RIA Novosti, by commentator Tatiana Sinitsyna, July 30, 2007

Politicians in Kiev are busy looking for an alternative to Russia as a builder of nuclear power plants. At any rate, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk hastened to announce after a meeting last week with his Canadian counterpart, Peter Gordon MacKay, that Ukraine was resuming talks with Canadian companies on the construction of CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) nuclear reactors in Ukraine.

One of the main aims, he said, was to ensure Ukraine's "uranium independence." Ukraine has its own uranium raw materials, but it is forced to enrich them abroad. CANDU reactors use natural uranium.

The politicians, however, are not telling the whole story: the uranium problem is not quite so straightforward. What is surprising, though, is that the CANDU reactor, developed at the dawn of the nuclear energy era, is a "cousin" of the Chernobyl RBMK reactor that exploded 20 years ago. One would think Ukraine would have developed a distaste for anything associated with that past tragedy.

Scientists did not hesitate to describe the construction of nuclear plants with obsolete heavy-water CANDU units as "unwise." Speaking at a news conference in Kiev, Andrei Derkach, the general director of Ukraine's nuclear energy agency, said "experimenting with the choice of a unit is costly and unnecessary" and argued that "no one in Europe is willing to use CANDU technology."

That is not entirely true: Canadian units are used in Romania. In the 1980s its former leader, Nicolae Ceasescu, after a quarrel with Moscow, chose a Canadian, rather than a Soviet, project for building Romania's first nuclear plant in Cernavoda. The ambition to swap partners for political considerations (no other explanation makes sense) seems to have gained the upper hand in Ukraine as well.

But a switchover to a different type of reactor in a country that is successfully using a more advanced technology - VVER water-cooled reactors - is a costly business that is unlikely to meet Ukraine's budget. Too many problems arise when the general course is changed - the need to overhaul infrastructure and engineering policy, to retrain specialists, etc. Nobody in the world has ever taken such a foolish step. But how far will a person go to get rid of an irritating partner? Especially since CANDU has an unquestionable advantage: it allows the country using it to produce plutonium, a military raw material.

"The world community has opted for light-water reactors, which are free of the flaws of Chernobyl," said Prof. Alexander Borovoi, of Russia's Kurchatov Institute. He spent 20 years doing research at Chernobyl. "Reactors of the VVER type have a long history. Hundreds of them have been built in different countries and have collectively logged many thousand years of safe operation. They are backed by extensive experience and tremendous intellectual and material contributions to their safety. Little research, on the other hand, has been done on CANDU units," Borovoi said.

Today, Ukraine is operating 15 Russian-built VVER reactors and has had no trouble with them. But they were not built yesterday, and their dwindling capacity is prompting thoughts about the future. But what point is there in swapping modern, reliable reactors for yesterday's souvenirs? Is this an obsession with vintage machines, or "a desire to chew the old cud," as one Russian physicist put it?

Advocates of changing Ukraine's nuclear policy argue that CANDU has fixed all the Chernobyl bugs. Andrei Gagarinsky of the Kurchatov Institute has said that "the Canadians seem to have dealt with the design flaw that plagued the CANDU project from the beginning." Russian nuclear specialists, however, have also fixed the RBMK reactor's engineering defects.

But, in eliminating one shortcoming, the Canadian project has acquired a new one: "In order to improve the CANDU, they had to abandon the use of natural uranium, which was cheap and convenient, in favor of lightly enriched uranium (by more than 1%), which is more expensive," Gagarinsky said.

Ukraine has no nuclear fuel cycle facilities, and will be forced to seek the services of those few countries (including Russia) that have a radiochemical industry to enrich natural uranium. Ukraine's "uranium independence" remains a figment of the national imagination.