Almost a year ago, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm led a U.S. delegation to Kyiv to attend a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the independence of Ukraine. Almost six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, VOA Ukrainian Service’s Iuliia Iarmolenko sat down with Granholm to discuss how the Russian war in Ukraine has affected European energy security, what the U.S. can do to help stabilize the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and what the future holds for U.S.-Ukraine cooperation in the energy sector.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Secretary Granholm, thank you so much for doing this interview. Let’s start with the situation at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. You know that Russian troops seized control of this power plant, biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, in the first days of the war. After the recent reports of shelling, Ukraine is calling for a demilitarized zone around the plant and new sanctions against Russia for what President Zelenskyy called “nuclear blackmail.” How worried are you about this situation? And what can the United States do to help stabilize it?
Granholm: First, we agree with the demilitarization. There should not be military activities around a nuclear plant, period. It is extremely dangerous. We are monitoring the situation very closely. There are sensors that are in the region that our scientists are monitoring. We strongly condemn what Russia has done. We want them to turn the plant control back over to the Ukrainians. We are so grateful for the workers in the plant, who have continued to operate it and continue to try to abide by rules of safety. But we want to have the International Atomic Energy Agency have access so they can help with safety, they can monitor, they can make sure the protocols for safety are instilled. And, you know, that has not happened yet. So we call upon Russia to turn control back over to the Ukrainians. And we need to stop all military activity near the plant.
VOA: You talked a little bit about the monitoring mission. What would be the successful monitoring mission? Are you confident in its independence?
Granholm: I’m confident that the information that we are receiving through the monitors shows, at the moment, no increase in radiation. But our concern is, of course, if there is continued military activity around the plant … if there is an increase in radiation, that is a huge problem. And, you know, I mean, Russia knows this — they’ve been in the nuclear power business for a long time — that it is just reckless and irresponsible, what they are doing. So success is: Turn the plant back over to the Ukrainian authorities, make sure that we are continuously monitoring and do not see elevated signs of radiological contamination.
VOA: Are there any tools that the international community can use in order to make Russian forces leave the plant? And if the power plant stays under Russian control, can anyone be sure that Europe will not see another nuclear catastrophe?
Granholm: Clearly, nobody wants to see that happen. I mean, there would be fallout that could damage Russia as well. So they have to understand how serious this is. The United States, obviously, stands so strongly with Ukraine, and will continue to support Ukraine with assistance. We support the demilitarization. Of course, President Biden has said no U.S. troops on the ground, but through our allies, and with our own resources, we will continue to support Ukraine.
VOA: Even before the full-scale war, the experts were warning about Russian weaponization of energy …
VOA: … and they were calling on European leaders to diversify their sources of energy to wind down the dependence on Russian energy. Now Europe is preparing for a very difficult winter. Do you think that European countries will be able to import enough gas from other sources, including the United States, to make up for the shortages?
Granholm: Well, first of all, I think they have to have a multiprong strategy … diversification of their fuel sources is one of that. So both diversifying where they’re getting the fuel from, but also diversifying into clean energy to decarbonize their grid, to deploy clean, to also reduce their energy usage. And they are … moving on all of those strategies. The United States, of course, the president has committed to sending more liquefied natural gas. We are working together with the Europeans on a number of technologies to be able to reduce their energy use and to generate clean energy. But honestly, this invasion by Russia is such an example of why countries need to move away from the volatility of fuels from countries who do not have our interests. And from the volatility of fossil fuels. If we want to be energy secure and energy independent, that means we’ve got to produce our own energy. My counterpart in Ireland, the energy minister there, has said that no one has ever weaponized access to the sun. No one has ever weaponized the wind. Perhaps a move to clean energy will be the greatest peace plan the world has ever known.
VOA: So in the short term, it’s more production, and then in the long term, it’s moving to renewables?
Granholm: Yes, yes. Unfortunately, this has demonstrated when you’re seeing how the prices of fuel go through the roof in Europe, obviously, the invasion pulled millions of barrels offline of Russian exports of oil, in addition to natural gas. So the prices all around the world went up. Now our president and others have called for increasing production right now, so that we can alleviate the prices at the gas pump for consumers. And this president is definitely concerned about how that impacts real people, inflation, et cetera. But ultimately, we’ve got to move to clean. And that’s what the bill that the president signed yesterday, for the United States, it is the largest commitment to combating climate change of any country in the world. It’s by 10 the largest bill that we’ve ever passed in the United States to combat climate change. So it is so important for our energy security. And I know our European allies are trying to do the same.
VOA: Will it be a difficult winter for Europe?
Granholm: I think it will be.
VOA: How confident are you that European countries will not crack under the Russian energy pressure, and will not ease sanctions on Russia right when they just start showing their effect?
