A Valve for a Peaceful Atom: How the Ukrainian Oligarch Akhmetov Saves Europe

On April 30th the third unit of the Rovno nuclear power plant was disconnected from the network. The total capacity of the operating units of “Energoatom” fell to 7,300 MW (out of 11,400 MW at the end of December/beginning of January). By May 1st, the emergency unit had been restarted. But on the same day the fourth power unit of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant was stopped “for scheduled repair”.

The total capacity of Ukrainian nuclear power generation after the early closure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the preservation of the fourth power unit of the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant, and the non-completion of two power units at the Khmelnitsky nuclear power plant is 13,880 MW (13 power units per thousand MW and two per 440 MW). Thus, today slightly more than half of the total capacity of nuclear generation is in operation. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that the electricity generated by a nuclear power plant is the cheapest (which is important for any country, but in the Ukrainian conditions of a total lack of money it is of particular importance).

Some of the non-operating power units are under repair, but the nuclear generation reserve is 3,000-4,000 MW. Taking into account the price of electricity generated by the nuclear power plant being 567 hryvnia per MW/h (“green” generation sells electricity for 4280 hryvnia (12,050 rubles) per MW/h, and thermal for 1300 hryvnia (3660 rubles) per MW/h), it is clear that electricity consumers are overpaying huge amounts.

Rinat Akhmetov controls two-thirds of the thermal generation and a quarter of the “green” one. Taking into account junior partners and indirect control, Akhmetov is deservedly considered a monopolist in the Ukrainian electricity market. Only “Energoatom” can compete with its extremely cheap electricity.

The logic of any business requires either absorbing this kind of competing company or destroying it. This is especially relevant for Ukrainian business. The sharp decline in industrial production, which continues to this day, reduces the demand for electricity, hence cheaper nuclear generation receives an increased share of the reduced market with the same amounts of electricity supply.

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Ever since Kuchma and Yushchenko, various Ukrainian oligarchic clans have tried to control nuclear power generation and redirect it to their pocket. However, it was not successful. The western “friends” of Ukraine followed “Energoatom” no less vigilantly than nuclear weapons at one time. If Ukraine was forced to part with the latter at the dawn of independence in order not to deal with a monkey armed not with a trivial grenade, but with weapons of mass destruction, Ukrainian nuclear energy tried to bring under its control the American company “Westinghouse“, which lost to “Rosatom” in the competition for the world market.

Thus, the West had a dual interest in controlling Ukrainian nuclear energy. Firstly, it tried to establish the full-scale pumping of money out of the system with the help of the “Energoatom” control mechanism, and secondly, at minimum Europe was afraid that Ukraine’s own control of nuclear energy would not be reliable enough and would lead to a new Chernobyl.

All the neighbors of Ukraine had reason to worry. For example, from all the reactors currently operating in Ukraine, the intended lifespan had not been reached by only three (the sixth power unit of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant can operate until 2026, and the fourth power unit of the Rovno nuclear plant and the second power unit of the Khmelnitsky nuclear power plant can operate until 2035). The service life of another nine power units in Ukraine were simply extended for the period up to 2023-37 without the consent of “Rosatom”, without the participation of representatives of the manufacturer. It was a political solution that had nothing to do with nuclear security, and it naturally did not please the Europeans.

While “Westinghouse” was interested in controlling “Energoatom”, Ukrainian nuclear workers could feel relatively calm – who would dare cross the path of American business? Not that Ukrainian oligarchs did not cheat American investors, but mostly it was about small speculators of Ukrainian origin (who emigrated to the United States). And in many cases, using their status as US citizens, this little thing created problems for the wealthiest people in Ukraine that lasted for decades. To oppose “Westinghouse” meant signing a death sentence.

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However, in 2017 “Westinghouse” went bankrupt, and its Eastern European projects (replacing TVELs with their own thermal assemblies) in fact failed even earlier – Soviet reactors refused to work with American assemblies, no matter how much “Westinghouse” tried, trying to fit their products to Soviet standards.

The problems of American nuclear energy concern us little, but with the bankruptcy of “Westinghouse” and its actual departure from Eastern Europe, “Energoatom” lost a reliable roof. Now the Ukrainian oligarchs could deal with it as they liked. However, the EU and the US have made it clear that they do not want local nabobs, who do not understand anything about nuclear power, to gain control over Ukrainian nuclear power plants. They spoke quite clearly about this as early as 2014, when under the noise of the “war against Russia”, Nazi fighters serving Ukrainian oligarchs tried to “take under their protection” nuclear power plants. Uninvited “guards” left as if they had been blown away by the wind and never showed up there again.

But, as was said above, if you can’t buy or capture a competitor, then it needs to be destroyed. Since Akhmetov cannot bring nuclear power generation under his control, he clearly seeks its destruction. Power units are not simply put out for repair one after the other and no longer return to active operation. Just recently (less than 2 weeks ago) the last remaining specialists in the industry on behalf of the Association of Veterans of Nuclear Energy and Industry of Ukraine addressed a letter to President Zelensky, Prime Minister Shmygal and Rada Speaker Razumkov. They wrote about the critical condition of the industry, and that “Energoatom” has not appointed permanent leaders who would have the appropriate permits of the nuclear regulatory body and would be legally responsible for the safety of the nuclear power plant. They scare the authorities with the danger of a new Chernobyl.

But not understanding the motivation for the actions of the authorities, thinking that they bring arguments in their favour, in reality they only worsen their position

Yes, the Ukrainian authorities know like nuclear specialists that at any moment they may have a new Chernobyl (and not only in the nuclear power industry). But Prime Minister Shmygal is Akhmetov’s man, the “Servants of the People” faction in the Rada, which made Razumkov the Speaker and formally supports Zelensky, is also financed by Akhmetov (although not completely, because there is no single de facto faction), Zelensky himself, having moved away from Kolomoisky and having taken the side of Soros and the IMF in disputes over the land law and “PrivatBank“, needs the support of Akhmetov. Akhmetov, as mentioned above, does not need nuclear power generation. It prevents him from earning money.

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The Ukrainian government is not going to prevent Akhmetov from destroying Ukraine’s nuclear generation. On the contrary, it will help him. When retired nuclear Generals threaten the government with a new Chernobyl, they suggest a move that allows them not to wait for several more years, but to destroy the nuclear generation with one blow. In Europe, nuclear power plants are closing (Germany closed all its own long ago). The Europeans justify their fight against nuclear energy by referring to its danger, which was allegedly manifested during the Chernobyl disaster. Ukraine has experience in the early decommissioning of four thousand-power units of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and closing the plant. There is also a letter from concerned nuclear scientists. The understanding of Europeans, we can say, is in their pockets. Why not stop the remaining reactors to please Akhmetov under the pretext of saving Ukraine and Europe from the threat of a nuclear catastrophe?

It is sure that not only will Europe not condemn, but Russia will breathe freely. After all, the question of what to do with nuclear reactors and other dangerous industries in the crumbling Ukraine does not give peace not only to the public, but also to Russian politicians. And here Ukraine itself can solve a significant part of this problem.

Thus, the interests of Akhmetov’s business, which run counter to the interests of the population of Ukraine, can coincide with the short-term political interests of Russia and the EU.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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