Funds to build a strategic nuclear waste repository in Chornobyl pocketed by corrupt officials

23 January, 10:36 AM
Strategic nuclear waste repository in Chornobyl construction site (Photo:Schemes (RFE/RL Graphics))

Strategic nuclear waste repository in Chornobyl construction site (Photo:Schemes (RFE/RL Graphics))

Ukrainian investigative journalism project Schemes has revealed that high-profile Ukrainian officials at state-owned nuclear power enterprise Energoatom have pocketed funds allocated to building a nuclear waste repository in Chornobyl. 

The project published a recording of the corrupt officials discussing how to cover up their embezzlement.

According to Schemes, the waste facility, named the Chornobyl Centralized Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository, has not yet begun to operate, despite insistence by Energoatom management in December 2020 that it was completely ready.

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At the same time, the nuclear power enterprise signed a private contract with a new supplier, a company called KBR, worth UAH 422 million ($15 million). No tender was ever organized, in contravention of typical legal practice for state-owned enterprises.

In 2021, Energoatom transferred twice as much, over UAH 1 billion ($35 million), to the contractor to finalize the construction. However, Energoatom refused to share details on the contract, or expense reports of the supposed facility, with journalists.

The recording obtained by the Schemes journalists is supposedly of a meeting held by high-profile Energoatom executives on Dec. 28, 2020. Schemes says that they believe the recording to be authentic, after cross-checking and verifications.

The meeting participants, whose identities have been established by the Schemes journalists, declined to comment on the recordings but did not deny that such talks had taken place.

“Don’t you get it? The money is gone, it’s been nicked. We need to find other sources and make them legal somehow. How? We don’t know yet,” says one voice on the recording, most resembling the voice of Mykola Bozhko, head of Atom Project Engineering at Energoatom – the department that commissioned the construction of the waste repository.

Allegedly, private contractors and subcontractors, who had benefited from Bozhko’s largesse, were also present in the executive’s office that day. A brainstorming session to figure out how to “patch up the holes” in the Energoatom budget was held out loud and caught on tape. The voice resembling Bozhko can be heard musing whether to conduct the cover up through an old supplier, Ukrbud Montazh, or through a new contractor, KBR.

“I have got holes that are easier to patch up from this side than from that side.  ‘Cos holes can be different. So listen up and don’t panic…,” said the voice attributed to Bozhko.

“We will make sure we save your skin. We need to save your skin to get ourselves out of this one. We don’t need your blood.”

Mykola Bozhko and other alleged meeting participants refused to answer the Schemes journalists’ questions when approached. The journalists also tried to contact Energoatom’s Acting Director Petro Kotin and Ukraine’s Minister of Energy and former Energoatom Vice President Herman Halushchenko, but they also declined to comment.

In February 2021 Kotin said Energoatom would no longer be transporting its spent nuclear fuel to Russia. Before 2021, Ukraine paid around $200 million per year to Russia for storing its nuclear waste.

Nuclear waste from the Rivne, Khmelnytskyi and South Ukrainian nuclear plants would be taken to the new waste facility in Chornobyl. The construction plan was approved by the Ukrainian government in June 2017, but the timeline has constantly changed. According to Schemes, the most recent timetable plans for the facility to begin operations in March 2022.  

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