Granholm: I think that the allies, the NATO allies, the Europeans, are so strong together in seeing what this aggression by Russia has done to them, that they are not going to go back, that we have to wean ourselves off of Russian fuels, or off of fuels in general that come from countries who don’t share our values. So I think we are united. It’s going to be hard. There’s no doubt it’s going to be an expensive winter. I know that the European leaders are looking for how they can alleviate the pain for real people in these increases in prices. But I know ultimately, they are determined to move away from Russian fuels and toward clean energy.
VOA: So there is no way back …
Granholm: There’s no way back.
VOA: … and we are not going to see the Nord Stream 2 renew its function?
Granholm: From all of the leaders that I’ve talked to, my counterparts in the EU, they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
VOA: And of course, Ukraine is also trying to secure natural gas imports to heat homes in Ukraine this winter, and one of the ideas that Ukrainian leaders said they proposed to Washington is so-called gas lend-lease. So they’re saying that they’re asking the United States to provide the LNG through Europe for which Ukraine will repay later. Do you have any comments on such an idea? And are there any other ways that the United States and allies can help Ukraine to secure its needs this winter?
Granholm: Yeah, this is a really important question about how we increase supply that will help to alleviate the pressure. Right now, in terms of the terminals that we have, we are liquefying every molecule of natural gas that there is with the terminals we have; they are at full capacity. As you know, from an infrastructure point of view, it takes time to add more. I know Norway is increasing their commitments as well. I know there is exploration with other countries to be able to increase. And whether it’s for Ukraine, because I know Ukraine is looking at diversifying and decarbonizing and deploying clean energy as well. All of that has to happen. Of course, it’s so much more difficult for Ukraine right now in the middle of this crisis, which is why I think all ideas should be on the table. I don’t have an answer for you with respect to the lend-lease issue. But I do know that this administration is game to look at whatever it can do to help alleviate the pain in Ukraine.
VOA: Where do you see the future of U.S.-Ukraine cooperation in the energy sector? Is it going to be more focused on renewables or something else?
Granholm: It’s hard to say at this moment because one of the conversations we’ve been having is small modular nuclear reactors, right? But with what’s happening in Zaporizhzhia, there might be some concern about that. This conflict has to end, I think, before we make a decision about nuclear, but definitely we can cooperate. And we’ll be cooperating on clean. And I’ve had a lot of conversations with Herman Halushchenko, who is my counterpart in Ukraine, the energy minister, they absolutely want to move in this direction. There’s other types of technology that they’re very interested in, too, like clean hydrogen, for example, certainly offshore wind if the offshore component is available to them. There’s just a lot, obviously — solar is an obvious, batteries for energy storage, for renewable energy storage, lots of technologies that we’ve been talking about — and once this conflict ends, and it will end, and we expect that it will end in a way that has Ukraine independent and safe, we look forward to continued cooperation in energy.
VOA: A year ago, you led the United States delegation to Ukraine to celebrate its 30th anniversary of independence. This year, August 24 will also mark the six months since Russia started the full-scale invasion. After six months, what is the main takeaway for you in terms of Western response to this war? Do you think that there are some lessons that world leaders should learn?
Granholm: First of all, I am still so moved by how beautiful Ukraine was. In the celebration, there was a parade where President Zelenskyy had a young girl go through the streets of Kyiv, stopping at each of the points of history — it was so beautiful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the viewing stand. It just made me, it made me so … so … I’m not Ukrainian, but it made me so proud of Ukraine and the fierce independence and sense of identity that Ukraine has and the fierce sense of independence. I was there for the summit on Crimea, as well as the 30th anniversary. I would never have guessed that six months later, this horror would be happening. And I think, yes, there are lessons. I mean, one of the biggest lessons for the world is, first of all, it’s clear what Russia’s intentions are. But it’s also clear that NATO and our allies must remain strong in defense of countries who want to protect their freedom. I worry that Russia sees this as a schism in the world, that there is a cleaving of countries right now as a result of what they have done. That is their action. It is not what anybody wants to see. But it is what has been created. Fortunately, there are a lot more countries who stand with Ukraine, and who feel so strongly that we have to stand together when the sovereignty of our allies is attacked. So that’s number one. And number two, I think it really speaks volumes, because I’m the energy secretary, of how much we have to move and how rapidly we have to move to energy security through clean energy.
VOA: Secretary Granholm, is there something that you want Ukrainian people to know? Some people will have a very tough winter; they’re already going through a lot of difficulties. Is there something you as the secretary of energy want them to know from the United States?
Granholm: I do want them to know that the United States is so strongly supportive of Ukraine, and we will continue to be supportive, whether it is in energy — I mean, we have been working with the synchronization with the European grid, for example, we will continue to do that — whether it’s in monitoring and ensuring that what we can do to make sure that the Zaporizhzhia plant is safe and the area around it and the citizens around it are safe, whether it is ensuring that Ukraine feels like they have the resources necessary to carry their defense forward. And that this is a friendship that will last, so we will never turn our back on Ukraine.
VOA: Thank you so much!
Granholm: Thank you.