Concerns over Ukraine's Nuclear Power Plants

A few blog entries ago, I wrote about reasons why Ukraine—in light of the current political turmoil there—might consider investing further in nuclear power. Russia, once Ukraine's greatest partner in natural gas and oil trade, now has become nothing short of its enemy as Crimea (formerly a part of Ukraine) has been annexed into Russia as a territory of the Russian Federation. Ukraine's winters can be quite chilly, and its needs for energy in general are high while its fiscal status is rather dire: continued imports of Russian natural gas via Gazprom and Russian-facilitated oil imports are not only unwise, but a fool's errand in the long term. Such a situation will only put Ukraine into a captive situation to Russia despite Ukraine's growing push away from Russia. In essence, the pro-European political goals of the ruling party of politicians in power in Ukraine today could be fully destroyed if they must rely on continued energy dependance from Russia. 

Nuclear could offer Ukraine its key to energy independence and there are already fifteen power reactors in active service in this capacity in Ukraine today. The Chernobyl disaster of course looms large over nuclear policy even now and most analysts would agree that post-Chernobyl—certainly at least once Ukraine was independent of the USSR—Ukraine would have fully have moved away from nuclear power altogether if such had been economically possible. It was, however, not possible. It was not an option then to eliminate nuclear fully—nor is it possible now. 

The Moscow Times, the leading English-language newspaper in Russia, ran the following article today voicing concern over Ukraine's operational nuclear power reactors. I agree in general with their concerns, but worry that if this article gets much notice their concerns may be misread by the lay public (I've written an op-ed on the situation in Crimea for the Times myself and their articles do get quite a following by the policy wonks on both sides of the Atlantic, so expect further news coverage possibly to arise from this article). 

http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/nuclear-safety-in-ukraine-cause-of-concern-for-nato/499804.html

What should be stressed here is that NATO, now that it is offering limited humanitarian and military aid and advice to Ukraine, is compelled to offer some level of analysis on the status of all strategic energy aspects of the nation plus, of course, of all possible targets of paramilitary actions. Thus, nuclear power reactors get a good deal of NATO consideration overall. This does not mean that NATO or anyone else sees nuclear as a bad thing for Ukraine, but simply as a core resource to be protected as civil unrest brews hotter and possibly even towards war. That said, civil war is far less likely in Ukraine now than it was just weeks prior: Russia is moving its troops massed near the boarder with Ukraine back and is otherwise appearing to push for diplomatic approaches over military ones, leaving the pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine more to their own devices than many Western observers long feared. 

If NATO wishes to help, they can offer to broker financial aid and viable connections with European and North American nuclear industry interests to provide upgrades and technological advice for Ukraine's aging reactors and power plants. Russia's own Atomenergoprom is unlikely to be very forthcoming with help for Ukraine right now and Ukraine is unlikely to ask for such help or sign up on contracts towards an Atomenergoprom-facilitated scheme of improvements to its aging nuclear infrastructure. So the West, if concerned, needs to get not only NATO experts in there but corporate interests that can actually bring about material improvement.