Outside View: Ukraine Fears Of Nuke Safety

MOSCOW, Russia -- Global utility giant Westinghouse Electric Co. and Ukraine's power utility Energoatom have signed a deal to supply Ukraine's nuclear power plants with fuel from 2011-2015. Under the contract, concluded on March 31, 630 fuel assemblies will be loaded inside three local reactors.

Nuclear fuel rods

"This contract represents a major commitment from both Westinghouse and Ukraine in ensuring that alternative and competitive nuclear fuel supplies are available to the benefit of Ukraine's nuclear energy provider and, ultimately, its citizens," Westinghouse said in a release.

Both companies signed the contract in the run-up to the visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to Ukraine.

However, public concerns are reflected in the following joke that became popular during the visit: "The U.S. President thanked the people of Ukraine for their brave decision to agree to test the substandard and more expensive American fuel inside the country's nuclear reactors."

President Bush praised expanded U.S.-Ukrainian nuclear cooperation that could jeopardize the safety of national nuclear power plants.

Ukraine is currently the only country that is planning to load U.S. fuel into its Russian-designed reactors. Nonetheless, Kiev had some misgivings about the contract because it does not guarantee that substandard Westinghouse fuel is compatible with Russian reactors.

Some reservations imply that Ukraine could annul the contract, unless it is allowed to use Westinghouse fuel on a commercial basis and in case of technical failures.

In January 2006, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko announced plans to initiate nuclear fuel production in the country, which relies heavily on natural gas supplies from Russia.

The 15 reactors at four Ukrainian NPPs use Russian nuclear fuel, generating over 50 percent of the country's electricity. This is why Kiev has been trying to solve this mind-boggling problem at any cost.

Disrespect for nuclear safety standards, as well as insufficient knowledge of reactor operations and nuclear fuel specifics, have resulted in 50 nuclear accidents all over the world, proving that NPP personnel has no right to violate such standards.

Although the more mature nuclear industry has experienced various disasters, the Kiev establishment wants to disregard nuclear risks once again. By staking on incorrect diversification, Ukrainian authorities now want to try out Westinghouse fuel assemblies as an alternative to their Russian equivalents.

In 2005, six U.S. fuel assemblies were loaded inside the core of the South Ukrainian NPP's third reactor. At that time, the U.S. government financed their delivery and provided the required technical assistance.

Although there were plans to load 42 more fuel assemblies in 2006, the project had to be mothballed for 18 months due to U.S. financial problems.

But Ukraine remained undeterred. The country's Fuel and Energy Minister Yury Prodan recently ordered Energoatom to sign an expensive contract for the delivery of fresh nuclear fuel from Westinghouse.

The American company is trying to compete with Russian nuclear fuel monopoly TVEL and also wants to have a close brush with Italy's largest power company Enel, which owns a 66 percent stake in Slovenske Elektrarne, Slovakia's utility provider. Although the Westinghouse reputation is not very good, the company is promoting its fuel on a non-tender basis.

However, the Russian-built Loviisa NPP in Finland has refused to purchase U.S. fuel because of its inferior technical and economic parameters. Another NPP in Temelin, the Czech Republic, had to remove Westinghouse fuel ahead of schedule because it did not function properly inside its Soviet-designed reactors.

The Austrian Mothers organization, which is concerned about dangerous experiments at the nearby Temelin NPP, has triggered massive protests in the country.

But Ukraine stubbornly ignores other countries' experience and seemingly wants to learn through its own mistakes.

At the signing ceremony, some officials noted the need to respect market regulations and free competition.

TVEL Vice President Vladimir Rozhdestvensky said his company hailed the Ukrainian side's commitment to free-market principles.

The Ukrainian media reacted sharply to this statement, claiming that Russia wanted to charge exorbitant nuclear-fuel prices.

TVEL spokesman Alexei Pilko told RIA Novosti that the company advocated equal rules of the game for everybody. He said Energoatom, which was ready to pay market prices for Westinghouse fuel, should not expect lower prices from TVEL. Pilko said the company was surprised by Ukraine's approach, which had nothing to do with European commercial principles.

Previously, Moscow supported all bilateral cooperation plans in the sphere of nuclear fuel supplies. TVEL proposed establishing a joint venture that would manufacture fuel-assembly components on Ukrainian territory, so that all fuel could go to Kiev. Under another proposal stipulating the use of Ukrainian uranium, Kiev would have paid nothing for feedstock deliveries.

But TVEL is also quite happy about the proposed free-market competition and global prices.

Ukraine, which should have held a tender for the best nuclear-fuel variety, is playing dangerous political games that could jeopardize the safety of its nuclear reactors.

Source: UPI