The major problems for Russia with Ukraine’s new moves to become a major nuclear energy power in Europe (although it recently sold 40% of its leading nuclear organization to “foreign investors” at fire-sale prices) are probably more of a transparency and military nature than a safety or economic one. This is because the pattern of contamination from future nuclear accidents would likely follow the Chernobyl pattern to Europe, which Russia is already distancing itself from by attributing any disaster solely to the supplier of the replacement rods.[i]
True, there are compatibility and reliability problems with fuel rods supplied for Russian and Soviet-era reactors by Westinghouse. In the recent alleged case of the 100-sq.-km atomic contamination in the Ukraine, it’s claimed by some that the zirconium cladding of substitute rods had leaked at the world’s fifth largest nuke power plant—the Zaporozhye facility.[ii],[iii] Those not familiar with nuclear energy may not be aware that a rod just can’t be pulled out and a replacement rod “slapped in”. Putting in a fresh rod requires an exact match, not just with the physical structure but complex calculations relating to the enrichment level of existing rods.[iv]
Under the previous regimen, Russia handled fuel rod reprocessing and waste disposal. Control of the nuclear cycle itself was a safeguard against the eventuality of a regime in Kiev seeking to reinstate itself as an offensive nuclear power just a stone’s throw from Russia.
In the current situation, Ukrainian managers and their Western cohorts will no doubt be tempted to leave rods in the reactor for longer periods due to monetary and political considerations (e.g., desperate attempts to supply energy to the European grid for foreign currency, an inability to get or pay for new rods, a desire to deprive Russia of reactor-supply revenues and an effort to lower power costs.)
However, rods left in for longer periods get hit by more neutrons, hence they get more enriched and can more readily produce a “critical mass” necessary for nuclear fission (so-called “criticality”)[v] risking a Fukushima-like crude explosion, or can themselves serve as a source for fissile materials in a clandestine weapons program.
In plain English, this means rods left in 25% longer than specified will have far higher enrichment to weaponizable material (at least for a crude weapon) meaning there could be a nuclear accident at the reprocessing plant OR the material could be covertly processed and the fissile material extracted for weapons.
Is the possibility of a nuclear armed Ukraine so farfetched? On September 14, 2014, Ukrainian Defence Minister Valery Geletei is reported to have openly stated: “If we cannot protect [Ukraine] today, if the world does not help us, we will have to return to creation of these weapons to protect ourselves from Russia.”[vi]
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Key to any such effort would be the stockpiling of spent nuclear fuel rods and the construction of MOX and/or “fast” reactors—a byproduct being fissile material. These facilities are either under construction (in the case of nuclear waste repositories) or in the planning stages. (Ukraine has the potential for serving as a repository for spent MOX fuel rods from other countries, although it denies current plans for it to become a nuclear “destination resort.”)
Comments one industry source: “Ukraine serves as the bridgehead for US-Japanese takeover of the European energy industry…A coalition of AREVA and Toshiba-Westinghouse have been lobbying the Parliament in Kiev to approve construction of a western-designed nuclear-power plant in Ukraine’s Black Sea region.[vii]
According to an Energy Ministry press releases in June, “a new concept for the development of nuclear power” is expected to be adopted and will include the technical and financial aspects of the construction of new power units, as well as advancing plans for a fuel fabrication plant and a waste repository…Westinghouse has recently negotiated a deal to provide an undisclosed type of nuclear fuel for two additional reactors to be built at Energoatom’s Khmelnitsky plant in northwest Ukraine. The deal eliminates fuel rods from Russian nuclear-engineering company TVE.”[viii] [Emphasis mine.]
What might this “new concept” be? Dollars to doughnuts it’s the use of MOX fuels at Energoatom’s Khmelnitsky plant in northwest Ukraine followed by fast-neutron or fast-breeder technology the Ukies and some of their partners have in mind.
Japanese journalist Yoichi Shimatsu comments on this new wave in reactor technology: “To reduce stockpiles of plutonium-laced spent fuel rods stored inside power plants, the global nuclear industry is pushing to introduce advanced prototypes of fast-breeder reactors, which burn a variety of nuclear fuels including plutonium. Rusatom is producing MOX pellets for a next-generation fast-breeder to start operation this year at Beloyarskaya.”[ix]
Shimatsu makes an even more pertinent point about these MOX fuels and plutonium in the wrong hands. [Emphasis mine]: “The technological factor behind abandoning MOX for nonproliferation purposes was the introduction of laser-extraction systems that enable nuclear engineers to efficiently remove pure plutonium from spent MOX fuel rods. Nations with nuclear-weapons ambitions just have to place an order for MOX fuel to obtain high-grade plutonium…The Energy Ministry’s “new concept of nuclear power” and a proposed “fuel fabrication plant” are code words for the planned conversion of the Russian-built VVER pressurized water reactors for MOX fuel rods. Retrofitting has sizable risks, as shown at Fukushima… The 15 reactors in Ukraine’s four nuclear plants have Russian-designed VVER (pressurized water) reactors of the type that can be converted from enriched uranium to MOX fuel rods. The problem is that many of the Russian-built reactors have reached their 4-decade lifetime limit and are now in permanent disrepair.”[x]
Westinghouse may have other problems filling this bill—even without MOX. States Charles Digges: “…In 2012, during a routine inspection, Energoatom reported that Westinghouse’s assemblies had structural damage. It had to swap those for Russian-made fuel assemblies, which the utility estimated cost it $170-million…After a suit threatened by Energoatom, Westinghouse tried to make good on its deal and produced modified fuel rods for the Russian built VVER-440 reactors. These, too, were found defective,”[xi]
New reactors and imports of MOX rods could greatly shorten the time needed to create crude weapons from the 10-year estimate (based on existing reactors) cited in 2014 in the Russian press.[xii] Ironically, the U.S. here supports such nuclear proliferation developments that could lead to nuclear weapons/dirty weapons in Ukraine while, at the same time, opposing an alleged program in Iran!
In fact, any hypothetical nuclear rearmament of Ukraine using the above stratagem—and this on the borders of Russia—could be likened to the stationing of U.S. nuclear-capable Jupiter missiles in Turkey prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
With more spent fuel—including MOX–soon to be going into the black hole of new Ukraine nuclear waste repositories[i],[ii] and rods being left in reactors for longer periods, thereby super-enriching them, and fast-neutron/-breeder reactors pumping out plutonium and other fissile materials[iii] to say nothing of the many imported new Plutonium-containing MOX assemblies, a question arises. How is Russia to know what is being done exactly? The answer is: it can’t. However, in between rounds of golf, President Obama has apparently addressed one possible Russian countermove via the launch of more normalized relations with Cuba.
(A bit of humor (or not) here: With the vast increase in demand for doctors under Obamacare, and little or no increase in the number of doctors being trained, the U.S. may also need Cuba’s doctors!)
How are these developments reminiscent of that earlier historical crisis? Recall that in October 1962, the then-USSR was forced to resort to the low-cost gambit of stationing nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba to pose an equivalent threat to U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey vs. a costly ICBM expansion that would (as planned) bankrupt the USSR. In this way, JFK was induced to withdraw the offensive missiles threatening the USSR and refrain from further Bay of Pigs adventures.[iv]
About the author…
Tom Mysiewicz Graduated Magna cum laude from St. John’s Univ. (1976) on full science scholarship. Founded and edited the award-winning bioscience weekly newsletter BioEngineering News (ISSN 0275-4207–1980-1993). Also created and edited the Bio1000 World Directory of Biotechnology Companies (ISBN 0-936451-08-4). Created and edited DJM Enzyme Report, a monthly newsletter on enzyme science and technology, and World BioLicensing & Patent Report, a monthly covering patents and licenses in the bioscience field. After an 8-year hiatus, the events of 9-11 motivated him to cover the increasingly dangerous trend toward aggressive war and neoconservative dictatorship in the U.S. He predicted (in print) the exact start of the Iraq war months in advance and has made numerous correct predictions on unfolding events in the Mid East.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Oceania Saker.
Can Ukraine build a nuclear weapon using spent fuel rods and Soviet-era atomic and missile knowhow to become a nuclear power once again? This technologically competent Russian evaluation is must reading if you question the premise of the preceding article. (Because it was written prior to new fuel deals, it does not, however, adequately examine the possibility that large numbers of foreign MOX fuel rods might enter Ukraine, to say nothing of foreign spent fuel rods.): Russia in Global Affairs, Will Kiev Be Able to Create a Nuclear Bomb? 7 June 2014, by Oleg Barabanov
Fast neutron and fast breeder research in Ukraine is quite advanced and has been ongoing for some time before the current crisis, good internet sources are:
For one perspective on how the Ukrainian system deals with nuclear energy, nuclear accidents and foreign companies, see the following 31 December 2014 article by George Eliason on WashingtonsBlog: Has the Largest Nuclear Plant in Europe – Located in Ukraine – Suffered a Major Accident?
[i] Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement in response to Ukraine’s new contract with Westinghouse, saying that it was “alarmed” by news of the contract. Westinghouse “has for many years been attempting to gain a foothold in the market of nuclear fuel for nuclear reactors of Soviet-designed VVER-1000,” the ministry said.
“Of particular concern is the fact that all this is happening against the backdrop of an unstable situation in Ukraine, in an environment where political engagement takes precedence over the requirements of nuclear safety, and the country’s ability to respond to emergencies is severely limited,” according to the ministry’s statement. “It seems that the authorities in Kiev have not learned the lessons of the Chernobyl tragedy about a responsible and science-based approach to the use of nuclear energy.”
Nuclear safety “is being used for political ambition,” it said. “The consequences of possible accidents and incidents and the responsibility for them lie entirely with the leadership of Ukraine and the US fuel supplier.”
Westinghouse and Energoatom have agreed “to significantly increase” nuclear fuel deliveries to Ukrainian nuclear power plants until 2020, World Nuclear News, 31 December 2014
[ii] Reports predictably denied by Ukraine:
GSCHS Ukraine confirmed radiation leaks at the Zaporozhye NPP, Life News, 30 December 2014
[iii] CNN: Urgent – Emergency repairs reported at largest nuclear power plant in Europe, ENE NEWS, 3 December 2014
[iv] A leaking fuel rod can sometimes be repaired but it is more usual that a replacement assembly is needed (this having a matching level of remaining enrichment). Replacement fuel is one cost component associated with failed fuel. There is also the cost penalty and/or replacement power from having to operate at reduced power or having an unscheduled shutdown. There may also be higher operation and maintenance costs associated with mitigating increased radiation levels in the plant.
World Nuclear Organization, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Conversion-Enrichment-and-Fabrication/Fuel-Fabrication/
[v] “…as fuel remains in the reactor for a longer period (though there is a limit to how far burn-ups can be pushed without tackling the 5% enrichment limit in place for criticality safety margins at fuel fabrication plants).
Op cit. World Nuclear Organization
[vi] ITAR-TASS, 17 September 2014 http://itar-tass.com/en/world/749875
[vii] There is an incestuous web in the supply sector going up against Russia. When Westinghouse Electric was bought by Toshiba, Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom became a 10% shareholder. Global Nuclear Fuels (GNF) was formed as a joint venture between General Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi: GNF-A (US) and GNF-J (Japan) with different ownership structures. Westinghouse has purchased 52% of Nuclear Fuel Industries (NFI) in Japan, with the remainder being held by Sumitomo (24%) and Furukawa (24%). Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and AREVA bought into Mitsubishi Nuclear Fuel and created a U.S. joint venture. Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom and AREVA subsequently agreed to build a fabrication plant in Kazakhstan. World Nuclear Organization
[viii] Ukraine Energy Wars Are Leading To A Fukushima-Chernobyl Debacle In Europe, Yoichi Shimatsu, Rense.Com, 5 January 2015
[ix] Ibid. This new Ukrainian demand, Westinghouse apparently hopes, will lead to a restart of the frozen U.S. MOX Plant in Savannah River starting in 2018.
[x] Op cit. …Shuimatsu further states: “Since the planning stage, nonproliferation experts have come to recognize the threat of plutonium being hijacked from DOE facilities, as happened in the 2008 covert operation by Israeli agents at the PANTEX warhead-dismantling plant in Amarillo, Texas. (This investigative journalist penned an in-depth article on the PANTEX heist and the murder of CIA contract inspector Roland Carnaby.)”
[xi] Ukraine wants to turn away from Russian nuke fuel and build new plants, but Westinghouse plans stumble, Charles Digges, Bellona.no, 15 September 2014
[xii] ITAR-TASS, Op cit.
[xiii] The new storage facility will become a part of the common spent nuclear fuel management complex of the state-owned company Chernobyl NPP. In April 2014 the government approved the 45 hectare site for the facility…Stage 1 for 3600 fuel assemblies is due to open in 2015, though Holtec quotes three years for construction from mid-2014, when the project was reactivated with a new contract…The facility will use Holtec’s HI-STORM 190 ventilated casks for storage, and HI-STAR 190 transport casks will be used for transport to the site. Some of these have high-burnup fuel and are hot, with up to 38 kW heat load. Construction of the CSFSF commenced in August 2014, with Holtec acting as the general contractor of the project, while two Ukrainian companies, YUTEM Engineering Ltd and Ukrtransbud Inc, build it. World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in Ukraine, 19 December 2014
[xiv] After completion of the construction of the storage facility “start-up complex” scheduled for the end of 2017, and after its commissioning…Ukrainian Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility (CSFSF) will accommodate no foreign waste but spent fuel from three Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plants, namely, Khmelnitsky, Rivne and South Ukraine NPPs (Zaporizhzya NPP operates its own on-site spent fuel storage facility which was commissioned in 2001.) According to the Feasibility Study developed by the Kyiv Research and Design Institute “Energoproject” (KIEP), the Central Storage Facility’s design storage capacity will be 16,530 spent fuel assemblies, including 12, 010 VVER-1000 fuel assemblies and 4,520 VVER-440 fuel assemblies that fully meet the requirements of these nuclear power plants until the end of these power units’ service life. Ukraine Starts Construction of a Central Storage Facility, NNEGC Energoatom Press Release, 3, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01032, 26 August 2014
[xv] Fast neutron reactors (FNR) are unmoderated and use fast neutrons to cause fission. Hence they mostly use plutonium as their basic fuel, or sometimes high-enriched uranium to start them off (they need about 20-30% fissile nuclei in the fuel). The plutonium is bred from U-238 during operation. If the FNR is configured to have a conversion ratio above 1 (i.e., more fissile nuclei are created than fissioned) as originally designed, it is called a Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR). FNRs use liquid metal coolants such as sodium and operate at higher temperatures. World Nuclear Organization,
[xvi] On Oct. 26th,, a letter from Krushchev to Kennedy confirms the offer made through Scali: the missiles will be removed if the U.S. issues a pledge not to invade Cuba…On Oct. 27th, another letter (harsher, more demanding) from Krushchev emerges, adding the removal of missiles from Turkey as a condition.
History of Cuba.com
(JFK thereby also cleverly sandbagged the U.S. militarists who wanted to divert money Kennedy envisioned for U.S. social programs into warfare—and who’d apparently test fired nuclear-capable missiles without Kennedy’s knowledge. For this reason, Kennedy also reportedly planned to stop the Vietnam War, block additional nuclear proliferation at Dimona by Israel, and bypass the AngloZionist Federal Reserve System in order to issue interest-free U.S. Notes (issued but promptly recalled post mortem by LBJ.) Sadly, Kennedy’s “vigor” was no match for multiple shooters.)