Russia sees gold in Ukrainian nuclear power plants

Russian soldiers guard the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine on March 7.


press of the Russian Ministry of Defense s/Shutterstock

A misunderstood motive for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Kiev was positioning itself to break away from its longtime Russian nuclear suppliers, while the United States was encroaching on Russia’s biggest nuclear export market.

Early in the conflict, Russian tanks drove through the Chernobyl site, kicking up dust and increasing radiation levels. Eight days later, the invaders seized the six-unit nuclear power plant in the town of Zaporizhzhya, 700 miles away.

By taking control of Chernobyl, Russia gives itself control over the storage of its spent fuel, which it can store in containers on the site or ship to a reprocessing facility in Russia. Either way, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars for Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear company.

The change could displace Holtec, an American designer and manufacturer of dry storage cartridge technologies for used nuclear fuel. In 2007, the state enterprise specializing in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant authorized Holtec to build a facility to store Chernobyl’s 22,000 spent fuel assemblies for 100 years. The project aimed to allow Ukraine to store this fuel safely without sending it back to Russia for reprocessing. The processing and storage facility was completed in 2020, and Holtec and SSE Chernobyl were loading containers for storage when the war began on February 24.

Additionally, Ukraine has 15 operating nuclear reactors at four sites, including Zaporizhzhya, which the Russians designed and built. This is the largest number of such factories built by Russians outside their own country. From 2005, however, the American company Westinghouse established itself as a competitor to the Russian nuclear supplier Atomstroyexport, owned by Rosatom. At the time of the invasion, Westinghouse provided fuel for six of the 15 nuclear reactors and could move the Russians into all of them. The US government had strongly supported this effort, and these fuel contracts represented hundreds of millions of dollars in lost annual sales for Atomstroyexport. By seizing nuclear power plants, Russia is able to take over the Ukrainian nuclear fuel market.

More importantly, Westinghouse, with US backing, was able to build nuclear reactors in Ukraine over the next two decades. On August 31, 2021, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and her Ukrainian counterpart, Herman Halushchenko, signed a strategic cooperation agreement to build five nuclear units worth, according to the World Nuclear Association, more than $30 billion. of dollars.

On November 22, Patrick Fragman and Petro Kotin, CEOs of Westinghouse and Energoatom, Ukraine’s utility, respectively, signed a contract to build the first Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear unit in the town of Khmelnitsky, where two builders Russian nuclear units are currently operating. The plan was to use the site of a Russian-designed nuclear reactor that was about one-third complete in 1990, as well as parts of a canceled US nuclear project in South Carolina. The goal, Kotin said, was 24 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2040.

The timing is revealing. In November 2021, Ukrainian leaders signed an agreement with Westinghouse to begin construction of what they hoped would be at least five nuclear units – the first tranche of a program that could more than double the number of power plants in the country, with a potential total value of nearly $100 billion. Ukraine clearly intended that Russia not receive any of these cases.

Mr. Merrifield served as Commissioner of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1998 to 2007. He is head of the global energy section for the law firm Pillsbury and represents nuclear utilities, suppliers and developers of technology.

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