EBRD looks at a new agenda in Ukraine

2 November 2022

As its existing programmes reach an end, the Nuclear Safety Department of the EBRD has begun discussions over providing aid to Ukraine, once hostilities are over. It is discussing internally plans that will help return the Chornobyl site to a safe state and upgrade Ukraine’s other nuclear plants so they can export power and provide a significant income stream for Ukraine for many years ahead.

Above: Balthasar Lindauer tells NEi of new plans for Ukraine

Since 1991, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has provided grant and investment funding in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to support development in countries that were in or aligned with the then USSR.

The Nuclear Safety Department had seven strands of operation. The Chornobyl Shelter Fund was concerned with a safe solution for the destroyed unit and three others that were in operation into the 1990s. Three funds supported a transition from Russian-supplied nuclear power plants in the Slovak Republic (Bohunice), Bulgaria (Kozloduy) and Lithuania (Ignalina). In each case the bank assisted in providing investment to replace the closed capacity and rebuilding grids as necessary, as well as grants supporting decommissioning of the relevant power plant. The NDEP Nuclear Window, Nuclear Safety Account and Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA) addressed other types of contaminated site.

The programmes in Eastern Europe are largely complete and Balthasar Lindauer, NSD director, told NEI, “We started to review our strategy a few years ago to see if we can still be relevant. But it was clear – at least at the time – that there was not much appetite any more for large donor projects to deal with the legacies of Soviet technology.

The most urgent issues have certainly been addressed, particularly with regard to Chornobyl and to first-generation reactors in countries that have joined the European union, where we have decommissioning programmes and where we supported that political decision to close these plants down. It was a huge safety achievement.”

He says “we had started thinking about what we can still bring to the table” but “Russia’s invasion in Ukraine has changed everything for us. It is an entirely new situation”.

Urgent action needed in Ukraine

Lindauer said the EBRD was in “intense” negotiations with Ukraine, first to help to restore safety and security in Chornobyl, “but beyond that it is clear that the nuclear sector once this war is over - hopefully soon - will be the backbone of the Ukrainian economy. So we are looking at all kinds of interventions including lifetime extension.”

At the time of the invasion, most of EBRD’s programmes at Chornobyl had been completed. But EBRD fought to maintain a link on the site, although very limited in scope. That was intended to link with experience on decommissioning and planning for radwaste management. But Lindauer says “Immediately after the invasion we asked our donors to give us permission to use this for cooperation to reconstruct the site. We are now in very intensive discussions with Ukraine about what needs doing and what is the highest priority.” NSD will aim both to finance urgent work and engage in a longer term programme to restore safe conditions at the site. Lindauer says the Bank also expects to support the site operator, because Ukraine will not be able to take on programmes as anticipated, “because the budget will not be there”. For example, there are plans to remove unstable parts of the original ‘sarcophagus’ (now within the new store) that could collapse and fall into the reactor and damage it. “The donors and we expected Ukraine to do that, using equipment that is there. But it is unrealistic to think that Ukraine will be in a position to do that any time soon.”

Assessing the full extent of recent damage at the site is difficult: “The biggest legacy of the occupation is destruction of the infrastructure, so it is still very difficult to get to the site because bridges and roads have been destroyed and electricity supply has been destroyed. Lots of equipment has been looted or destroyed by the Russians.

“One of the first projects the EU will fund, in the next few weeks, is to provide the administration of the exclusion zone with firefighting equipment which has been stolen.” He says the trucks were taken to Russia, and “management of fire risk in the zone has a radiological relevance, so that is something they urgently need”.

Other equipment also has to be restored urgently, but “at the moment it is a matter of restoring the infrastructure and assisting with tasks that are needed to manage the site safely. One of the urgent operations, which had just started before the invasion, is to remove spent fuel from the interim wet storage facility to the new dry store that we have provided.” The Bank can support these activities, he says.

It is not clear at the moment how much additional investment is needed. Lindauer says, “We see the need in hundreds of millions of euros. We will see how much readiness there is to fund that. Then we will focus on the priorities from a safety point of view and do as much as we can. Over time we will be able to develop something more robust in terms of costing.”

Meanwhile, EBRD is looking at helping the Ukraine power sector support the country’s economy.

Since the invasion, Ukraine has synchronised its grid with that of Europe (instead of Russia) and begun exporting power through interconnectors with neighbouring countries. Exports are limited to around 200MW at present but there are plans to increase that tenfold. Lindauer says Ukraine’s demand will be lower than before the invasion for some time and exports to Europe “would be a part of the economy of the country which has not very many things to generate income”. He says reconstruction and modernisation of the grid is vital to do that. The events at Zaporizhzhia show that the country’s nuclear units are vulnerable to a loss of electricity supply, “so they would certainly need reconstruction but also improvement”.

Helping Ukraine’s nuclear plants achieve better availability, uprate them or even plan for life extension could all come under the Department’s nuclear safety mandate, he says.

