A second Chernobyl

A second Chernobyl

Sergey Savchuk

An event in the energy sector of truly historic proportions has taken place in Ukraine. The National Nuclear Energy Generating Company (NAEK) Energoatom reported that after scheduled preventive maintenance and refueling of nuclear fuel, the fourth power unit at the Rovno NPP was restarted. Thus, for the first time in the history of our neighbor, all fifteen nuclear power units are operating simultaneously at four stations.
Naturally, this event within the boundaries of the Ukrainian media field is presented in exceptionally bravura and victorious tones. It is reported that Energoatom now generates more than half of all electricity in the country, and in the current autumn-winter period, its share could grow to an incredible seventy percent. The ordinary Ukrainian layman, ignorant of the details and stunned by such figures, is persistently convinced that the atomic record will finally help get rid of dependence on the supply of Belarusian and Russian electricity, which is why scandals regularly occur in the Verkhovna Rada, turning into fights and searches for Kremlin agents.
As usual, Ukrainian information resources interpret the ongoing processes too freely.
But first, in order to make the alignment on the Ukrainian nuclear table more understandable, let’s clarify the main facts. As practice shows, the general reader does not know very much about this sector of the Ukrainian energy sector, and in everyday life they often use not facts, but conjectures.
Our neighbor inherited four nuclear power plants from the Soviet Union: Zaporozhye, Rivne, South Ukrainian and Khmelnitsky. It is their composition that includes a dozen and a half power units, where Soviet technical solutions are used as a power plant. It should be clarified here that the reactor park of Ukraine, when compared with other former countries of the socialist bloc, is quite new. Energoatom has only two VVER-440 reactors on its balance sheet, which were launched in the early 80s of the last century at the Rovno NPP, after which all Ukrainian specialized facilities were technically armed only with reliable and much more modern VVER-1000.
Let’s make a reservation that the first Ukrainian nu-clear power plant was Che-rnobyl, where in the late 70s uranium-graphite channel reactors with water coo-lant (RBMK-1000) were launched, but after the accident in the spring of 1986, their construction was curtailed. Another, newer, RBMK-1500 was later used at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania, but in 2009 Vilnius voluntarily decided to stop the operation of the station, and it was stopped. Now reactors of the RBMK-1000 type, similar to the Chernobyl one, are used at the Kursk and Smolensk nuclear power plants. But due to accidents that have occurred over the years of operation, and design features, the further distribution of reactors of this type is extremely doubtful. But back to Ukraine.
The installed capacity of nuclear power plants there is 13 gigawatts. The energy profile of the country for the last year reports that nuclear generation accounts for 27 percent of the energy balance. Attentive readers will immediately note a discrepancy with Energoatom’s statements on the current share of production, but more on that below.
Separately, it is necessary to dwell on the topic of nuclear fuel supplies, because here the biggest confusion is observed.
Until 2011, the Russian company TVEL was the only supplier of fuel assemblies (FA) for Ukrainian NPPs. However, back in 2008, during the reign of Viktor Yushchenko, who came to power as a result of the first Maidan, Ukraine began the so-called diversification of nuclear fuel supplies by signing an agreement with the American Westinghouse. In 2011, the first American fuel assemblies were installed in one of the reactors of the South Ukrainian NPP, but just a year later, due to breakdowns, their operation was stopped. Ukrainian power engineers, squeezed into the framework of a policy rapidly unfolding to the West, cried, injected themselves, but continued to look for ways to refuse Russian supplies.
And they found something that even the bankruptcy of Westinghouse could not prevent. The latter gave Kiev a license for the production of nuclear fuel, and although production in Ukraine was never established, the share of American fuel rose to 46 percent. At the moment, fuel assemblies manufactured in Sweden are installed at six Ukrainian reactors. At this, the American nuclear expansion froze, and Ukraine in 2020, without too much publicity, extended the contract with the Russian TVEL until 2025.
Recently, there have been reports of Kiev’s desire to purchase from the Americans two abandoned reactors left over from one of the previous projects, and that Ukraine is counting on the construction of five new power units by the same Westinghouse. But considering that each reactor will cost the Ukrainian budget five billion dollars, that is, $25 billion in total, which is a quarter of Ukraine’s external debt, such projects can only be regarded as speculative.
