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How vital is nuclear energy for Ukraine?

March 5, 2022

When it was attacked by Russian forces, Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shifted to center stage. But while nuclear energy is important to Ukraine, the country still gets 70% of its power from fossil fuels.

Zaporizhzhia plant at night
The Zaporizhzhia plant was the site of Russian-Ukrainian fightingImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

How important is nuclear energy to the electricity supply in Ukraine? After the attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine by Russian forces on Friday night, it became clear that nuclear power is vital to the country.

23% of Ukraine's energy supply is based on nuclear energy, according to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine. A total of 15 nuclear reactors run at four locations across the country. With its six reactors, the Zaporizhzhia plant on the Dnieper river is not only the largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine, but actually the most powerful in all of Europe.

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According to the Ukrainian nuclear regulatory authority, a fire in Zaporizhzhia has been extinguished and there was no release of radioactive material. The Russian Defense Ministry blamed Ukrainian saboteurs for the attack on the plant.

The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, said at a press conference that he was ready to visit the site to check the safety of the nuclear plant himself.

Nuclear power plants in Ukraine

Mostly fossil fuels

Fossil fuels dominate the country's energy mix even more than nuclear power. In 2020, the country got about 70% of its energy from coal, oil and gas, according to Ukraine's statistics agency. Around 51% is produced in the country; the other half is imported.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 90% of fossil fuel reserves come from coal. That's what the agency's "Ukraine Energy Profile" says. Ukraine has the sixth-largest hard coal reserves in the world. Russia comes third in that list.

Mining the coal is difficult, however, because the largest deposits are in the Donbass, including in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts - the regions where fighting between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists has been taking place since 2014.

Ukrainian cities under increasing attack

Gas from the EU

In the case of gas, the supplier is no longer Russia, even if Russian gas pipelines do run through Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Kyiv switched to gas supplies from the EU instead. Access to offshore gas reserves off the coast of the Crimean peninsula was lost due to its annexation by Russia.

Renewable energies do not yet play a major role. In 2020, the country got only about 7% of its energy from hydroelectric and wind power, as well as from biofuels and waste incineration - but all of this is produced domestically.

Ukraine is currently linked to a common power grid with Russia and Belarus. Within that network, which dates back to the days of the Soviet Union, Russian authorities control the voltage and frequency.

If the EU has its way, this will soon change. "Ukraine must now become part of the European electricity network as soon as possible," EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson from Estonia said. "We have no other option".

This article has been translated from German.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker