Nuclear reactor units abandoned 30 years ago after Chernobyl to be finished in Ukraine
In the recent weeks, the whole world re-lived one of history’s most severe nuclear catastrophes (Ukraine, 1986), thanks to the Chernobyl miniseries. Considering the impacts as well as causes of the Chernobyl case, the initiative to continue the construction of two unfinished reactor units from the ’80s in Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, only 500 kilometres from the Hungarian border seems rather terrifying. The 2000 MW planned capacity equals to that of the only operating nuclear power plant of Hungary, the Paks NPP. The Hungarian state now would have the opportunity to participate in an international procedure and share observations regarding the project, but for some reason this is not happening. The responsible ministries in Hungary and Ukraine point at each other.
The Khmelnitskiy site already has two nuclear units, commissioned in 1987 and 2004 respectively. Construction of units no. 3 and 4 NPP started in 1985-1986 but was never completed, following the Chernobyl accident, the nuclear moratorium and the subsequent collapse of the USSR. Since 2005, the state-owned nuclear operator Energoatom has been trying to revive the project.
According to Energoatom, at unit 3 up to 75% of building works is completed and at unit 4 the figure is 28%. However, the official documentation of the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure claims that the rate of completion is only 35-40% and 5-10% respectively.
In 2008 Rosatoms’s subsidiary, Atomstroyexport won the tender for the construction of the revived project, and the agreement signed in 2010 also included that Russia would provide a loan to Ukraine to finance the construction. The feasibility study was completed by 2012, and international consultations began as well.
The project was put on hold again in 2015, when the Ukrainian parliament denounced the agreement with Russia due to the political tensions and conflicts between the two countries. In 2016-2017, Energoatom adjusted the feasibility study for the KhNPP 3,4 completion, envisaging the use of a VVER-1000 reactor by a “European” supplier of reactor technology – Czech company Skoda JS. There was no tender conducted to choose the supplier.
Ukraine has currently 15 nuclear reactors in operation, at 4 different sites, all of them are Russian VVER-tyeps. Nuclear power plants generate ca. 50% of the country’s electricity supply.
There are concerns with the unfinished units
According to the briefing note of the Ukrainian NGO Eco-Action, a Kiev-based research and design institute performed examinations of the technical condition of building structures and facilities at unit 3 in 2006-2007. This evaluation concluded that the condition of the structures was unsatisfactory, and reports on mechanical defects of the structures, corrosion of the reinforcement and metal components of the reinforced concrete structures, cracks in concrete and corrosion. In 2012, another research institute conducted an evaluation of certain structures of units 3 and 4. The major conclusion was that no structures are fit for use unless they are renovated.
The expert analysis of the Environment Agency Austria claims that appropriate information about the conditions of the existing buildings, structures and equipment is missing from the official documentation of the Environmental Impact Assessment process. Besides, an aging monitoring and management program is not mentioned, either.
Furthermore, it is questionable whether the physical protection relies on requirements which are fully up-to-date. Generally, a detailed description of the safety relevant systems is not provided. However, the available information shows that the site evaluation is not in compliance with current international requirements, because the quoted international recommendations are outdated, e.g. regarding earthquakes or tornados – as the site is located in the tornado hazardous area.
“We are talking about a reactor design, which dates from the 1970s” – told us Franz Meister from the Environment Agency, which supports the relevant Austrian ministry in procedures related to nuclear projects, by coordinating and elaborating experts statements. “Since decades, the incomplete structures are unprotected against weather, like rain, snow and ice, as both reactor buildings had not been roofed”. As he informed us, investigations in Ukraine, to what extent existing structures and components still can be used have started some months ago and are still ongoing. Results might be available by end of this year or beginning of next year.
“There are only two companies in the world which has built VVER-1000 reactors: Russian company “Atomstroyexport” and Skoda JS – a czech company acctually owned by Russian OMZ. So for us this project which goes now through the approval process in our government is clearly not in Ukraine’s national interests and should be halted” – said Iryna Holovko, Board member and Head of Energy campaigns of the Ukrainian green NGO called Eco-Action.
The expansion of Rosatom: spreading Russian influence by building nuclear reactors
The state-owned Russian nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom is now the market leader in exporting and building nuclear reactors. There are important elements of this success: tailor-made projects that fit the needs of the customer; appealing financing offers and diplomatic tools that Russia is using to convince potential customers.
Impacts on Hungary
A potential accident in Khmelnitskiy can seriously affect Hungary as well. The level of radioactive contamination depends on the weather, primarily wind, conditions. This model shows the ground deposition of caesium-137 isotope in case of a Chernobyl-like (INES-scale 7) accident in unit 1 of the Khmelnitskiy NPP, under typical weather conditions.
For instance, if the accident happened on a day like July 11, 1995, then the North Eastern part of Hungary would receive a high dose of radioactivity. On a day like July 7, 1995, most part of Hungary would be contaminated, but to a lower level. And on July 20, the radioactive cloud would avoid Hungarian territory.
Thus, what is being built in Khmelnitskiy, 500 kilometers from the border, is of great relevance for Hungary. The good news is that, affected countries, so in this case Hungary as well, can participate in the official procedures of similar investments. Currently the environmental impact assessment procedure is running, in which Hungary could ask questions and make comments and suggestions, in the framework of the Espoo Convention.
The bad news is that, although in 2011, Hungary entered the international process, the responsible ministry does not have any information about the project since 2017 – as they claimed in their letter to Greenpeace Hungary. Which is peculiar given that Austrian authorities for instance are being informed by the Ukrainian ministry.
Austria held a public hearing and bilateral consultation meeting with the Ukrainian ministry on June 13. 2019. “Austria wants to be assured, that a high level of nuclear safety will be achieved. The EIA procedure is a framework to proof that valid and up-to-date norms, recommendations etc. are respected by the project sponsors and the respective nuclear authorities.” – Franz Meister told Átlátszó. Meister was informed by the ukrainian side, that all recommendations received via the bilateral consultations will be summed up in a report to the parliament, which will have to decide on a law concerning the principal approval of the project.
As the Hungarian Ministry for Agriculture claimed, they notified Ukraine about their intention to participate in the process on September 10, 2012, which has been confirmed several times by the Hungarian side. However, in an informal conversation with a responsible person from the Ukrainian Environmental Ministry it was stated that Hungary missed a deadline and failed to notify the Ukrainian side about their intention to join the procedure. „During the process, Hungary has not missed any deadlines that would exclude the country from the Espoo procedure” – the Hungarian ministry responded to Greenpeace’s question. Unfortunately the Ministry did not answer our questions regarding the process for several weeks.
Written and translated by Orsolya Fülöp
You can read the original, Hungarian language story here.