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 Close to Firing Up a Fast Reactor

Russian nuclear energy holding company Rosatom reported yesterday that a subsidiary had completed construction of an experimental nuclear reactor in Beijing. At 25 megawatts the reactor’s power output is small, but it sends a big message about where nuclear technology may be heading — especially after the Obama Administration’s effective cancellation last month of plans to store U.S. spent nuclear fuel at an underground repository below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor is so-named because the neutrons produced in its core are not ‘moderated’ with water like those that generate heat in nearly all commercial nuclear reactors. The faster neutrons can burn down nuclear waste and even generate new fuel, promising a solution to the thorny problem of waste storage as well as energy independence.

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