, which shook people who had not yet recovered from the nightmare of 1986. The unit was increasing load after an outage and was at 50% power when a second turbogenerator spontaneously connected to the grid due to a defect in the automation circuits. “Motor” mode lasted only 30 seconds but this was enough to destroy the bearings of the shaft of the turbogenerator, resulting in decompression of the generator and release of a large amount of oil and hydrogen. The fire in the turbine hall ended in the collapse of its roof. Firefighters and station personnel who helped extinguish the fire hardly found this situation different from that of 1986. The equipment important for nuclear reactor control was damaged, but the measures taken were sufficient to transfer the reactor to a safe state. Radioactive emissions were insignificant and were associated with residual contamination of the turbine hall’s roof from the 1986 accident.

The government of Ukraine decided to halt and immediately decommission this unit. This accident can be counted as the last nuclear accident in the USSR, because a couple of months later an agreement to end the existence of the Union was signed. 

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Geopolitical changes and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, brought the dismemberment of the nuclear industry. Ukraine inherited 14 operating power units, including two at Chernobyl. Most were newer units and four had high availability. But it also inherited the two Chernobyl accident units and this legacy had to be operated safely.

At that time, there were still quite strong illusions that good relations with Russia would remain after the political divorce. After all, the nuclear power industry of the USSR was a common complex, including design, construction, and scientific and engineering support. However, it meant breaking ties, establishing contractual financial relations where they had never existed in the face of a drastic change in the financial capabilities of the participants. The Russian monopoly in many areas led to deterioration and, in some cases, an end to cooperation. Ukraine had to create its own system of operations support.

Spent fuel was a serious problem. In the USSR, all spent fuel was transported to the storage and processing plant in Chelyabinsk (Russia). After independence, this service dramatically increased in price (and the price continues to rise), with all payments made in dollars. It was a price and a service that was impossible to refuse, as all plants would have to be shut down once their spent fuel pools had been filled. A partial solution at Zaporozhye was construction of a spent fuel dry storage using American technology.

Breaking the USSR’s planned-economy ties left the Ukrainian economy in a difficult state. In 1994, the third year of independence, after several years of hyperinflation (the national currency dropped 100,000-fold over four years), the monthly salary of qualified nuclear personnel sometimes dropped to $20 and was often delayed. This forced Ukrainian nuclear workers to join a protest march across Kiev in white special overalls – once again frightening those outside the industry.

Against this background, the decision in 1995 to lift the moratorium on starting up new nuclear plants seemed logical. Only one unit was started up – Zaporozhye 6, which was almost complete and where equipment had been maintained in state of readiness, with staff working on shifts. Two other units close to completion – Khmelnitsky 2 and Rovno 4 – took much longer. The bitter joke of those years was, “If it were not the moratorium, we would construct and start up the units on money of the Soviet Union”.

The shutdown of Chernobyl 1 in 1996 was not a very significant event. This decision took into account that the unit needed costly modernisation, as well as upgrading as requested by Western countries. Chernobyl 3 remained in operation but in December 2000, after many years of negotiations, discussions, and bargains with the West, it too was shut down. In front of the whole world the president of the country pressed the scram button of the reactor. The personnel of the plant, confident that the plant could have operated for much longer, carried out the routine operations of shutdown with heavy hearts.

Undoubtedly, this was largely a political decision. It meant that the word “Chernobyl” stopped horrifying the inhabitants of Kiev and all Europe, although for a country with a poor economy, decommissioning an object worth several billion dollars was a serious loss. But this type of reactor had proved its extreme danger, and the sinister page of Ukrainian and world nuclear power had to be turned over, sooner or later. Moreover, if this can be a consolation, the history of nuclear energy has seen much newer and safer units decommissioned.

The place of those that die is quickly taken by newborns, and in 2004 two units were started up – Khmelnitsky 2 and Rovno 4, which had patiently waited for their birth for about 15 years. Now Ukraine’s nuclear fleet has 15 VVER-type units (13 x 1000MWe and 2 x 440MWe). All are 100% state-owned, and since 1996 they have been managed by a common utility – the National Atomic Energy Generating Company (Energoatom), headquartered in Kiev.