And now that we understand the basic numbers, we will again turn to the energy profile of our neighbor. He reports that the installed capacity of the entire Ukrainian energy sector is 55 gigawatts, of which 52 percent are thermal power plants operating on fossil fuels, followed by the already mentioned atom, and close the top three thermal power plants running on natural gas with a very modest share of only eight percent.
A few more numbers to complete the picture.
In 2020, the entire Ukrainian energy sector produced 149 terawatt-hours of electricity, while if we look at the statistics of energy consumption per capita, we will see the most natural collapse. If in 1990, 60 thousand kilowatt-hours per year were spent on the comprehensive provision of the needs of every resident of Ukraine (household needs, cooking, heating and transport), then in 2019 this figure- only 21 thousand. You need to understand that here we are talking about the activities of the entire state energy complex, working for the benefit of each resident, and not about personal expenses. That is, over thirty years, industrial and domestic energy consumption has decreased by a factor of three, which indicates, first of all, the closure of energy-intensive industries as the main consumers, and secondly, a sharp decline in the population. That is, in Ukraine, not 42 million people now live, as official statistics state.
This is also evidenced by the figures for the production of electricity. In 1990, the energy sector of the Ukrainian SSR independently generated 297, and in 2019 – only 142 terawatt-hours. At the same time, over the past years Ukraine has not shown a sharp increase, for example, in the export of electricity abroad, that is, we have in front of us precisely the capacities that have fallen out of uselessness.
To understand how in all this mathematics the nuclear sector suddenly occupied half of the production, it is enough to look at the share of thermal thermal power plants and remember the fall of last year, which in Ukraine became one continuous series of scandals. Back in September, it was clear that the country had critically low coal reserves and Ukraine entered the heating season without its main resource – coal-fired heat and power plants. Official Kiev tried to buy coal in Kazakhstan, accused Moscow of disrupting supplies, urgently imported coal by sea, but this still did not save the situation. In many large cities, January was marked by many hours of rolling blackouts, as, for example, in Odessa.
The Ukrainian government keeps stubborn silence, but the simplest logic suggests that if nuclear generation in the balance structure has doubled sharply, it means that thermal power has collapsed in exactly the same proportion. That is, this is not growth, this is a manipulation with numbers linked to a deliberately low base.
The issue of heat generation remains completely uncovered – the production of heat for heating residential buildings and industrial facilities. Given the failure in the production of heat based on coal and the growing share of the atom, we can talk about a massive forced transfer of the population of Ukraine to electric heating. Winters in conditional Chernigov, of course, are not as severe as in Krasnoyarsk, but given the lack of alternative choice of electricity as a source of heating and galloping energy prices, utility bills are guaranteed to surprise the citizens of Nezalezhnaya.
At the end of our conversation, we will reassure everyone who is worried that a second Chernobyl will happen in our neighborhood in connection with the events described.
Oversight of all Ukrainian nuclear power plants is carried out by the IAEA, whose representatives are extremely difficult to accuse of political bias and neglect of security issues for the sake of momentary conjuncture. If the Ukrainian nuclear scientists do not throw out some completely crazy trick (which, let’s be objective, they haven’t seen before), then nothing critical can happen.
But we would advise the citizens of Ukraine not to rejoice at the records, but to stock up on candles. Local nuclear power plants are, in fact, the only saving trump card of the Kiev authorities, and they are thrown into battle at the limit of their capabilities not because of a technological breakthrough, but because of hopelessness. Considering that nuclear power plants are the last frontier of Ukrainian energy defense, in the event of any major breakdown, for example, of a transformer at one of the stations, the surrounding areas will experience prolonged winter twilight and coolness. Light bulbs and electric heaters without current in the socket do not work.

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