A Nuclear Ukraine?

Most everyone knows about Russia's recent annexation of Crimea back into Russian territory from Ukraine and the related strife in much of eastern Ukraine now where Russian-leaning citizens have advocated for these regions to also be annexed into Russia, though such probably will not happen. Europe and the United States wait nervously to see if Russia will use the military forces it has assembled in Crimea to in any way influence—or even invade—eastern Ukraine proper. I was actually myself a rare Western voice in support of Crimea's annexation: given my long-standing interest in the region and knowledge of the legal status and history of Crimea, I feel it is a rare and unique situation where the territory never should have been part of Ukraine in the first place. I made my points on this matter in a recent editorial in The Moscow Times here (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/whats-good-for-kosovo-is-good-for-crimea/497004.html), so I will not revisit them now—if you're interested, please do check out that Moscow Times editorial. That all said, I feel it would be foolish and very problematic all the way around were Russia to invade Ukraine or further use untoward military pressure to influence Ukraine. 

Besides military and political pressure, another very powerful mechanism Russia has to influence Ukraine though is via its sales of natural gas to the nation. Gazprom, the Russian natural gas and oil giant, controls much of the natural gas—a vast majority share—sold from external sources to Ukraine, and in turn, natural gas makes up the lion's share of the primary energy source for Ukraine. There was a time when this wasn't so and when Ukraine was attempting, under the rule of the USSR, to actually get away from fossil fuels. That time, of course, was prior to the 1986 Chernobyl generating station disaster. Chernobyl was supposed to be the pride of Soviet civil nuclear power; it was supposed to showcase the progress made over decades in Soviet nuclear technologies and to apply these technologies to provide the most-advanced, safest, and most-efficient generating station ever found in the USSR. In no small irony, the events that lead to the tragic, horrific, accident at Chernobyl were started by problems encountered in a safety drill where the reactor operators were attempting to discern if the steam turbines could continue to provide residual power for the reactor coolant pumps once the reactor was shut down and prior to the emergency generators (which would pick up the power-supply duties from the reactor in order to maintain the coolant pumps) reaching their full operational power—around a minute's worth gap in time. A number of things went wrong during this test—from it being carried out in the middle of the night (necessary, due to the decrease in Kiev's power needs in the wee hours) by a less-experienced crew to other factors: those unaware of the sad fate of Chernobyl and how the events unfolded I would encourage to educate themselves on this, but suffice to say, a tragic constellation of events came together and resulted in the worst nuclear power disaster the world has ever known. Expectedly, this tragedy ushered in a new era of doubt regarding nuclear power in general across the world, but an especial and emotional distrust of nuclear in Ukraine. When Ukraine became an independent nation less than a decade later upon the fall of the Soviet Union, this attitude did not change and now, without the yoke of the USSR upon them, the Ukrainians only moved further from nuclear, feeling they were free to chart a non-nuclear, anti-nuclear, path without fear of having to obtain Moscow's permission to do so. 

In retrospect, whatever valid sympathies with Ukraine we may have now, their treatment of nuclear seems like a matter akin to shutting down every airport in the country because an airliner crashed. What Ukraine has lost—their bid for independent, secure, native energy—by far is worse than whatever supposed surety they have gained. Yes, Chernobyl was a terrible disaster, but despite the proximity of Chernobyl to Kiev, this disaster did not spell the end of life in Ukraine—it claimed the life of many brave men and some of those lives could have been saved, especially those of the fire-fighters, had Moscow been more clear to these emergency workers as to the dangers they faced, but the Soviets never have been known for being forthright about bad things. Mistakes were made, and some were very tragic, but Chernobyl in retrospect—the political and social aftermath of Chernobyl, rather—has brought Ukraine to a situation where Ukraine depends on one company—Gazprom—for much of its national energy supply. Now, Gazprom has decided to curtail its supply to Ukraine while increasing its prices because Ukraine is in contractual debt to Gazprom and has failed to meet the terms of payment on that debt despite generous reductions in selling prices. You don't have to be Putin's nephew to have a little sympathy for Gazprom's position, either: Gazprom now faces a customer who 1) has not paid up per its contract and is 2) now an enemy of Gazprom's own nation—and Gazprom is a nationally-owned utility. Should Gazprom take Ukraine on its word that sure, supply us with natural gas, one day when all these troubles have passed, we promise we'll pay you what we owe you? Probably not. And Gazprom probably won't, which will leave Ukraine in a pretty awful situation, really. But Ukraine never should have allowed itself in the post-Soviet world to become beholden to a company owned by the nation that has always throughout modern history been its greatest threat to liberty and solidarity. 

When Crimea left Russia, it took with it considerable industrial assets including one of Ukraine's key ports. Ukraine, now in transition and with upcoming national elections, is in dire need of sources of revenue fully independent from Russia. Sadly, it seriously lacks such: the port of Odessa is still Ukrainian but Russia was a major trade partner and also the very industrial manufacturing Ukraine was known for—mainly provisions for the mining and petroleum fields—was very much tooled—in quite literal terms—for the needs of Russia. (More on that in an article I wrote on that topic for SEE Magazine here: http://see-magazine.eu/teasers/crimean-crimes-punishments/). Ukraine really lacks for both strong native export industries and markets independent of Russia. It doesn't need to also lack for a certain and native-controlled source of power. 

Could Ukraine still, even now, turn towards nuclear? Yes, it could. The problems with Chernobyl—including the cover-up of the whole affair starting in the hours right after the accident—were the doing of the Soviet government, not of Ukraine. Kiev and local leadership were kept in the dark directly after the accident along with everyone else in Ukraine. Now that Ukraine is its own nation, now that there is no longer the top-heavy central planning of the USSR, Ukraine can chart its own course with nuclear and set its own standards. Chernobyl was not the doing of the same people who would today be responsible for nuclear in Ukraine. Nations like Vietnam are considering nuclear, pursuing viable and safe, contemporary, means of nuclear power for their own energy security; Belarus is—albeit slowly—and I expect more nations that are yearning to be emerging powers in the world economy will court nuclear. Smart nations wish to control their own energy future, and Ukraine should be no different. The question is, can it leave the ghosts of Chernobyl behind it now?