U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman was scheduled to travel to Ukraine on Thursday to meet President Viktor Yushchenko and other top officials to encourage the handover of Soviet-produced, enriched nuclear fuel to Russia, the U.S. Embassy in Kiev said.
For their part, Ukrainian officials are expected to press for more funding. Cash-strapped Ukraine needs additional financial resources for the expensive task of sending used fuel rods back to Russia for reprocessing and converting its reactors to low-enriched fuel.
Ukraine's Soviet-built reactors are fueled by high-enriched uranium that could also be used for the production of weapons-grade nuclear material. Ukraine doesn't currently have the capacity to reprocess the used fuel itself.
Bodman will also review the conversion of Ukraine's research reactors to the use of low-enriched uranium, the U.S. embassy said in a statement. Such a conversion would lower the risk of accidents and possible leakage of nuclear components to terrorists.
"He will focus on using technology to enhance energy resource development in the most efficient and environmentally responsible manner, and the benefits of transparent markets that attract foreign investment," the embassy said.
At a recent conference in London, Western donors including the United States pledged more funds for the upgrade of Ukrainian nuclear power plants and for the handling of nuclear waste.
The West also offered additional money for the construction of a new structure that will cover the crumbling concrete-and-steel shelter hastily erected over the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl, which exploded in 1986 in the world's worst nuclear disaster.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said that Ukraine, which currently operates 15 reactors, wants to build 11 more by 2030. The statement reflected Ukraine's ambition to achieve energy independence from Russia, its key supplier.
Tymoshenko ordered the state-run Energoatom, which is responsible for overseeing the operations of Ukrainian nuclear plants, to conduct a feasibility study for a domestic nuclear fuel reprocessing program. She also ordered the company to boost domestic production of uranium and zirconium, both components of nuclear fuel rods.
If Ukraine were to succeed in developing its own fuel reprocessing program, it would be able to produce its own fuel from locally produced uranium, which would open up opportunities for selling the very expensive final product all over the world.
Bodman was also scheduled to be a principal speaker at an annual energy conference that focuses on world energy security, development of energy resources and investment in Ukraine's fuel and energy sector.
ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC, Associated Press Writer