As the crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate, Russia and the West remain at a standstill, both sides gauging what responses further actions will elicit. Most of the coverage has been focused on the economic and political implications of the current situation. However, the crisis has significant bearing on nuclear proliferation, both in the Euro-Slavic region and internationally. The high volume of nuclear material that had been and still is located in the west of the former USSR makes an unstable Ukraine a possible locus for nuclear sales. Additionally, the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine may strengthen the Iranian position, potentially hampering any development of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action.
Ukraine has a tumultuous history with nuclear technology. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on Ukrainian territory, and while the graphite-moderated Chernobyl types have been (predictably) decommissioned, the Ukraine operates 15 pressurized water reactors with 14 Gigawatts (electrical) of generating capacity. While a portion of the uranium ore is mined in the Ukraine, the fuel enrichment and fabrication is supplied by (surprise!) Russia. Used fuel is stored, and hypothetically available to be reprocessed, in the Ukraine at reactor sites and in the “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” (Background information can be found here.)
Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was home to the third-largest nuclear stockpile in the world, with 1,080 nuclear warheads on its soil, with delivery platforms ranging from ICBMs and bombers to tactical nuclear weapons. In 1994, Ukraine voted to divest itself of its nuclear stockpile and either destroy or sell off its delivery systems, exchanging a large portion of its strategic bomber force with the Russian Federation to pay down its massive oil debt. Ukraine became a nuclear-weapons free state in June 1996.
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