Ukraine Gun-Ho On Nuclear Power, Despite Chernobyl

ATHENS, Greece -- Not even the world's worst nuclear power accident, Chernobyl, has fazed Ukrainian enthusiasm for nuclear power. Despite hundreds dead and thousands chronically ill from the April 1986 accident, Kiev fervently believes in the future of atomic energy.

Zaporizhia, Ukraine nuclear power plant

The former Soviet republic operates 15 reactors in four plants to generate 53 percent of its electricity needs. Six of the reactors are in the east Ukrainian city Zaporizhie, the largest nuclear power station in Europe.

The country placed two new reactors on the grid in 2004, and construction of another three is in progress. The country's national atomic energy agency Energoatom plans to build up to eleven more reactors by 2030, and by that time to generate at least 75 percent of the country's electricity with nuclear power.

Ukraine possesses its own uranium ore mines, and is technically capable of producing yellow cake, and of enriching uranium to fuel grade. At present, Kiev exports raw ore for processing in Russia, and receives finished fuel rods in return.

Nuclear science remains a top choice at the country's technical universities. A Ukrainian nuclear engineer earns between USD 300-500 a month; roughly four times the national average. Ukrainian nuclear scientists are, for practical purposes, the best-paid technicians in government.

Almost without exception, and despite hundreds of square kilometres of irradiated terrain in the heavily-guarded "Dead Zone" surrounding the remains of the Chernobyl reactor, Ukrainian scientists say nuclear power is safe.

"The process of generating power with nuclear energy is the same as any other system: abuse it and you can have disaster," said Dr. Arkady Shilko, a physicist. "The Chernobyl accident was caused by people not machines, and the conditions for people to repeat that catastrophe no longer exist."

According to Shilko and most modern Ukrainian history books, Chernobyl exploded because Soviet engineers turned off safety equipment in an attempt to push power production past maximum capacity.

The prevailing opinion is that Soviet-style pressure to increase economic output at any cost and even at the risk of the population is a government policy now as obsolete in modern Ukraine as the sickle-and-hammer flag.

"A modern plant has no reason to turn off the safety devices and push past 100 percent," Shilko argued. "I think Ukrainian nuclear power is perfectly safe, and what's more, from a technical standpoint it always was."

Ukrainian nuclear reactors in 2004 operated at around 80 percent capacity, according to a World Nuclear Association report.

Ukraine's gung-ho attitude towards nuclear power, and the legacy of Chernobyl, unsurprisingly has international monitors of the industry nervous. The International Energy Agency in recent years has tried to improve Ukrainian reactor safety, and to rein in uncontrolled building, by offering Kiev loans to finance the construction of new reactors, but at the same time making European technologies a loan condition.

The Brussels-led effort fell fairly flat in 2004, after the Ukrainians raised almost all the needed money with domestic bonds, telling the international community its help wasn't needed, and completing a pair of reactors using for practical purposes only Ukrainian technology.

Ukraine has more than a dozen more reactors planned, and at present, all the international community can do about them is watch, senior Ukrainian officials have said. "It is Ukraine's policy to achieve energy independence, and we will not let anyone stand between us and this goal," said Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in a speech last week.

How set are the Ukrainians on nuclear power? International pressure forced Ukraine to shut off the last functioning reactor at Chernobyl, a twin of the ancient RBMK unit that exploded, in 2000. Off-line to this day, it is regularly maintained and remains functional, and could be hooked back onto the grid if Ukraine really needed the electricity, Energoatom officials said.

Source: New Europe