Will Kiev Be Able to Create a Nuclear Bomb?

7 june 2014

The Problem of Spent Nuclear Fuel from Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plants

Oleg Barabanov - Programme Director of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Academic Director of the European Studies Institute at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Professor of the Russian Academy of Science

Resume: Amidst the Ukrainian crisis several statements were made in Kiev that Ukraine should develop nuclear weapons of its own. Although the probability is not high, this issue prompts an analysis of Ukraine’s real nuclear potential in this sphere.

The Ukrainian political crisis of 2013-2014 brought to a head a discussion that had been going on before about Ukraine’s nuclear status. Several statements were made in Kiev that Ukraine should develop nuclear weapons of its own. Advocates of this idea pleaded the non-fulfillment of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 in which three nuclear powers – the United States, Britain and Russia – had provided security guarantees to Kiev in exchange for a waiver of the Soviet-era nuclear arsenal. In February-March 2014, statements to this effect were made, among others, by ex-foreign minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Ohryzko, Verkhovna Rada deputy Mykhailo Holovko of the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda, and Verkhovna Rada deputy Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party of Ukraine. On March 1, 2014, this issue was discussed by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

Naturally, such a decision, should it be taken, would challenge the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. At the same time, this issue prompts an analysis of Ukraine’s real potential in this sphere.

As regards missiles, the situation is obvious. The Yuzhnoye design bureau, located in Dnipropetrovsk, was a major element of the Soviet missile program, so there should be no doubt about Ukraine’s ability to create booster rockets for nuclear warheads. On April 7, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement commenting on mass media reports about negotiations between Ukraine’s Yuzhmash space rocket manufacturer and several countries to sell technologies for the production of the R-36M2 Voevoda heavy intercontinental ballistic missile. The ministry expressed the hope that “despite the absence of legitimate supreme power, the current leaders [...] will show due responsibility, will stick to their obligations under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR ) and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), and will refrain from steps that could undermine the existing WMD non-proliferation regimes.”

The situation with nuclear technologies and fissile materials is not as obvious.

THE PROBLEM OF SPENT FUEL POOLS

In Soviet times, Ukraine had no facilities for enriching uranium or for radiochemical plutonium accumulation. Therefore, if a political decision is made to develop nuclear weapons, Ukraine will have to build these facilities from scratch. However, the scientific capability gained by the Institute for Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and other research centers may well be enough for coping with technological difficulties and launching the facilities.

Of key importance is whether Ukraine has enough fissile materials. This country has uranium resources in Zhovti Vody, where the Ukrainian uranium mining enterprise VostGOK has been operating since the 1950s. In 2012, Ukraine started the construction of a nuclear fuel plant at Smolino, near Kirovohrad, where a VostGOK mine is, for VVER reactors in operation at Ukrainian nuclear power plants. This is the first project of this kind in the country. Therefore, if Kiev makes a political decision to develop nuclear weapons, the Ukrainian industry will be capable of quickly starting enriching uranium to weapons-grade level.

Plutonium can be extracted from spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from research reactors and nuclear power plants. A plutonium bomb is easier to make technologically and financially than a uranium one. In the 1970s-1980s, the Soviet economic planning committee (Gosplan) ordered the construction of five nuclear power plants in Ukraine. Four of them had VVER reactors and were built in Kuznetsovsk (Rivne NPP), Netishyn (Khmelnytsky NPP), Enerhodar (Zaporizhzhia NPP), and Yuzhnoukrainsk (Yuzhnoukrainsk NPP). The fifth was the ill-famed Chernobyl NPP in Pripyat, which had RBMK reactors and which was the first to be commissioned in 1977.

