There are nuclear power antecedents to the crisis in Ukraine; they may help explain the geopolitical context.

In civil nuclear, Russia and the USA have been fighting for the hearts and minds of Ukrainians long before the current crisis heated up. Since declaring independence in 1991 Ukraine has courted both historic partner Russia and also Westinghouse for fuel cycle services. The stakes have been high for all parties. Half of Ukraine’s electricity comes from its 15 nuclear power reactors, so the fleet is of great national strategic importance. When procurement decisions have far-reaching consequences, it is perhaps inevitable that the whole issue becomes political. It would appear that over the years both pro-Russian and pro-Western factions have won some battles.

There were two competitive tenders to build fuel fabrication plants and (eventually) localize production of nuclear fuel, in the early and late 2000s, between Westinghouse and Russian nuclear vendors; Russia won them both. The latest began construction in October 2012 in Smolino, Kirovgrad. The $460 million project is mostly financed by Russian stakeholders (finance is officially 70% a Russian loan, and 30% provided by unnamed Russian and Ukrainian shareholders). Capacity is said to be 800 TVSA fuel assemblies a year by 2015. As part of the plan, Russia’s SCC would provide U enrichment. Given Ukraine’s dire financial situation and the current crisis, the status of the project is uncertain. A news report on Ukrainian TV in March said the country had recently returned a $40 million Russian payment for the project because it had not paid its share.

"Although TVEL supplies Ukraine nuclear fuel, Westinghouse won a pilot fuel supply order for South Ukraine (coincidentally not all that far north of the Crimean peninsula)."

Although TVEL supplies Ukraine nuclear fuel, Westinghouse won a pilot fuel supply order for South Ukraine (coincidentally not all that far north of the Crimean peninsula). Energoatom calls this a ‘nuclear fuel supply diversification’ project. Six TVS-W assemblies were loaded into South Ukraine 3 in 2005; 42 assemblies were loaded into unit 3 in 2010, according to South Ukraine’s English-language web site. In June 2012, Energoatom announced that it had problems with the fuel, which it then removed. The Ukrainian regulator banned the use of Westinghouse fuel pending an investigation.

That investigation was completed, but has not been made public by Energoatom for reasons of commercial confidentiality. (I do not know whether the ban is still in place; the regulator has not yet replied to my query). When asked by NEI magazine in a January 2014 press conference, Daniel Roderick, Westinghouse CEO, who has seen the report, said that its fuel was not to blame. "There were some lessons in early batches, but we didn’t change a lot following the issue. Our ability to make VVER fuel is not in question. We will continue to sell to VVER-1000s. I think it’s good to have competition in that market."

That market is, in other words, the front line of a major fight between the US and Russia in civil nuclear. Its outer edges, while fuzzy, definitely extend out of Ukraine and into Europe. More importantly, it extends beyond fuel cycle and into new-build.

Competing for nuclear new-build in Eastern Europe

Westinghouse is trying to get into eastern Europe’s VVERs in Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia. Russian fuel vendor TVEL is trying to maintain what it called in February its ‘near-monopoly’ of fuel supply in the region, and with its large state backing can also offer attractive financing for large projects.

"The front line goes as far south as Bulgaria, where Westinghouse has claimed new-build victory."

The front line goes as far south as Bulgaria, where Westinghouse has claimed new-build victory. The country turned away from Russian-designed reactors at Belene when it terminated the project last year for funding reasons, then signed up Westinghouse in an engineering, equipment and procurement (EEP) contract for an AP1000 at Kozloduy.

It passes through Hungary, whose ministers signed a contract with Rosatom for two new VVERs at Paks, and an 80% loan for the project too. Roderick at Westinghouse, which was also bidding for the project, said in January that the Russian deal came as a surprise to them. He said that if Rosatom won the contract "because the Russian government came in and bought the job, that’s hard on private companies."

The front line goes as far north and west as Sweden, where Vattenfall is trialling Russian fuel in Ringhals 3, a Westinghouse PWR.

The front line goes nearly as far west as the German border, to Temelín in the Czech Republic, where, after AREVA was booted out of a competitive tender for two new reactors, the remaining competitors are Westinghouse and Rosatom consortia.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, the struggle for eastern Europe’s VVERs looks set to run for decades.

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International. Follow Will Dalrymple on Google+