To date Ukrainian nuclear energy is in an extremely difficult situation. A record decrease in the share of generation, financial issues, and constant personnel shifts – all this puts the nuclear industry, which generates half of all electricity in the country, on the brink of survival. Kosatka.media talked with the former vice president of repairs and factory production of NNEGC Energoatom (2004-2020) Volodymyr Pyshnyi about the reasons of such a situation, what is the real technical state of nuclear units, moods within the industry and hopes for the future.
- Volodymyr Maksymovych, the current crisis in the energy sector is compared with the situation in the 90s. Are things really like this?
- Such decrease in the production of nuclear power plants is the first time in the history of independent Ukrainian energy. For 15 years of work as the vice president of Energoatom, I have accumulated 15 notebooks, where I wrote down all the data every day: daily production and consumption, both ours and thermal stations. A steady decrease in consumption was seen due to the shutdown of enterprises over the last 3-4 years, but such a decrease in the production of nuclear power plants was the first time.
- What factors led to this?
- I worked at Zaporizhzhia NPP as deputy chief engineer when Ukraine became independent. And I remember well that from that moment on, our nuclear power industry turned into a cash cow.
We have lost our seriousness in the industry.
But before, we were at least treated with respect, understood that nuclear generation is the locomotive of economic development in the country. And Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko, and Yulia Tymoshenko – everyone was very particular. The level of their thinking and horizons was much higher than that of the current leaders, and they understood both the seriousness of the situation with the Chernobyl station and the importance of the generation itself.
- When did everything change?
- In 2014, we felt that no one needed us anymore. We always approached systemically, worked according to the regulations, according to the instructions. We have been developing state programs for the development of nuclear energy all 30 years of independence, the construction of new blocks until 2035, and much more. But in 2014, we felt that nobody was interested. The main thing in the energy sector was business.
There was hope for a new president, we believed that the wrong attitude towards us would change. Unfortunately... From July 1, 2019, we started working in a new market and got a crisis. After all, everyone warned that this is not entirely correct, let's postpone the start of work. The market must be a market. And they made us sell 90% to the population for 56 kopecks! And we do not sell ourselves, but transfer it for sale. And state-owned enterprises, including us, were in the worst conditions.
- In what condition are the blocks of Ukrainian nuclear power plants now? Are they really out of date?
- I remember every one of our reactor plants. Most of the blocks of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, 13 out of 15 are the so-called “thousanders”, units of the VVER-1000 type. Their design life is 30 years. Two more units of Rivne NPP are VVER-440, they have a design period of 20 years. But this does not mean that after this period they must be immediately closed.
The basic condition for safe operation of a nuclear power plant is the integrity of the reactor vessel. In fact, the service life is determined by the period of safe operation of the entire power unit.
In 2019, we, together with our scientific and technical center, assessed the terms of safe operation of reactor vessels for all nuclear power plants of Ukraine and gave forecasts for each of the units. The forecast was made in two versions: realistic, taking into account current standards, and more stringent – conservative, including all possible additional risks. So, according to the conservative scenario, 5 of our units can work safely for 55 years, and another 10 up to 60 years. And if do not drive the nuclear industry into a corner, and give it the opportunity to work according to the standards that are laid down in the design and construction of plants, then these terms will increase to 60 and 60+ years.
In other words, the state can have a reliable, environmentally friendly source of cheap electricity for several more decades!
You see, when the plants were built, no one in the world had the practical experience of many years of operation of nuclear power plants. Experts made calculations for the next 30 years, realizing that during this time new technologies and new requirements will appear. But everything was done in good conscience, a seven-fold safety margin was laid on some elements of the nuclear installation. Nuclear power has always been closely associated with the military, so everything was top notch in safety matters.
We began to extend the resource blocks for the first time in 2012. It is necessary to evaluate the technical condition, perform safety calculations for each unit, and update equipment that has exhausted the life specified in the project or technical requirements in order to extend the life of the operation and obtain a license from the Regulator for the right to further operate power units.
The research results showed that the critical elements: the reactor vessel, the primary circuit equipment have a 30% margin of safety and do not need to be changed. Only non-essential equipment was updated –more modern complexes of automatic control systems were installed. My friend and colleague Vyacheslav Tyshchenko, who was the general director of Zaporizhzhia NPP, said: “You know, the block is better now than the new one.”
Replacing obsolete equipment is a small cost. $4.5 billion are needed to build a new power unit, and world prices are about the same. UAH 4 billion are needed to extend the life of the operation. Therefore, each power unit must work out the maximum of its capabilities.
- If everything is okay, why are the units being taken out for repair? Two are being repaired at once at Zaporizhzhia NPP and one at South-Ukrainian NPP right now.
- The power industry, including the Ukrainian one, has an autumn-winter maximum, from October to March, when the units are ready to the load. Therefore, the entire world energy industry traditionally makes scheduled repairs in the summer, when consumption is lower. Even 3 units were under repair in the summer at Zaporizhzhia NPP. There is nothing wrong with that. But in the winter each power unit was operational.
Many write that "repairs have not been carried out for years and life has forced to put the units for repair." This is a real lie!
We have clear standards in the power unit project – the sequence of repairs. Every year we carry out an average scheduled repair. These are repairs of basic equipment, partial refueling, from 42 to 46, out of 163, we unload nuclear assembly cassettes, load new ones so that the unit works at full capacity. Every four years – major repairs. This is a complete unloading of the core, an examination of all equipment. The average repair rate is 55 days, the overhaul is 80 days.
