The Internal Struggle Compounding Ukraine’s Nuclear Peril

There’s a cloak-and-dagger struggle on for control of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, pitting activist nuclear professionals against alleged Russian agents. I began tracking this opaque battle early in Russia’s invasion when Ukraine’s state security bureau detained the nuclear power utility’s director of personnel. That cast a dark cloud over officials he’d appointed at Energoatom’s headquarters and at the four nuclear power plants that supply over half of Ukraine’s electricity.

Now this spy-vs-spy battle for Ukraine’s nuclear power has leapt from the shadows.

Last month Ukrainian counterintelligence pierced an “extensive agent network” led by the suspect official’s longtime patron: U.S.-sanctioned Russian spy Andriy Derkach, who gained global notoriety passing kompromat on Biden to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in 2019. Then utility CEO Petro Kotin fanned the flames this month in a disastrous appearance before a parliamentary panel. Kotin did not win deputies’ confidence when, for example, he explained that his deputy failed to show for the hearing because he had the day off.

The spectacle prompted Kyiv-based media outlet Glavcom to report that Ukraine’s “Nuclear energy is in danger,” and that a “search for collaborators” was on.

Fears of infiltration add to the instability created by Russia’s unprecedented military assaults on Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. And both threats raise the spectre of accidents that could spread radiation across Europe, and undercutting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. If the power grid collapses, the country will be in chaos.

Read the full story @IEEE Spectrum

Ukraine’s #EnergyFront

Energy is central to the geopolitics of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Putin thought Europe would let him seize Ukraine because the continent depends so heavily on Russian gas, petroleum and coal. The US is helping turn back Russian aggression not just by pumping weapons into Ukraine, but also by bolstering Europe’s energy supplies and thus facilitating European solidarity.

A substation in Ukraine shelled by Russia. Photo credit: State Emergency Service Of Ukraine.

But there’s also an #EnergyFront within Ukraine, which I’ve been covering for @IEEESpectrum. One flashpoint has been Ukraine’s power grid which was, until the war began, tied to the giant UPS/IPS synchronous AC power zone controlled from Moscow. My report, How Russia Sent Ukraine Racing Into the “Energy Eurozone”, chronicles bold moves in the war’s first weeks that isolated Ukraine’s power system and then plugged it into Europe’s.

Ukraine’s power grid operator made the first move hours before Russian tanks and missiles crossed borders in February. The transmission operators’ European counterparts made the next “heroic” move a few weeks later, stabilizing Ukraine’s power supply even as its attackers destroyed lines, substations and power generators.

Another flashpoint is the battle for control of Ukraine’s nuclear power sector, including the four operating plants that supply over half of the country’s electricity. When Russia invaded, Ukraine remained heavily dependent on Russian suppliers of nuclear fuel, waste handling, and parts. Patriots feared sabotage of nuclear power plants and and their defences, either to facilitate the plants’ seizure by Russian forces or to cause a nuclear incident.

Their fears prove justified when the Russian army attacked and captured Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant—Europe’s largest.

My report, Ukraine Scrubbing Nuclear Agencies of Russian Influence, revealed an internal struggle for control of Ukrainian national nuclear power generating company Energoatom whereby several top executives fled the country and a vice president was detained by state security police.

China’s Nuclear Power Death Watch

BNEF 2018 China LCOE chart
In China, Nuclear’s Up & Renewables are Down. Graph of levelized cost of energy from new power plants in China in US$ per MWh via Bloomberg NEF 2018.

How many times have you read an article and discovered that the label on the package didn’t match the meat? Here’s an open secret from the news biz: that story’s writer may have also cringed. Writers often don’t see the headline until it runs, and we’re not always ecstatic about the angles editors choose to hook eyeballs.

Take this headline that topped a story today on China’s nuclear power sector in Technology Review magazine:

China’s losing its taste for nuclear power. That’s bad news.

Personally I’d call China’s anti-nuclear turn “sad” rather than “bad.” But what do I know? I only wrote the story!

Whatever the headline, my article shows that the same woes killing Western nukes now confront the technology in China. As the editors’ spot-on subhed puts it: ‘Once nuclear’s strongest booster, China is growing wary about its cost and safety’.

The coming downturn is hard to recognize amid a flurry of new reactor startups, and nuclear industry players worldwide have been slow to acknowledge it. It means that China’s planners may no longer count on reactor power to wean the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter off of coal and oil. And if one big option for decarbonizing energy systems may be biting the dust, that puts more pressure on the remaining options (eg. solar panels and wind turbines) and on innovators conjuring up new options.

As for whether dropping the nuclear option is bad or sad? I’d prefer to let the readers decide. Have your own look online, or pick up Technology Review’s January 2019 Special Issue on China.

U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has terminated construction of a facility designed to transform 34 metric tons of surplus military plutonium, enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons, into fuel for nuclear power plants. The Aiken, South Carolina project began in 2007 and was at least $2.6-billion over its $4.9-billion estimated cost and still years from completion — akin to the troubled pair of Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors under construction in nearby Vogtle, Georgia and another pair killed last year at South Carolina’s VC Summer plant.

Mismanagement is only half the story, however, according to Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. Lyman says the plant was also plagued by safety, technology and regulatory challenges specific to handling plutonium. Trace amounts of plutonium cause lethal cancers and its 24,110-year half-life means small releases could render lands uninhabitable for generations making it an attractive material for would-be makers of ‘dirty’ bombs. Continue reading “U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant”

Double Milestone for Safer Reactors

Call it the world’s slowest photo finish. After several decades of engineering, construction flaws and delays, and cost overruns—a troubled birth that cost their developers dearly—the most advanced commercial reactor designs from Europe and the United States just delivered their first megawatt-hours of electricity within one day of each other. But their benefits—including safety advances such as the AP1000’s passive cooling and the EPR’s airplane-crash-proof shell—may offer too little, too late to secure future projects.

Continue reading “Double Milestone for Safer Reactors”

Cyclone Exposes Trump’s Grid Fallacy

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline recently, undercutting the Trump Administration argument that subsidizing aging generators is crucial to prevent blackouts. The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures. Continue reading “Cyclone Exposes Trump’s Grid Fallacy”

Palmetto State’s $9-bn Nuclear Boondoggle

“Public trust is at stake here, folks.” That’s how South Carolina’s top power industry regulator described the gravity of local utilities’ decision to walk away from a pair of partially-built nuclear reactors, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier. Public Service Commission chairman Swain Whitfield added that the reactors’ cancellation after $9 billion of investment — more than the state’s annual budget — “is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams” in South Carolina. South Carolina-based Santee Cooper and SCANA’s abandonment of their pair of new reactors, announced on Monday, also have broader ramifications for the nuclear industry’s self-declared “nuclear renaissance.” The cost overruns and delays afflicting this project and a sister project in Georgia drove the reactor designer and builder Westinghouse Electric Co. into bankruptcy. Cost overruns and political concerns are also squeezing nuclear suppliers from France, South Korea, and Russia. Continue reading “Palmetto State’s $9-bn Nuclear Boondoggle”