Ukraine’s pitch to export power to Europe hits nuclear safety snag

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Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko has a problem.

His government has tasked him with convincing the EU that the country’s nuclear fleet is safe enough to export massive amounts of zero-emissions electricity to the bloc in a bid to help fill Kyiv’s depleted coffers and bring down eye-watering European power prices.

But the Russian occupation of several Ukrainian nuclear sites since the invasion — coupled with the minister’s very public spats over safety with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — have raised European fears about the safety of Ukraine’s power system.

That’s creating an atomic headache.

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At a meeting of EU energy ministers last week, Galushchenko pitched what he called a “win-win” deal for Europe: fast-track approvals to ramp up power trading with Ukraine and save 6 billion cubic meters of gas that won’t have to be burned for electricity. Kyiv then earns enough money to pay back debts while the EU makes a dent in its plan to save enough gas for a Russia-free winter.

In an interview with POLITICO, Galushchenko claimed Ukraine could immediately increase its power exports to the West from 100 megawatts (MW) to 1,690 MW.

The problem? “The technicians,” he grumbled.

Ukraine’s repeated proclamations of a potential nuclear accident if Russia continues to control the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station, Ukraine’s largest power plant, have clearly spooked Europe. Those warnings, aimed at raising the EU’s sense of urgency in the early days of the war, now risk undermining trust in its nuclear safety.

Ukraine wasn’t supposed to be linked up with the European grid at all until 2023. But after the Russian invasion, Kyiv unplugged from the Soviet-era power grid linking it to the Russian and Belarusian electricity systems and ENTSO-E, the EU’s network of power grid operators, authorized an emergency connection to the west.

Galushchenko is gunning for more acceleration in the form of weekly ramp-ups of power exports, but European operators are sticking to their protocols.

ENTSO-E has said it prefers slowly raising volumes by an incremental 100 MW each month to ensure safe operation.

“The procedures! According to the procedure!” Galushchenko complained. “If we had followed the procedures during the war, probably the Russians would be in Kyiv.”

ENTSO-E did not respond to a request for comment on the talks, but on Friday approved an increase of power trade with Ukraine to 250 MW. “The possibility of further increasing trade capacity will be assessed in September based on power system stability and security considerations,” it said in a statement.

IAEA tensions

Russia has occupied Zaporizhzhia since March. While day-to-day operations remain in the hands of Ukrainian workers, staff from Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear operator, are also present.

In the interview, Galushchenko insisted that current operation of the nuclear station is safe enough to allow for more power trade with Europe — but also rejected a potential visit from the IAEA to inspect the site and declare it safe while it is still under Russian control

The ideal situation, the minister added, would be for Ukraine to regain full control of the plant so it can increase output and sell more electricity to the EU.

“I hope the Russians will be out, because then … the Zaphorizhzhia NPP this year in winter, operating with all six units, [can] produce 6,190 megawatts, which is incredible,” the minister said.

Currently the site has just three reactors operating, and the tense situation has already led to warnings of compromised safety.

The IAEA declined to comment for this article, but in its latest update about the situation in Ukraine said: “Recent reports about [Zaporizhzhia] indicate an increasingly alarming situation there … suggesting that the already difficult and stressful conditions facing Ukrainian staff at the plant have deteriorated further.”

A spokesperson for Rosatom said in an emailed statement that its employees offer “technical, consulting, communications and other assistance to the operator if required” and “do not interfere in the executive decision making of the plant’s management, nor do they in any way take part in security, perimeter access control or other control-related activities.”

Galushchenko accused IAEA Director Rafael Mariano Grossi of downplaying the risks of Russia’s presence at the power station.

The IAEA maintains it is “an independent and impartial organization” — but an early March agency press release referring to the invasion as “the Russian Federation’s military operation” still rankles Galushchenko.

“I have this feeling that the position of IAEA is, ‘We are a technical organization so we cannot comment on some political issues, we’re just technicians, don’t ask us to make political declarations,'” the minister said. “But you cannot just say occupation by military or the shelling by tanks of a nuclear station is just a technical issue, that’s an issue of nuclear safety … You cannot just say it’s OK.”

In late April, Galushchenko and Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss organizing an IAEA safety mission to the captured Zaporizhzhia plant — but Kyiv was put off because Grossi met with the Rosatom CEO in Russia first, and had already sought and obtained permission from Moscow to cross into the Russian occupation zone to the nuclear site before discussing the matter with Ukraine.

Galushchenko maintains that an IAEA visit under the current circumstances risks entrenching Russia’s control over Zaporizhzhia.

“We know that the Russians pushed them to come. They want them to come and then the IAEA would say: ‘Oh, everything is OK, the nuclear material is OK, radiation is OK, Russians are perfect guys,'” Galushchenko said. “We will never accept this because … that’s a legitimization of the Russian occupation of the station.”

Grossi has expressed his concerns about the war and its consequences on the operations of nuclear reactors in Ukraine several times — most recently at a Monday U.N. meeting, where he strongly condemned attacks against nuclear power stations.

Despite opposition from Kyiv, Grossi continues to push for a site visit.

“If an accident occurs at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, we will not have a natural disaster to blame. We will have only ourselves to answer to,” Grossi said at the Monday meeting.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct that the Zaporizhzhia is operating three reactors.

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