A conference this month in the U.S. furthered vital plans for America to help Ukraine prepare the next generation of nuclear scientists ready to operate the country’s aging nuclear reactors and replace them with new ones.
George Washington University and Virginia Tech hosted a two-day workshop that brought together top academics and researchers in the nuclear field from both countries as well as American government and business representatives.
George Washington professor Andrei Afanasev the workshop organizer, said the two academic institutes are involved in a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a nuclear education hub for training Ukrainians.
The deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Energy for global energy security, William Joyce, said that Ukraine has great ambitions in the nuclear field and the U.S. is eager to help achieve those. He highlighted that in 1994 Ukraine had voluntarily given up its huge nuclear arsenal and transferred stocks of enriched uranium – the material needed for atomic bombs.
Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., addressed the event and emphasized the importance of the development of Ukrainian-American relations in the nuclear field, in particular, to exchange knowledge and technology for the safe and efficient use of nuclear energy. He pointed out that Ukraine has great potential and powerful specialists in the nuclear field, ready to use their skills to implement in cooperation with American partners the joint projects in this field.
The conference, held on Aug. 8-9, was closed to the press but the Kyiv Post spoke to some of the participants after the event.
One of the six-member Ukrainian delegation, professor Yevhen Pysmennyy of the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute said that Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors provide 55 percent of the country’s electricity and thus enormously important for its economy. He said that some of Ukraine’s reactors are more than 40 years old and would have been due for retirement in 2030.
Pysmennyy said one of the main reasons determining how long a reactor can be safely operated is that exposure to radiation weakens the metal it is constructed of. Ukraine will not be in a position to replace reactors by 2030 but techniques to extend the lifetimes of existing reactors have been developed which repair and “rejuvenate” metal structures.
The scientists told the Kyiv Post that another factor of urgency is that when the Russians invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, one of Ukraine’s foremost nuclear research and training facilities located in Sevastopol went with it. Although the majority of the students chose to go to Ukrainian-controlled territory, most of the staff defected to the Russians.
Ukraine still has training centers, principally in Kharkiv, but wants to train new scientists and engineers to American standards so they can collaborate with U.S. companies to develop the future of Ukraine’s nuclear power sector.
A topic discussed at the workshop was the need for Ukrainian personnel trained in various aspects of security related to the nuclear sector. That encompasses such things as the safe operation of reactors and ensuring that nuclear materials do not end up in the wrong hands.
After Ukraine became independent, its nuclear industry was still very much dependent on Russia including for the nuclear fuel without which its reactors could not function. Anxious about having to rely on a hostile Russia, Kyiv introduced laws making it mandatory for the country’s nuclear sector to diversify the source of the fuel and other vital components it required. For example, no one country is supposed to supply more than 50 percent of the fuel.
American company Westinghouse is already playing a big role in the provision of fuel and there is a discussion about it possibly building a plant to make fuel in Ukraine, which has large reserves of Uranium. Another U.S. firm, Holtec, has long shown interest in helping Ukraine eventually build new reactors. Both companies had representatives at the workshop. Westinghouse committed to funding a number of Ukrainian trainees at its plants in the U.S. with a view to eventually employing them for its work in Ukraine.
The leader of the Ukrainian delegation was Oleksandr Bakai from the National Science Center at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.
He said that Russia’s 2014 aggression led to “Ukraine’s final separation from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States so that Ukraine is now developing an independent economy of its own, in particular, its power generation system, where the nuclear sector is critical.”
Bakai said that both the U.S. and Ukraine, for different reasons, have fallen behind in their schedules to introduce reactors based on the latest developments in technologies.
He said: “Ukraine possesses considerable raw material deposits as well as technological and intellectual resources that are currently sitting idle………..now is the right time to incorporate Ukraine into a more tight, long term cooperation with U.S. nuclear power institutions.”
Ukraine does not have radioactive waste storage centers or reprocessing plants for used nuclear fuel and that means, said Bakai, great business opportunities for U.S. companies. He said that the workshop had been a “promising start” but warned that time was of the essence and substantive collaboration with the U.S. had to begin as soon as possible on the training of Ukrainian nuclear personnel and planning the new generation of reactors.
“Nuclear power is the most conservative energy sector. Traditionally, modifications of nuclear technology or design, tests and licensing of new structural designs and fuel cycles take some 10 years,” he said.
Afanasev said: “I judge the event to be a success. What we propose to the DoE to have a joint program between GWU and Virginia Tech to bring Ukrainian students here to get a master’s degree in nuclear science and engineering here.”
He said the idea for such a program came about four years ago when he and Bakai met. In 2017 they wrote to the Department of Energy, which responded positively and gave seed funding for creating proposals for a program and the conference that took place this month. Their plan includes a design for a curriculum and identifying the best places in the U.S for Ukrainian students. They have preliminary agreements with research nuclear reactor in the DC area where people train for the nuclear industry.
He said: “If everything goes as we hope, then the program will start in September 2020.”
Some 20 to 25 Ukrainian students are expected to study in coming months at U.S. educational establishments or as internees at businesses such as Westinghouse, which has already committed to taking several trainees.
He said talks are proceeding with Holtec, which wants to not only build its new generation small model reactors for use in Ukraine but also to partner with Ukrainian business to build them in Ukraine for export to and assembly in third countries.