But at this stage, a few days after the South Ukraine plant was damaged by nearby shelling, “it is very difficult for Ukrainians even to do all the assessments that are required, so I think there will be a process where we will improve our understanding of the needs and priorities as we go on”.

Projects winding down

In Slovakia, Bulgaria and Lithuania, EBRD’s projects to close and decommission first-generation Soviet-design plants, and reconfigure grids, are reaching their end (although national organisations still have work programmes).

Lindauer talks about the three decades of experience: “In the beginning this was a fairly sensitive political debate on how to organise the shutdown and decommissioning of nuclear power plants which played an important role in supply for the countries and their economies.” The first period focused on providing the facilities that would be required for decommissioning, preparing the infrastructure, dealing with spent fuel and so on. “This is pretty much complete now - we are in a phase of deconstruction. We have had a big success in Slovakia where key components have already been removed, this has been done in a very sophisticated way with a bespoke solution for the reactor,” says Lindauer.

The NSD tries to transfer experience but it is not always possible. There can be organisational as well as technical differences: “In the Slovak Republic they decided to go fairly lean and use external contactors to supply the best solutions. In Bulgaria they had an emphasis on using their own staff. Their strategy is different. Also Bulgaria had four units where the Slovaks had two and it makes a difference in terms of logistics.”

The biggest technology difference is the RBMK at Ignalina. “Initially we were not expected to get involved in the dismantling phase of this programme, but at the request of the Lithuanian government we have taken on a part of this task,” he says.

Sometimes the Bank’s limited role seems to be a frustration: “About 10 years ago we started to develop the plans for [Ignalina] and one of the key questions was graphite. We were about to develop a programme to design the approach and we would have looked into all the available experience. At this time a political decision was made that the process would be overseen by a local agency rather than the EBRD.” However, that is inherent in the Bank’s approach: “What’s important for us is always that the owner at the operator takes full responsibility and we see our role in providing the necessary skills that may not be available at the site”. He cites the Bank’s track record in procurement and contact management and says, “It has taken a long period of time to establish trust but I think we are now seen as an organisation that can carry out these very long-term programmes in an efficient way and our counterparts in other countries appreciate that.”

He explains, “It is where we can bring something that isn’t available otherwise,” and that may be experience rather than money. “Lifetime extension of an operating plant is something that the operator should be able to finance from the proceeds of the operation. They should have an interest in partnering with an organisation that knows about these things. No other organisation has these expertise in implementing projects.

“Of course the IAEA is the international safety organisation, but they don’t procure spent fuel storage facilities. We have that experience and we have done it three times.”

The NSD may also have a role in life extension in these countries. “When it comes to security of supply issues, the key option in our regions is to preserve the existing capacity, which means mostly life extension. These are not decisions we can take as a bank, this is what the government and the operators in these countries will do. But it will be an advantage if we get involved.

After all, we are the Nuclear Safety Department and that is paramount in everything we get involved in. It could be that if we get involved in measures required to extend the life of nuclear power plants we can make sure of their safety.”

Other programmes

The NSD’s other programmes are very different. “In Russia, we had essentially completed the programme to provide safe infrastructure for fuel and waste stemming from the operation of the Northern Fleet. We had discussed also getting involved in what the Russians call sunken objects, in particular two of the submarines. We were absolutely willing to do that, but the political environment is not such that we can go any further with it. I cannot predict we will ever return to a time when that will be possible,” says Lindauer.

In Central Asia the Bank is working on cleaning up uranium mining and processing facilities. “It took a long time to set up the infrastructure and framework for such an operation. It took some time to convince everybody it was best to pool funds and use the EBRD experience,” Lindauer says, but country by country strategic plans are being developed and sites are being addressed.

His experience has made Lindauer a big advocate of multilateral cooperation: “I have seen several times when an emergency arises and everyone tries to scrabble and help. They are going in different directions and there is cost duplication. There is a risk that you don’t deal with the real priorities and that the important things are forgotten.” In the case of Russian submarines, “many governments went in to try to dismantle the submarines, which makes a nice picture and you can say that the submarine has gone. But the fuel may be sitting on a green field because infrastructure and storage facilities are much less attractive to international donors.”

Similarly, a UN resolution in around 2013 called for international solidarity to clean up nuclear sites in Central Asia and countries responded. But “These organisations have maybe a few hundred thousand [Euros] and what can you do with that? They organise seminars, workshops and small-scale studies with the best of intentions.

“By putting all this money into one big pot you can actually begin to do some physical work.”

He is optimistic that is an issue that won’t arise in Ukraine, because the organisation already exists to pool resources and co-operate.

Also, he hopes that the Bank can use its model that combines grant-funded decommissioning work, which is not revenue generating, with projects that may have some revenue generation “We have shown that our funds are capable of co-funding where there is some grant funding required to make a project viable... there will be an element of grant funding but ordinary sources and commercial financing is much more important in the future.”

EBRD visits the New Safe Confinement above the remains of reactor 4 and the old sarcophagus at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant (Photo credit: Sodel Vladyslav/Shutterstock.com)

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