Ukraine, Russia Play Nuclear Poker
Ukraine told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it is reinforcing the protection of its nuclear power plants because of “a grave threat to the security” of the country posed by the Russian military. Russia responded by accusing Ukraine of “hallucinating”.
Fadel Gheit, a senior energy analyst at Oppenheimer in New York, told New Europe on 6 March that “both sides are jockeying for position to get world attention” and they would not do anything that would endanger the country’s 15 nuclear power reactors in operation.
Ukraine’s envoy to the IAEA said in a letter to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano that “illegal actions of the Russian armed forces on Ukrainian territory and the threat of use of force amount to a grave threat to security of Ukraine with its potential consequences for its nuclear power infrastructure”.
But Gheit said Russian President Vladimir Putin is not going instigate anything that could cause any nuclear accident because that would be devastating for the entire region. “I doubt it very much,” Gheit said.
He warned, however, that in “an atmosphere of anarchy” like it happened in Libya and Iraq armaments could fall into the wrong hands. “I hope that some of the desperate Ukrainians wouldn’t get to a point where the security of the nuclear material could fall on the wrong hands whether it is terrorists from the Middle East or terrorists against Russia – that becomes very concerning – that could be very dangerous,” the Oppenheimer expert said.
Russia has imposed a ban on the transportation of nuclear fuel across Ukraine due to an unstable situation in the country, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said. “We have problems with the transit of nuclear fuel through Ukrainian territory to our partners in Eastern Europe, and there are issues related to supplies of fuel to nuclear power plants in Ukraine itself,” Rogozin told a meeting between the president and the government ministers on 5 March.
Gheit said that could cause nuclear fuel crisis in Ukraine. Ukraine’s 15 nuclear power reactors accounted for nearly 44% of its electricity production in 2013. “Ukraine is basically at the mercy of Russia. Putin is teaching Ukraine a very, very hard lesson,” Gheit said. “If they don’t have nuclear fuel they’re not going to be able to generate electricity from their nuclear plants and now he is going to cut off the gas,” he said, arguing that the Kremlin leader is using energy as a weapon to put pressure on Ukraine.
“Putin is playing a very long game. He has been plotting it for a while – it was not a knee-jerk reaction,” Gheit said. “I have a feeling that he is doing that to basically reclaim Crimea.”
But he noted that it is very difficult for the West to put economic pressure on Putin because Russian gas giant Gazprom is a big gas supplier to Europe, especially into Germany. Gheit said German Chancellor Angela Merkel “has to make a decision and switch from using Russian gas into using gas from more reliable sources that are more stable as well as less political and that will open the door for long-term contracts for gas to come to Europe either from the Mediterranean or from East-West Africa or even from the US”. “Putin is not going away,” Gheit argued. “The only way to basically defend against him is to pull the energy card out of his hand because he is going to blackmail Europe on gas, he is doing that with Ukraine and he is going to that with Europe,” he said.