Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 154

Ever since, in the mid 1990s, Ukraine promised the international community to close its ill-starred Chornobyl nuclear power plant, its governing elite has been unanimous on one issue: The West should compensate for the closure by financing two new ones. But the new minister for the environment, Serhy Kurykin, has now questioned the need for them. He is the first top Ukrainian official to do so. He may pay for this with his position.

The construction of the new reactors–in the western towns of Rivne and Khmelnytsky–has been the sticking point in negotiations with the G-7, the EU and the EBRD, which undertook to finance the closure of Chornobyl. Ukraine argued that the West should finance the completion of the construction that the Soviet Union began in the early 1980s but later stopped for lack of funds. The new reactors, Kyiv maintained, would provide the 5 percent of national electricity generation lost after Chornobyl’s Number 3 reactor was decommissioned on December 15 of last year. Ukraine depends on Russia for fuel for its thermal power stations, and lacks the natural resources to develop either hydroelectric power stations or alternative sources of energy. More nuclear facilities are therefore the only way out. No one inside Ukraine argued with this except a few NGOs and scientists, and the West eventually agreed to cough up the funds. Since the beginning of this year, however, Ukraine has accused the EBRD of dragging its feet over the financing.

Kurykin, immediately on his appointment two months ago, announced that he strongly opposed the construction of the new reactors, and vowed to convince both President Leonid Kuchma and Premier Anatoly Kinakh’s government that the two reactors are not necessary. He argues that launching the two nuclear generating sets is not economically justifiable. Ukraine, he says, has enough electricity without Chernobyl. He also supports environmentalists who claim that the planned sites do not have adequate water supplies to cool the reactors. Ukraine’s negotiations with the EBRD over its proposed US$225 million loan may now go down the drain.

Kuchma and the governing elite seem to have erred in expecting that Kurykin, the deputy head of the Green Party of Ukraine and an adamant opponent of nuclear energy, would abandon his principles on entering government. In his current position, Kurykin supervises the committee tasked with examining whether Ukraine in fact needs the Rivne and Khmelnytsky reactors. It is therefore quite likely that the finding will be a firm “no.” This makes the task of coaxing the West into lending money for the reactors exceptionally difficult.

Kurykin’s post is thus none-too secure. The powerful head of the presidential office, Volodymyr Lytvyn, has accused him of populism. The influential energy lobby in parliament has spoken, in very clear terms, for his dismissal. Kurykin, however, refuses to budge. “I am not going to resign,” he said on August 3 after returning from an environmental conference in Germany. “If the president deems it necessary, he will dismiss me.” It would seem that he might have already been asked to step down.

Were he dismissed, Kurykin would probably lose only his post as minister. He would likely become a popular hero–nuclear energy not being popular in Ukriane–for adhering to his antinuclear principals. His chances of winning the Green Party seat in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2002 would undoubtedly rise dramatically (Inter TV, June 13;, June 15; Studio 1+1 TV, August 3).