Spent nuclear fuel from Ukrainian VVER reactors began to be taken to off-limits cities in Russia back in Soviet times. SNF from VVER-440 reactors (the first two plant units at Rivne) was supplied to the RT-1 reprocessing plant of the Mayak Production Association in Ozyorsk. SNF from VVER-1000 reactors (the other plant units of Ukraine’s four VVER reactors) was, and still is, supplied only for storage to a mining and chemical combine in Zheleznogorsk. Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation plans to build and commission a plant to reprocess this fuel by 2020-2025.

After the Soviet Union’s break-up, Rosatom and its Ukrainian counterpart, Energoatom which operates the four NPPs in the country, have interacted on the issues of the storage and reprocessing of SNF from VVER reactors on a commercial basis. Kiev has frequently complained about high prices charged by Russia for SNF reprocessing, which often results in the overstocking of SNF at nuclear power plants.

The problem was particularly acute in the 1990s-2000s. One way to solve it was the construction, started in 1993, of a new dry storage facility for SNF at the Zaporizhzhia NPP. The nuclear power plant, commissioned in 2001, has six plant units and is the largest in Ukraine.

As regards the construction of SNF reprocessing facilities in Ukraine, its non-nuclear status under the NPT stands in the way. SNF reprocessing is one of the most sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the point of view of converting the peaceful atom to military use. This is why the International Atomic Energy Agency closely monitors the state of affairs in this field and is highly reluctant to give the green light to new SNF reprocessing projects in countries that do not possess nuclear weapons.

Fuel from RBMK reactors in Soviet times was accumulated in at-reactor fuel pools for lack of centralized reprocessing facilities. The RBMK reactor is based on the ADE-type plutonium production military reactor. This is why SNF from RBMK reactors is much more promising in terms of plutonium production than SNF from VVER reactors. Therefore, the existing SNF stocks from the Chernobyl NPP occupy a special place in the balance of Ukraine’s nuclear fuel.

The Chernobyl NPP had four RBMK reactors. Reactor 4 was destroyed in the 1986 accident. Reactor 2 was shut down in 1991, and reactor 1, in 1996. In 2000, under EU pressure, Ukraine turned off reactor 3, the only left, and shut down the entire site. Nevertheless, the state specialized enterprise Chernobyl NPP still operates – it monitors the concrete sarcophagus built to seal off the destroyed fourth reactor, and manages the decommissioning of the other three reactors, including the solution of the SNF problem. In 2001, after all the reactors were shut down, the enterprise was resubordinated from Energoatom to a state agency that manages the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The agency was first subordinate to the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, and in recent years, to the Ministry of Ecology.

After the 1986 disaster, a 30-kilometer exclusion zone was established around the Chernobyl NPP, designated for evacuation. Several new enterprises and organizations were set up in the zone to deal with nuclear and radiation matters. These included the Spetsatom Production Association, which during the 1990s operated in premises of the former Jupiter radio factory in the abandoned town of Pripyat, as well as radioactive waste repositories and disposal sites for contaminated equipment. One of them was established near the village of Buryakivka about 10 km from Pripyat.

After the Chernobyl NPP was commissioned in 1977, spent fuel assemblies were kept in cooling pools under the central reactor hall at each reactor. By the time of the Chernobyl accident, only one spent nuclear fuel repository had been put into operation at Soviet nuclear power plants with RBMK reactors – at the Leningrad NPP. Another storage facility was under construction at the Chernobyl NPP, but by the time of the accident it was not completed yet. This is why during the first few months after the accident fuel from the undestroyed three Chernobyl reactors was transported to the Leningrad NPP repository.

The interim wet-type storage facility at Chernobyl (known as ISF-1) was hastily completed after the accident. Technologically, the ISF-1, as a storage pool, had a limited safe storage capability. This factor and the decreasing vacant space at the ISF-1 gave rise to a discussion in the late 1990s-early 2000s about the need to build a dry storage facility which would be capable of storing spent nuclear fuel for 50 to 100 years. An official booklet of the Chernobyl state enterprise, published in 2007, said that the ISF-1 should be decommissioned together with the reactors.

