Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ukraine, Russia, and Nuclear Power:

Complicated Connections

I don't usually comment in this blog on current events, particularly those involving interactions between countries on other continents.  However, I can't help but notice how much energy in general, and nuclear power in particular, is intertwined with recent Russian actions in Ukraine.

Clearly, natural gas is a major issue in the conflict.  Crimea, which Russia has taken over, has most of Ukraine's natural gas and oil reserves.  But of even more importance, some of Russia's pipelines to Europe run through Ukraine.  The combination clearly puts Russia in a very controlling position.  The European nations, quite understandably, are reluctant to try to oppose Russia, which could easily use its gas supplies to hold them hostage.

This should be a vivid lesson to the rest of the world, whenever nations are tempted to narrow their energy sources to the options that are seemingly the cheapest or easiest.

What is most interesting to me is the role that nuclear power plays in this conflict.  Jim Conca, who blogs at Forbes, has produced a very thorough discussion of the role that nuclear power--or the lack thereof--is playing in this conflict.  In particular, he highlights the impacts of Germany's shutdown of a number of their plants, and the planned shutdown of more.  He notes that the shutdowns of Germany's nuclear fleet have increased their dependence on Russian gas, and therefore, limit their options.

Could this crisis become severe enough to cause Germany to back off, even temporarily, on their plans?  I don't know.  I would hope that ideology would give way to reason when they are confronted with what could become a serious threat to the continent.

Could this crisis spur new nuclear development elsewhere in Europe?  Possibly, but new nuclear power plants are a long-term proposition.  They may be part of a good plan to prevent Russia from ever having the power to repeat such an exercise, but they will have no impact for many years.

The sad truth is that there is no quick solution to replacing Europe's energy supplies.  People look to the new gas discoveries here in the United States, but developing those fields will take time as well.  This could, however, be part of a longer-term solution.

In the meantime, we in the US should continue to seek diversity in our energy supply.

Jim's article points out that Russia also wields a big stick in the nuclear area.  They are aggressively marketing their reactor technology, which will make some countries dependent upon them for reactor services.  For countries already dependent on Russia for gas, this is double jeopardy.  With other countries marketing nuclear technology aggressively as well, Russia does have competition in this arena, with or without the US.  Nevertheless, it is clear that even purely peaceful nuclear technology could become an element in international diplomacy, if it hasn't already attained that status.

The situation in the Ukraine is also likely to affect a lot of unrelated activities.  Among them could be the ongoing effort to build a new, more permanent cover for the Chernobyl reactor.  It is not clear yet whether and how this will be affected, but military activity could well distract current efforts. 

Finally, some have expressed concerns about possible military activities around Ukraine's nuclear power plants.  I hope for many reasons that this conflict can be defused before it reaches such serious proportions, but would find it very difficult to believe that Russia would turn a nuclear power plant into a weapon so close to their own border.  After all, they have the experience of Chernobyl.
However, we all are aware of the potential for unintended events in wartime situations.  Among the problems that Ukraine--and its friends--will have to face should the situation escalate will be arranging for defensive measures around their nuclear plants.  In today's climate, where we have considered terrorist threats to nuclear power plants, this is probably not as much of a change as it might have been prior to 9/11.  Nevertheless, even without a direct attack on a nuclear power plant, a prolonged loss of outside power could be a threat, so such possibilities will have to be considered.

So, for many reasons, I hope that this current situation can be resolved and defused.



  1. An anti-nuclear website I saw featured a video about an abandoned nuclear reactor building site in the Crimea, cancelled because of local opposition. Since most of the region's power comes from the Ukraine mainland, they might be regretting that stance.
    Some of Ukraine's reactors ( which produce about half the country's electricity ) have been trialling Westinghouse-made fuel rods, to avoid too much dependence on Russia. Apparently the American rods find it hard to coexist with the Russian ones - according to one Russian source, the US-made fuel could ' cause a disaster worse than Chernobyl '. Well, it might be a disaster for their fuel export business.
    John ONeill

    1. This is a very good additional point. I did not comment on it in the blog because I don't know all the details. My understanding is that there have been some problems with the first batch of fuel Westinghouse supplied. As you say, the Russians are using this to make dire predictions. However, it sounds to me like these were technical problems that can be solved--but you are right that this would not be in Russia's interest.