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Nuclear Safety Plan Has Ukrainians Worried

KIEV, Mar 27 2013 (IPS) - A 300 million euro loan to improve nuclear safety in the Ukraine has been attacked by environmental groups who say it will instead be used to keep ageing reactors working well beyond their planned lifespans – increasing the risks of a nuclear accident – while doing nothing to address serious issues with the country’s energy intensity.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which approved the loan earlier this month, has said that the money will be used to upgrade safety at nuclear plants to international standards.

But environmentalists say it will instead be used by state energy company Energoatom to keep open or restart ageing reactors and that the EBRD should be helping the Ukraine move away from nuclear power and support renewable energy projects.

Iryna Holovko of the pan-European Bankwatch NGO, which together with other environmental groups has opposed the loan, told IPS: “Energoatom and the Ukrainian government is imposing another 20 years of additional nuclear risk – because of the increased risks associated with ageing of reactors – on the people of Ukraine without developing or offering an alternative option.”

Nuclear power is key to Ukraine’s energy production. Fifteen plants around the country provide almost half of its electricity.

But while many countries in Europe have recently reaffirmed their opposition to nuclear power or abandoned or scaled back their reliance on it in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Ukraine’s energy policy has been amended in the last two years to include new nuclear capacity and the extension of the lifespans of existing plants by, in some cases, 20 years.

Environmental groups in the Ukraine point to an accident at the Rivne nuclear power plant’s Reactor 1. Its original lifespan had expired at the end of 2010 but it was given an extension for 20 years. One month later there was an accident, although no radiation leaked.

The funding provided by the EBRD, together with a further European Commission loan under the Euratom Treaty, will support a programme including more than 80 measures addressing safety issues at plants, such as replacing equipment and improving accident management.

Environmental groups claim that Energoatom has not properly analysed the risks and safety issues related to the safe operation of nuclear units for decades beyond their original lifespans.

In particular, they argue, a reactor at the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant will be restarted again using the financing approved by the EBRD. The reactor’s lifespan has expired and it is no longer generating electricity. But Energoatom has been told its lifespan can be extended and the reactor restarted if it carries out safety upgrades.

Holovko told IPS: “It is one thing to improve the safety of nuclear reactors that still have some years of their original operating time left, but it is not OK to finance measures at facilities whose lifespans have expired and which have already stopped working and at the same time saying the loan has nothing to do with lifespan extension.”

Greenpeace and other groups such as the German NGO Urgewald have said that the EBRD, as one of the largest investors in the Ukraine and other European countries, should be spending money on decommissioning old nuclear reactors and supporting renewable energy instead.

Jutta Matysek of Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe said: “European public money should be used to support renewable energy to help Ukraine overcome its dependence on nuclear energy and imported carbon fuel. A country which is still suffering from the terrible effects of the Chernobyl disaster will not survive another nuclear catastrophe.”

The EBRD has vigorously defended the financing. The bank says its energy policy is geared towards improving energy efficiency, but that it has a clear mandate to financing nuclear safety improvements at an operating facility.

In a statement following approval of the loan, the bank said: “Nuclear safety is a consideration of the utmost priority at any time regardless of whether a unit has just been connected to the grid or has been producing electricity for decades.”

Stressing that the bank has no mandate to force a sovereign state to rule out the use of any source of energy, it added: “Ukraine is currently reviewing its own energy strategy but has made it clear that it will continue to use nuclear power generation. Consequently, addressing the safety issues and raising standards is the EBRD’s primary concern and its due role.”

It also emphasised that Energoatom’s safety upgrade plan had taken into account recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Agency and Ukrainian and international experts.

EBRD representatives in the Ukraine who spoke to IPS stressed that the bank has invested more than 200 million euros in renewable energy projects in Ukraine to date. It has also lent tens of millions of euros to local municipalities for energy efficiency projects.

EBRD Ukraine representative Anton Usov told IPS: “The EBRD should get more recognition for its efforts to make Ukraine more energy efficient and for the renewable energy projects we have implemented in this country – something which no other institution has done.”

Environmental groups say sensitivity to nuclear safety remains particularly high because of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

A nationwide poll carried out in April 2011 showed that 39 percent of respondents believed Ukrainian plants were “quite dangerous” and that 25 percent said they were “extremely dangerous”.  More than 69 percent said they were completely opposed to the construction of new nuclear power plants.
But Usov said that there was no widespread opposition to extending the lifespans of ageing reactors, and that the public accepted that nuclear power was essential to meeting the country’s energy needs.

He told IPS: “People in Ukraine are generally sensitive to nuclear industry-related subjects for obvious reasons….There is a broad understanding in society that the country cannot survive without nuclear power plants, at least in the short-term.”

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