Russian nuclear minister against Chernobyl shutdown

In an interview with foreign journalists on Monday the Russian nuclear minister, Yevgeny Adamov, confirmed the earlier announced plans of his ministry to construct new reactors, develop controversial fast breeder reactors and continue spent fuel reprocessing. He also denounced Ukraine’s decision to close down Chernobyl NPP, Reuters reported.

According to Adamov, it would make more sense to upgrade the remaining RBMK type reactor at Chernobyl NPP than surrender under the Western pressure to close the power plant on December 15th. Reuters quoted Adamov as saying that the closure of Chernobyl “is a very political event” necessary for Ukraine to get Western loans.

The last Chernobyl reactor in operation shut down automatically on Monday when power lines were damaged due to severe weather conditions. The reactor was restarted on December 1 – the day when the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was to consider whether to provide Ukraine with loan to complete two reactors. Ukraine intends to spend the loan on completion of two Soviet designed VVER-1000 reactors at Rovno and Khmelnitsky nuclear power plants. The total project cost is put at $1.48 billion.

In 1986 explosion at Chernobyl led to radioactive contamination over the vast areas in Europe, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The share of Chernobyl NPP in the Ukrainian grid is 5%. The closure threatens to make 9,000 plant’s workers unemployed. The chief engineer at Chernobyl NPP told Reuters the reactor could safely operate until 2011. “The plant is good and reliable,” he said. While Ukrainian officials said upgrades were costly and exposed personnel to radiation.

The nuclear minister stated that safety was always their top priority and the level of safety met international standards being on the average in the world. He added that he was never against the State Nuclear Regulatory, or GAN. “The next question is what the jurisdiction of various government bodies are to be,” added Adamov.

The head of GAN, Yury Vishnevsky, said in an interview in November that Adamov’s approach undermines the nuclear safety. The nuclear minister wants to spend $70-$90 per kilowatt of capacity on upgrade, while GAN believes that $200-$300 are required to ensure that nuclear power plants operate safely beyond the original design limits, Mr Vishnevsky said. In response, Russian nuclear ministry is currently lobbing a bill to amend to the Law on Application of Atomic Energy in the State Duma, lower house of the Russia’s parliament. The intention with the bill is to strip the State Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, of licensing functions in the civilian sector of nuclear energy. The military part of nuclear industry has been long beyond the control of the state nuclear safety watchdog.

Adamov’s plans also include restructuring Russia’s electricity industry to make profitable nuclear sector take control of its own income, expansion of fast breeder reactors, boosting imports of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing. “A closed nuclear cycle is the only way for the industry,” he said. A part of the earnings on the fuel import project will be spent on environmental projects, nuclear ministry officials say.

Adamov’s opponents in GAN say in response that the money earned on fuel importation will be “eaten by Minatom or stolen”. Minatom keeps saying that imported nuclear fuel (20,000 tons) is a resource after it has been reprocessed, enough to burn in nuclear reactors for 10-20 years. But GAN stresses that “the scales are wrong” when the risk of endangering the population of the whole country with discharge of radioactive waste from reprocessing plants is involved. GAN is also sceptical towards the plans to use fast breeder reactors, saying that the experiment was unsuccessful in Russia and other countries and safety risks involved are quite high.

“Do not believe a single word Adamov says,” Mr Vishnevsky said once in an interview. The major part of the Russian government and the president seem to do the opposite, however, bowing to all the requests bursting out from Mr Adamov.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no