While the proliferation of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons on civilian targets by the Ukrainian regime is consistently ignored by the western mainstream media, there is another long-term problem that is if anything, being silenced in an even more sinister manner. It is a problem that could cause suffering not only to the people and the environment within Ukraine’s current borders but also those far beyond.
Over 31 years after the Chernobyl disaster, Ukrainian authorities are displaying an irresponsible attitude to the safety of nuclear power facilities that could cause another Chernobyl style disaster.
In 2016, the The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Euratom loaned Ukraine €300 million each as part of a safety upgrade of Ukraine’s ageing nuclear reactors.
12 of Ukraine’s 15 active nuclear reactors will be deemed unsafe to operate by 2020. In order to meet the deadline, the safety upgrades should have been completed by 2017. As things stand, the upgrades have barely started.
Ukrainian nuclear safety campaigner Irina Holovko described the situation in the following way,
“The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Euratom – each extended EUR 300 million in loans for improving the safety of Ukraine’s 12 nuclear energy units – had also practically acknowledged, that in their current condition, these Soviet-era nuclear reactors are a serious risk for both Ukraine and its neighbours.
Over the next four years these ageing nuclear reactors will reach the end of their original lifespan, but the government in Kiev is as keen as ever to use the EU’s financial support to keep them going for at least ten extra years.
And indeed, rather than helping Ukraine to retire its nuclear fleet and chart a new, sustainable energy course, Europe is now knowingly helping perpetuate a profoundly precarious energy source.
Nearly a quarter of European public money invested in Ukraine’s energy sector between 2007 and 2014 has gone into nuclear energy generation, concentrated in the hands of state-owned operator Energoatom. The European financiers were hoping to be able to positively influence the nuclear regulatory framework in the country, but have so far failed to act on a governmental decree in effect since January 2015 that bars SNRIU, the state nuclear regulator, from initiating inspections in nuclear facilities. This decree was issued a mere month after the EBRD gave the green light for the disbursement of its loan’s first tranche.
One year on, the Ukrainian government’s irrational fixation on nuclear energy means it does not even stop to consider alternatives. And even worse, Ukraine is consistently overlooking its legal obligations under both international treaties and the conditions to the loans it has received.
In May, when unit 2 at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant exceeded its design lifetime, it was taken off the grid. Unit 1 in the same nuclear power plant has already been operating beyond its original operational deadline since 2013, even though an independent expert study released in April this year determined the nuclear reactor has critical vulnerabilities due to substantial wear. When the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine, a Bankwatch member organisation, commented on the news about unit 2, Energoatom filed a libel lawsuit against us.
And the Ukrainian authorities appear to be quite consistent. In early December, South Ukraine’s unit 2 became the fourth to have its expiry date rewritten and was swiftly switched on again. The fact it had at least ten safety issues of the highest priority still pending did not seem to bother the SNRIU’s board, and addressing them has been postponed for 2016-2017.
The day before last Christmas another nuclear unit reached its original expiry date and was shut down. This time it was unit 1 in the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, barely 250 kilometres from the front lines of the ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. But in its meeting a week earlier the SNRIU’s board clarified that, once again, this is merely a technical intermission after which it will approve a similar lifetime extension. This could happen as soon as March 31, probably regardless of the state of safety improvements.
One might think that the Ukrainian authorities are equally in rush to guarantee the safety of these nuclear units, or that perhaps European involvement would help ensure that all safety upgrades are implemented fully and in a timely manner.
But, apparently, not if the Ukrainian government considers this a hurdle in its nuclear energy race. The deadline for the implementation of the European-financed program was agreed to be 2017. Yet, earlier this year the government decided to move this deadline to 2020 without the approval of the program’s financiers.
It is then no wonder that, even though the Ukrainian authorities receive support from EU taxpayer money for its hasty nuclear adventure, they blatantly ignore international treaties. The Aarhus and Espoo Conventions oblige Ukraine to carry out transboundary environmental impact assessments and consult neighbouring countries which could be affected by projects of this kind before permitting lifetime extension. In fact, several EU governments and the European Commission have already expressed their concerns to their Ukrainian counterparts.
The current government has been elected primarily with the mandate of fostering tighter relations with the EU. Keeping these outdated nuclear reactors at once condemns Ukraine to decades of unsustainable energy, and jeopardises the safety of both Ukrainians and their neighbours. The ball is now in Ukraine’s court because real solidarity is based on mutuality”.
Many suggest that the so-called safety upgrades, even if implemented on time (according to the new self-set extended timeline) and thoroughly, would still be insufficient due to the advanced age and outdated technology of the 12 reactors in question. Bankwatch have suggested that the entire process violates UN conventions on nuclear power safety.
The response of the authorities in Kiev has been dismissive and patronising. While they admit that the project was supposed to be complete by 2017 at the latest, they blame the delays on the coup which transpired in Kiev in 2014.
A statement from Gregoriy Plachkov, the deputy director of investment and long-term development at Energoatom, the state owned nuclear energy company of Ukraine, dismissed concerns over the delays in safety upgrades in the following way during a brief statement from 2015,
“The project began in 2011 … we were supposed to complete it in 2017, but unfortunately, due to the fact that the European credit came into force only this year – due to a change of government and bureaucracy – we are now engaged in a change to the timing of this program and we hope that it will be implemented before the end of 202”.
Others yet have pointed out the dangers of Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporozhye being located in close proximity to the Donbass war-zone.
Sergey Shygyn, the chief specialist for nuclear reactors at Zaporozhye nuclear power plant has publicly admitted that Zaporozhye was not designed to withstand the conditions of war. Incidentally, not long after the post-coup regime took power an accident occurred at Zaporozhye.
With many of the necessary parts and equipment necessary to repair and maintain Ukraine’s ageing reactors only being available in Russia and considering the regime’s refusal to do business with Moscow, things begin to look even more troublesome.
International authorities reacted to the concerns of environmental and nuclear safety activists by holding a recent meeting of parties to the Espoo convention for environmental safety behind closed doors.
The Ukrainian regime has frequently played political football with issues of local and global public safety. The regime in Kiev had the last clear chance to avert the MH-17 disaster by re-routing the civilian aircraft away from what was a known war-zone where rockets capable of shooting down such a plane were known to be in operation. The regime was and is so hellbent on hiding the true violent nature of their war of aggression on Donbass, that they were willing to risk civilian life in order to prove that the region was safe when it clearly was not. They took a gamble and lives were taken as a result.
Can a regime which routs a civilian aircraft over a war-zone where anti-aircraft missiles are present be trusted with nuclear safety? Can a regime which uses chemical weapons on civilian targets be trusted with nuclear safety? Perhaps most importantly, can a regime which cavalierly delays the safety upgrades of nuclear reactors that many say should be permanently shut down due to safety concerns be trusted with nuclear safety?
The clear answer is no. Even if one agreed with the fascist ideology of the regime, one ought to consider how dangerous it is for the wider world for nuclear safety to be in such deeply corrupt and irresponsible hands.
The Chernobyl disaster took place within the modern borders of Ukraine. One might have surmised that Ukraine’s rulers would have learnt the lessons of Chernobyl more than any in the world. As it turns out, they seem to have learned the least.