In 1999, the French company Framatome was awarded a contract to build a new, dry storage facility, ISF-2, as part of donor assistance to Ukraine in connection with the closure of Chernobyl. Pending its construction, managers of the Chernobyl state enterprise stopped the transfer of spent fuel assemblies from the reactors and storage pools to the wet ISF-1. However, the construction of the ISF-2 proved to be an example of inefficiency and possible corruption in this sphere. After the ISF-2 was built, it was not accepted into service because of cracks in the wall. In addition, cells for fuel assemblies, made in its walls, did not fit the size of fuel assemblies from Soviet-made RBMK reactors, including those at the Chernobyl NPP. The ISF-2 building has been vacant for a decade, and its gray concrete silhouette on the road from the city of Chernobyl to the nuclear power plant has become an anti-monument to what is going on and a new “attraction” for tourists visiting the Chernobyl zone. In 2007, the NPP management asked the U.S. company Holtec to remedy the situation and remove the technical deficiencies at the ISF-2. However, preparatory work at the site began only in the autumn of 2013.

In view of this, starting from December 2005, the Chernobyl NPP resumed the transfer of spent fuel assemblies to the ISF-1. All fuel assemblies from reactor 3 pools had been moved to the ISF-1 by 2010; conditioned fuel assemblies from reactor 2, by 2012; and conditioned fuel assemblies from reactor 1, by September 2013. Currently, unconditioned and non-tight fuel assemblies remain in at-reactor pools of reactors 1 and 2. In all, a total of 21,000 fuel assemblies have piled up at the Chernobyl NPP since it was put into operation.

The force majeure transfer of fuel assemblies to the ISF-1 was accompanied by some ambiguous technological solutions. According to rules, one of the pools in wet storage facilities must always be vacant. However, after all the four fuel pools in operation at the ISF-1 had been filled, the Chernobyl NPP management and the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, an official supervision body, reached agreement to fill the fifth, reserve pool with fuel assemblies from reactor 1. In addition, space between fuel assemblies in the pool was reduced. This decision raises questions from the standpoint of radiation safety. Indeed, in case of an accident in one of the pools, spent nuclear fuel kept there cannot be moved anywhere, as the ISF-2 still stands idle.

Another controversial technological solution concerned SNF storage. In at-reactor pools, fuel assemblies were kept in special 17-meter-long containers. To move them to ISF-1 pools, the assemblies had to be reloaded into new containers, ten meters long. In 2006, after spent fuel assemblies began to be transferred to the ISF-1, the Chernobyl NPP management initially bought the new containers. Later, however, it decided otherwise and told its personnel to cut the old 17-meter-long containers shorter so that they could fit into the ISF-1 pools. More than a thousand containers were cut this way. These self-made containers have questionable quality, tightness and reliability in terms of radiation safety.

Against this background, on March 12, 2014, the management of the Chernobyl state enterprise announced the beginning of the replacement of electrical equipment at the ISF-1. The designated service life of the newly installed equipment is 20 years. This means that the ISF-1 is not planned to be decommissioned after its 30-year service life expires in 2016, and that the aforementioned radiation risks posed by it will remain.

After the Chernobyl NPP was shut down in 2000, discussions began in Ukraine and the EU about the future of the Exclusion Zone. In this context, there emerged an idea to use the zone as a platform for storing spent nuclear fuel not only from Chernobyl but also from other Ukrainian NPPs. In February 2012, a special law was adopted in Ukraine, under which the construction of a new, centralized interim storage facility (CISF) was started by Holtec for three other Ukrainian NPPs – Rivne, Khmelnytsky and Yuzhnoukrainsk. The construction was launched near the Vektor complex at a nuclear waste repository in Buryakivka under the aegis of Energoatom. The emergence of a new major player in the Chernobyl zone led to some friction between the Chernobyl state enterprise and Energoatom. In response to Energoatom’s plans, the enterprise last year proposed establishing on its basis a new agency – a National Operator for Treating Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel from Ukrainian NPPs.