- And what does it mean for the generation – the simultaneous switch to standby mode of several blocks to the reserve?
- Power units were switched to standby mode, but not more than one block. When there were snowy winters, the water level in the Dnieper cascade was high, as a rule, one unit at Zaporizhzhia NPP was switched to standby mode, as a rule, from late March to early May. But now there is completely different situation. These are artificially created restrictions.
- At the end of May, the capacity of coal TPPs in Ukraine exceeded the operating capacity of nuclear power plants for the first time...
- Complete chaos has been going on in this matter for the past 4 years. Things should not be like this, both from an economic and environmental point of view. This is not the time for such distortions.
Nuclear engineers and thermal engineers always respected each other. Moreover, there are two stations in Energodar – Zaporizhzhia NPP and Zaporizhzhia TPP, we are kind of like relatives. But thermal stations are worn out from 80 to 90%, no one thinks about technical safety. In 2016, when I worked in Energodar, when you go from the station at night, there is black smoke over the TPP, and in the morning it is already brown. This means that filters were turned off at night to reduce costs. But the radioactive emissions of a thermal plant are greater than nuclear.
- According to the news, the nuclear crisis was also overtaken by the personnel crisis. The industry has not had a permanent leader for more than half a year, and new appointments in the leadership of Energoatom raise questions.
- People who have nothing to do with nuclear energy have entered the industry.
And if it happens that the president will be appointed in violation of the law on nuclear energy and radiation safety, which spells out qualification requirements for personnel, then this is another spit in the face.
- Who could take this position?
- In the current situation, delving into matters for a long time is like death. Therefore, I consider it reasonable that Yurii Nedashkovsky returns. He led the nuclear industry in different years, and his experience would be very useful now, including in defending the interests of nuclear generation.
You see, we did not think that we would have to defend the right to live, we did not train real fighters and leaders. We must protect ourselves, but we do not know how.
- Perhaps the crisis will help to learn?
- Sooner or later this will happen, I hope. Probably, it was necessary to deal with this issue earlier. But under the law, there are many restrictions for nuclear workers. For example, strikes are forbidden – the staff of a nuclear power plant cannot refuse to do their job. But now the situation has reached the point where it is clearly necessary not only to raise collectives, but also to change the psychology of each employee.
Just recently, the chairman of the trade union committee spoke and said that collectives should be rejuvenated so that pensioners give way to young people. That's good, but where do these young come from? The prestige of the profession has fallen dramatically – salaries are not high compared to business, it’s hard to find jobs not at nuclear power plants in satellite cities, and housing has not been built for nuclear engineers for a long time.
It is necessary to travel, meet with collectives, speak with people in person. And our "actings", neither one nor the second, nor before the coronavirus, nor now, do anything.
This is a completely different generation, from the 90s. They are brought up differently. People are not hardened in harsh conditions.
When we built our stations, seven days a week, unit by unit, experience, responsibility and pride for our profession appeared – you saw the results of your work.
In 1997, we launched the last 6th unit at Zaporizhzhia NPP, in 2004 the 2nd at Khmelnitsky NPP and the 4th at Rivne NPP — and this was the last where people could prove themselves. The following decades was only routine work and quiet operation. And collectives are united by difficulties when everyone works for one lofty goal. Now there is no such unifying moment.
I hoped that the impetus for the development of teams will be projects to extend the life of the unit. New tasks for engineers, new thoughts, knowledge. And when I arrived to Zaporizhzhia NPP in 2016, I told people I wanted to make sure that they wanted to go to work. This is the most important thing. And people were excited. They did not order an engineering service, but did the work themselves. But this is not enough. Nuclear workers are artificially driven into a corner. Politicians, for the sake of serving their interests, create the myth that nuclear energy is out of date, that it has no future. And we are too educated, accustomed to a completely different environment.
Today, many specialists are leaving, there are those who are already over 50.
And people leave, leave, where they are needed. In Turkey, the station is under construction in full swing, in the United Arab Emirates. About 400 people retire every year. And the inflow is an order of magnitude lower. I continue to teach now at the Odessa Polytechnic University, where 7 people entered the specialty “Nuclear Power Engineering” in 2018, 5 remained for the second year. In 2019, there were 13. There are a little more students in the Kyiv Polytechnic. But, basically, no one goes to work at nuclear power plants, everyone is trying to stay in the capital. And this is nothing but a disaster. In the mid-70s, 100 people were recruited to our faculty! And people did not come by chance – it was a new industry, high technology, the profession of the future.
- What awaits our nuclear generation in the future under these conditions? What are your feelings?
- Any problems are solved. There must be a desire. Nothing will change on its own. In 2019, we developed the Energy Doctrine 2020-2026 of NNEGC Energoatom. This is a detailed plan of 12 steps to turn Energoatom into a highly profitable enterprise.
Corporatization according to the British principle is too risky for us, the country's energy security depends on the stable operation of nuclear power plants. It is necessary to gradually separate operational and investment activities, and transfer development issues to a venture fund, where investors can already be attracted. Thus, the state will retain control over the reliability of the industry, Energoatom will receive opportunities for development, and nuclear energy in Ukraine will have a future.