Unit 1 at the Khmelnitsky NPP in Ukraine has started deploying an integrated reactor diagnostic system at the VVER-1000 reactor during a scheduled preventive maintenance outage, nuclear utility Energoatom said on 23 August.

Unit 1 at the Khmelnitsky NPP in Ukraine has started deploying an integrated reactor diagnostic system at the VVER-1000 reactor during a scheduled preventive maintenance outage, nuclear utility Energoatom said on 23 August.

A similar system has been in operation at Khmelnitsky unit 2 since 2008. Installation of the diagnostic system is expected to take two years and is part of the modernisation being undertaken as part of its service life extension. Its design life expires in December 2017. The integrated reactor diagnostic system includes subsystems, such as a primary leak monitoring system, reactor coolant pump vibration monitoring system, loose item monitoring system, and an equipment lifetime performance monitoring system.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate (SNRI) carried out a comprehensive inspection at unit 2 of the Zaporozhe NPP on 15-19 August as part of its service life extension. The inspection was carried out “to check on completeness and credibility of information contained in the documents provided by NAEC Energoatom”, SNRI said. Earlier, the regulator completed its state review procedure of the Periodic Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) of Zaporozhe-2. SNRI said in the report that “the operating organization has justified the feasibility of long-term operation of the power unit until 19 February 2026”. Its design life ended in February and public consultation on the life extension is now underway.

However, there is growing concern about the condition of Ukraine’s NPPs. Former Chernobyl NPP director Mikhail Umanets told a recent press conference in Kiev that he is concerned by the growing number of emergency situations being reported at the plants. He warned that the possibility of an accident at one of Ukraine's four operating NPPs nuclear power plants is increasing.

The Ukrainian nuclear industry has faced several high-profile incidents recently. In July, a unit at Khmelnitsky NPP was disconnected from the grid following a steam generator leak. In late May, unit 2 at the South Ukraine NPP was forced to stop operations, after operators tripped the station's safety systems. In April, energy production at the Zaporozhye and Rovno plants stopped while faults were investigated. In the spring, all the reactors were at risk of being closed, after Energoatom's foreign currency accounts were frozen and there were no funds to pay for nuclear fuel.

Umanets noted out that 15 violations were recorded at the plants in 2015, based on the International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale (INES), which documents both minor incidents and major accidents. That is 1.5 times more than the number of recorded in 2014. In 2016, he added, the INES has already recorded seven violations, double the amount reported during the same period in 2015.

"We run the risk of a serious incident. Since 16 October 2014, Ukraine has not had a chief inspector for nuclear and radiation safety. The position was eliminated, and no self-respecting professional would agree to take it after the cabinet proposed a bill to Ukraine's parliament which stated that 'the inspector's decisions may be cancelled by the head of the state regulator or his designated representative'," he said.

Umanets calculated that within seven years, Ukraine will face a "collapse" in its nuclear energy sector, since it does not have the necessary funds to maintain or expand the plants' operations. If Energoatom fails to renew its permission for the operation of two units at the Zaporozhe plant, Ukraine will have problems with its electricity supply of as soon as 2017, he added.

"Of the 15 units operating today, which provide Ukraine with 55.7% of its total electricity, half are expected to be stopped. In four years, seven reactors will reach the end of their operating life. Their operation must be extended. According to our estimates, extending the life of one block costs $300m. This means we will need $2.1bn over the next four years." However, he does not think government funding will be forthcoming.

"If the power units' life span is not extended, by 2020 we will lose 50% of our electricity, and by 2030 Ukraine will have no nuclear power at all. It will simply cease to exist." He added: “We have seven and a half years to solve this problem. Today, in order to put one [new] energy unit into operation, it's necessary to find $3-5bn. Where are we going to get the money? Even if we extend the life of the units in operation, but do not begin planning to those coming off line, this will also result in the collapse of our electricity generation sector."

As for the planned use of Westinghouse fuel at Ukraine's NPPs, Umanets stressed that politics should not be allowed to come before safety. "Nuclear fuel is being placed in Russian reactors without the consent of the chief designer…We have no right to play around when it comes to safety – no way, no matter what political aspects exist. One 'Chernobyl' was enough for us."

Between January and June Energoatom bought fuel assemblies worth U$204.1m for Ukraine’s NPPs, Ukrainian mass media reported citing the State Statistical Service. The share of products supplied by Russia’s TVEL was $136.9m, while Westinghouse Electric Sweden AB (the Swedish arm of the US company Westinghouse Electric) products cost $67.6m. Early August reports said the Energoatom planned 17 deliveries of nuclear fuel this year, including 12 deliveries from TVEL and five from Westinghouse. In 2015, Ukraine bought nuclear fuel totalling $643.57m, including $610.9m from Russian and $39.3m from Westinghouse.

Commenting on Umanets's remarks, Alexander Uvarov, the head of Russian NGO Atominfo-Centre, told Svobodnaya Pressa that it was logical for Ukrainian nuclear scientists' to sound the alarm. "Ukraine's nuclear power units are mostly Soviet-made. Their 30-year life span is coming to an end. To extend their operation and put them in order, funds are required. If there is no money, Kiev has only two options: either extend the life of the power units, ignoring the lack of necessary maintenance, at their own risk, or taking the units offline, resulting in power outages,” he said.

While violations are increasing, he said the situation is not yet catastrophic. “However, serious risks will arise if a political decision to extend the plants' operation is taken without the permission of supervisory organs. I don't think that Ukraine will be threatened with a new Chernobyl, but the probability of a serious accident will undoubtedly increase," he noted.

He also drew attention to “the unpredictability of Ukrainian energy regulators' new officials”. Before the change of government in February 2014, the SNRI was one of the most conservative regulators in the world, "looking at the issue of extending a power block's service life with maximum caution, and refusing to give permission if its experts had the slightest doubt about safe operation”, he commented. Subsequently, SNRI’s management was replaced, “and it's an open question whether the regulator will continue to abide by the principles of its predecessors”. However, Uvarov praised the NPP workers for their attention to safety. "Put bluntly, if an accident takes place, they will be the first to die. Therefore, plant personnel will always try to act very carefully, whatever political pressure they may face.”