Another delicate issue related to the construction of the CISF in the Chernobyl zone is the unregulated relations with Belarus – not only because the new nuclear facility (under Ukrainian laws an ISF has the status of a nuclear facility) will appear in close proximity (15 kilometers) to the Belarusian border. The transportation of spent nuclear fuel from the three above-mentioned nuclear power plants to the CISF can be done through the territory of Belarus.

The feasibility study of the CISF says that the transportation of spent nuclear fuel from power plants to the storage area must be done exclusively by rail. There is only one railway going through the Chernobyl zone – Chernihiv-Ovruch. However, its western part going across the zone between the stations Vilcha and Shepelichi is no longer used and has been partly dismantled. This circumstance was mentioned in the CISF feasibility study. But the eastern part, the only railroad connecting the zone with outside Ukraine and delivering Chernobyl NPP personnel on Slavutych-Semikhody trains to the plant, crosses Belarusian territory in the area between the rivers Dnieper and Pripyat. The authorities of the two countries have agreed that the trains will cross Belarusian territory without stopping and without border or customs control. Further on, west of the Semikhody station (in close vicinity to Chernobyl) and within the zone, this railroad is maintained in operable condition until the stations of Yanov and Shepelichi. Estimates of expenditure on the transport infrastructure of the storage facility, given in the feasibility study, only provide for the construction of a six-kilometer railroad from Shepelichi to the CISF near Buryakivka. No expenditure on restoration of the Vilcha-Shepelichi section is mentioned in the feasibility study. Therefore trains carrying containers with spent nuclear fuel are planned to be directed to the Chernobyl zone along the eastern route via Chernihiv and Slavutych. This means that they will cross Belarus which suffered from the radiation effects of the Chernobyl accident much more than Ukraine. Naturally, these plans may prompt questions from Minsk.

“NUCLEAR DUMP SITE”?

The discussions about the use of the Chernobyl zone for new nuclear projects also had a European dimension. As the group of Chernobyl donors included many EU countries, some of them proposed using the Chernobyl zone for storing spent nuclear fuel from EU nuclear power plants, as well. Understandably, the proposal was rejected by environmentalists in Ukraine which would thus turn into a nuclear dump site of Europe. These fears were reflected in Ukrainian fiction. For example, the political detective novel, The Master of the Zone, written by Alexander Esaulov, former deputy mayor of Pripyat, narrates a struggle of civil activists against a conspiracy between the Ukrainian government and German industrialists to bring spent nuclear fuel from German NPPs to Chernobyl for storage.

This is why plans of this kind are not publicized. But it is hardly accidental that the construction boom in the Chernobyl zone, funded by foreign donors (after many years of idle talk), began shortly after the Fukushima accident in 2011. The accident caused a new surge in radiophobia around the world. The German government announced plans for a phased closure of all nuclear power plants in the country within 10 to 15 years. The room for maneuver also decreased for France, another European country that actively uses nuclear power. Therefore, the creation of a European ISF in Chernobyl objectively would meet current national interests of these countries.

At present, the largest infrastructure project implemented since 2012 by a group of donors in Chernobyl is the construction of a New Safe Confinement (NSC) – a giant arch-shaped structure, more than a hundred meters high, intended to cover the sarcophagus built over the destroyed fourth reactor. Under the arch, it is planned to gradually dismantle the sarcophagus, recycle the lava-like fuel-containing material (FCM) from fuel assemblies destroyed by the explosion, which has accumulated under the reactor, and dispose of waste in the area of ? Buryakivka, where Energoatom’s Central Interim Fuel Storage is being built. The NSC is designed and built by the French consortium Novarka and Turkish workers.

