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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 April 2006, 23:21 GMT 00:21 UK
Ukraine's strange love for nuclear power
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News website

For a country that has suffered so greatly from atomic power Ukraine is marching with surprising enthusiasm down the nuclear road.

Rivne nuclear power station
The Rivne power station, where a 1,000 MW reactor opened in 2004
It completed two new reactors in 2004 and has hatched plans for 11 more by 2030 - this at a time when nuclear power has been frozen in most of Europe, precisely because of the shadow cast by Chernobyl.

"God gave us uranium and today we should use it," Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov said last month.

To begin with, Ukraine also turned against nuclear energy, imposing a moratorium on reactor construction four years after the disaster.

Nuclear power had become by this time a rallying cry for nationalists battling for more independence from Moscow.

"Long may the Communist Party live... in the Chernobyl nuclear power station!" was one popular slogan.

Energy dependence

But energy shortages in the years after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 made nuclear power seem more attractive.

Nikolai Fridman, Rivne power station director
We have the raw materials, we have the technology - nuclear energy is a panacea
Nikolai Fridman
Power station director
A decision, taken in 1991, to close Chernobyl in 1993, was reversed as the deadline loomed - and the plant was only closed in 2000 due to heavy Western pressure.

Today, the main driving force behind the push for nuclear power is the desire to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas.

"We have the raw materials, we have the technology - nuclear energy is a panacea," says Nikolai Fridman, a former deputy energy minister, now director of the Rivne nuclear power station.

"Energy independence is very important," he adds.

However, the country's new energy strategy, published last month, reverses earlier plans for a complete nuclear cycle, and looks to other countries to enrich its uranium.

Nuclear lessons

At the same time, plenty of Ukrainians draw the lesson from Chernobyl that nuclear power is too risky to trust.

Students Vladislav Krivoborodo and Denis Kozlov
Students of nuclear engineering and supporters of renewable energy
Street sweeper Mykola Tkachenko says the vast cost of dealing with Chernobyl's health and environmental consequences for two decades makes a powerful argument for thermal energy, small local power stations and - dear to his heart - the use of waste as fuel.

Even two students of nuclear engineering at Kiev's Polytechnic Institute, Vladislav Krivoborodo and Denis Kozlov, admit to misgivings on safety grounds.

Both strongly support renewable energy sources, such as biomass and solar power.

But Ukraine's nuclear industry sees the lesson of Chernobyl very differently.

Chernobyl challenge

Some of its leading lights even reject the idea, almost universally accepted in the West, that the plant's RBMK reactors were inherently dangerous.

"You should compare it to the first generation of a car," says Chernobyl director Ihor Hramotkin.

Ihor Hramotkin, Chernobyl director
Ihor Hramotkin: Decommissioning Chernobyl solves a global problem
"It is not dangerous for people who are used to it, even if there has been progress which makes later models safer."

Nikolai Fridman, too, says that everything depends on how the RBMK reactor is operated, pointing that more than 10 of them are running successfully in Russia today.

"They work. They have a right to life," he says.

For both men Chernobyl represents a challenge, a legacy to overcome.

When nuclear engineers from different countries get together, Mr Fridman says, they always repeat that nothing like it should happen again "not to let each other down".

Mr Hramotkin also says his staff are aware that the successful decommissioning of Chernobyl would improve the industry's image worldwide.

"They are not only carrying out concrete tasks, they are solving a problem for the country and the whole world," he says.

Western option

Despite a shaky start to the decommissioning process - with problems and delays in the construction of much of the necessary infrastructure - the Ukrainian government at least has full confidence in the sector.

graph showing ukraine's power generation plans to 2030
As well as building 11 new reactors, the energy strategy envisages extending the life of 13 existing pressurised water reactors.

This will ensure that nuclear power continues to represent about 50% of electricity generated in Ukraine, despite an expected doubling of overall output in the next 20 to 25 years.

It also envisages increased production of uranium and zirconium, and the creation of a factory to build fuel rods, which will be filled with fuel enriched elsewhere.

Despite the longing for energy independence Ukraine will remain dependent on Russia for the time being.

But it's possible that the next generation of Ukrainian reactors will use technology from the West.

Expect a fierce national debate.

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