At the beginning of 2010s the end of the 30-year design life of the units commissioned in the early 1980s approached. After modernisation and justification, the lifetime of Rovno 1 and 2 was extended by 20 years (units of a similar design are in operation in Russia, Slovakia, Finland, Hungary and Armenia) and so were the lives of South Ukraine 1 and Zaporozhye 1. All the other units commissioned in late 1980s are in a queue.

The issue of fuel

The problem of spent fuel was solved at Zaporozhye with a new cask storage facility. The first cask was loaded in 2003 and now there are about 120 containers each of which can hold 24 assemblies on the storage site. 

Long-term plans to completely halt transport of spent fuel from other plants to Russia may be realised by commissioning storage in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This project is in an active stage of implementation (it was started in 2005) and the first loading of casks is planned in 2019, although the terms have been repeatedly transferred. After that only the fuel from the two VVER-440 reactors at Rovno 1 and 2 need be shipped to Russia.

The task of diversifying supplies of nuclear fuel took many years. A project to qualify VVER-1000 fuel from Westighouse started in the early 2000s. It was first tested at South Ukraine and now Zaporozhye 5 is fully operating with Westinghouse fuel. It is planned to increase Westinghouse’s share of nuclear fuel supply to Ukraine to 50%. Russia will continue to be the supplier for VVER-440 reactor fuel.

The supply of Russian nuclear fuel has been least susceptible to political disputes – in the public sphere at least. Ukraine even tried to build a plant jointly with Russia to produce assemblies using uranium pellets from Russia, but the project ended in 2014, after the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Ukraine still extracts uranium and exports it to Russia as raw material for enrichment and fuel manufacturing.

Chernobyl is in the process of being decommissioned. Unit 4 was recently covered by a giant arch and the scheduled decommissioning of the other units is underway. The money has come from the budget of Ukraine and Western countries who sponsor the project.

Further development of nuclear power in Ukraine is unlikely, despite statements from time to time to the contrary. The changing political situation and the next economic crisis make long-term planning impossible, and even in more stable and rich years failures in addressing the issue do not allow for much optimism. Hopes of commissioning the units Khmelnitsky 3 and 4 (which was planned with active participation and funding from Russia before 2014) will remain hopes and will gradually disappear. It is unlikely anyone will dare mount reactor equipment on civil structures erected thirty years ago for a project of the late 1970s, and if they did Europe would not agree to it.

Construction of new units is obviously not on the agenda in a country being shaken by the political, military and financial crises. So visibility of the Ukrainian nuclear industry is between 10 and 20 years of extended plant life, although the experience of plant life extension of similar Russian units (which have been extended by 30 years) may give Ukraine grounds for optimism for further extensions.

This is the brief history of the nuclear power industry of Ukraine – full of events and, it might seem, interesting. But nuclear energy is not an adventure novel. In this industry the fewer events, the better it is. 

Alexey Kovynev is a former shift supervisor and operator at Ukraine’s Zaporozhye nuclear power plant. He is currently on secondment with the World Association of Nuclear Operators in London. He is also Nuclear Engineering International magazine’s cartoonist. 

Ukraine Ukraine’s nuclear fleet. Source: Energoatom
Ukraine View of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where an accident in 1986 changed the fate of nuclear power in Ukraine and globally
Ukraine Construction of Chernobyl 5&6 was abandoned after the accident
Ukraine Monument to the firefighters that died during while responding to the accident at Chernobyl
Ukraine The South Ukraine nuclear power plant located in the town of Yuzhnoukrainsk
Ukraine The New Safe Confinement protective shelter over the remains of Chernobyl 4 was unveiled in November 2016
Ukraine The New Safe Confinement protective shelter over the remains of Chernobyl 4 was unveiled in November 2016

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