The construction of the NSC in Chernobyl gave rise to the first ever open discussions not only about the storage and utilization but also recycling of nuclear fuel, although in this case the matter at issue is not SNF but FCM. Yet, these technological processes can be reoriented to SNF, as well, especially as the ISF-1 is not reliable in the long term and its 30-year service life expires in 2016. In 2013, an international seminar was held in Chernobyl to discuss handling SNF. The Chief Technology Officer of the Chernobyl NPP, Andrei Bilyk, told the seminar that “the problem of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel has not yet been finally solved.”

Shortly after, in November 2013, the management of the Chernobyl NPP announced plans to build an SNF reprocessing facility in order to form a closed nuclear fuel cycle, including the recovery of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and the production, on its basis, of uranium-plutonium MOX fuel for fast reactors. Moreover, there are plans to build a fast reactor at the Chernobyl NPP. Also, in 2012-2013, a decision was made to build an industrial facility at the ISF-1 to control fuel burn-up in spent fuel assemblies, not the most essential element for “usual” storage of spent fuel but highly significant for organizing SNF reprocessing and plutonium recovery.

Thus, new ideas have been openly expressed with regard to the Chernobyl NPP. Each of these ideas (SNF reprocessing, a closed nuclear fuel cycle, a plutonium-fuelled reactor) is a kind of marker for the IAEA indicating an approach to the threshold of switching from peaceful to military uses of nuclear energy. This is nothing but a challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Two scenarios are possible here. Under one of them, SNF reprocessing in Chernobyl will begin under the auspices of the EU and the IAEA, that is, under international control as regards non-proliferation of fissile materials. Under the other scenario, Ukraine will make a political decision to develop nuclear weapons of its own. In that case, the concentration of almost all spent nuclear fuel from Ukrainian NPPs (the ISF at Chernobyl + the CISF of Energoatom) in the off-limits Chernobyl zone can provide ample resources for a fast production of weapons-grade plutonium. And then Chernobyl may become a natural center for a military nuclear program of Ukraine. In this case, one cannot rule out re-opening the Chernobyl NPP, or re-launching its reactors, or building new ones. Let me repeat that the RBMK reactor is a civil modification of a plutonium production military reactor.

By the way, in the past, there were also rumors that the Chernobyl zone could be used for projects and experiments not covered by IAEA safeguards. For example, in 2012 German radiation safety experts examined premises of the aforementioned Spetsatom Production Association in the city of Pripyat and took several samples of residues from equipment there. A spectrometric analysis of these samples showed the presence of plutonium. Also, the German experts found fragments of graphite in the premises. The findings caused them to conclude that Ukrainian specialists might have worked on critical assemblies for nuclear chain reactions there, which could be of dual, civilian and military, use. Spetsatom worked in the Chernobyl zone in the 1990s and early 2000s.

There is one more interesting aspect in this regard, namely, the cooperation between the Chernobyl state enterprise and the Ignalina NPP in Lithuania, established in recent years. Ignalina also used RBMK reactors and its management is now addressing the same issues of decommissioning the nuclear plant and storing SNF. At the same time, the managements of the two NPPs have different approaches to them. Firstly, unlike Chernobyl, Lithuania has built and operates a dry ISF. Secondly, Lithuania has made a decision to dismantle, without delay, the entire infrastructure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant, including the reactors. In contrast, the Chernobyl management’s official approach is “deferred dismantling”, meaning that the reactors’ dismantling will start not earlier than in 50 years.

Officially, one of the reasons is a high level of radiation at Chernobyl. Official documents of the Chernobyl NPP say that it will take not less than 70 years for the gamma radiation of the reactors’ graphite stack to decrease to an acceptable safety level. However, the high radiation level does not prevent Lithuania from dismantling its reactors, while observing radiation protection requirements. In this context, repeated statements by Ukrainian politicians about the need to develop nuclear weapons do not rule out that the Chernobyl reactors are not dismantled because they may come in handy.

Of course, the logic of events described in this article can materialize only under the most radical, apocalyptic scenario, which we all, naturally, would like to avoid.

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