Safety of Russian nuclear sites remains at risk as record heat wave holds and wildfires engulf vast expanses of Central Russia

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As Russia keeps battling this summer’s biggest calamity – by latest counts, close to 600 wildfires, caused by record high temperatures, are raging through the country’s central regions and have already claimed fifty lives and left countless people homeless – two nuclear sites have come under potential threat and, despite ongoing response measures, concerns linger over their safety.

One is Novovoronezh NPP, located 42 kilometres south of the town of Voronezh in Central European Russia, where fires breaking out in surrounding areas have been causing shutdowns in high-voltage power lines. Meanwhile, the abnormal heat has already triggered a malfunction in the transformers of the plant’soutdoor switchgear, which, in turn, led to a reactor scram.

Three reactors – two of the VVER-440 type and one of the VVER-1000 type – operate at Novovoronezh NPP. According to Russia’s nuclear power plant operator Rosenergoatom, on August 4, one of them – Reactor Unit 3 – experienced an emergency shutdown after the failure in the outdoor switchgear caused an automatic shutdown of a turbogenerator. On August 5, Rosenergoatom reported, the reactor was back online.

In a statement issued just two days prior, Rosenergoatom said fires spreading through neighbouring villages caused damage to power transmission lines, though it reported no changes in the operation of the plant. According to Rosenergoatom, none of Russia’s ten nuclear power plants are at risk from fires blazing through Central Russia and “the same can be said about Novovoronezh,” a spokesman told Bellona Web. 

This was reiterated in a separate statement issued by Rosenergoatom’s chief spokesman Alexei Syaganov specifically on the situation surrounding Novovoronezh NPP:“Forest fires in Voronezh Region are not affecting the safe operation of reactors at Novovoronezh  NPP,” Syaganov said on Wednesday, August 4. “The reactor units of Novovoronezh NPP continue their stable and safe operation in the conditions of abnormal heat and wildfires spreading in Voronezh Region. Both the NPP’s fire brigades and those of the city fire department of Novovoronezh are on duty, keeping a 24-hour watch in the area around the plant.”

According to Rosenergoatom, as the risk of damage to power transmission lines and other power distribution equipment is expected to persist, the NPP operator and the Russian Unified Energy System’s Federal Grid Company have agreed on joint prevention and response measures to keep future potential incidents at bay.

bodytextimage_picture-02-wildfire-tearing-through-the-area-around-Novovoronezh-NPP.jpeg Photo: Source: Sergei Morozov for Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

But a certain discrepancy surfaced between Syaganov’s statement and an August 4 report on the emergency shutdown at Novovoronezh NPP from Rossiiskaya Gazeta – a newspaper largely viewed as the official bullhorn of the Russian government – which said:“The regional branch of the [Ministry of Emergency Situations] said the fires [in the vicinity of the town of] Novovoronezh were put out yesterday night, ground litter in the forest continues to smoulder. The situation is under control; the firefighting unit of [Novovoronezh NPP] has engaged reserve equipment and is providing support to municipal brigades.”

Safety concerns remain high despite nuclear authorities’ assurances

Rosenergoatom’s Alexei Syaganov was not available for a clarification on Friday, August 6, as this report was posted. But a source at Novovoronezh NPP, who wished to remain unnamed, confirmed for Bellona that the plant’s firefighters were indeed helping out city teams to put out fires around Novovoronezh. The reason, he said, was that fires in the region remained at a distance of several kilometres from the nuclear power plant itself, where no immediate threat was perceived by the personnel.

He also explained that following a number of recent reforms, the main burden of fighting forest fires has been placed on the forest industry, rather than emergency services, and the region was unprepared for the disaster that has unfolded. “We are fighting these fires all together,” he said.

By Friday, August 6, said the anonymous NPP employee, all fire sources had been localised and extinguished around Novovoronezh, and even the smog from the fires had subsided due to changing winds.

However, environmentalists warn that deeper ramifications for the integrity of the plant must be considered, whether or not the flames come licking at the door.

Safety barriers that nuclear power plants are surrounded with to offset the danger of outside fires breaking in – such as complete clearing of surrounding lands from any vegetation – minimise the eventuality of fire entering a nuclear power plant, but more pressing issues concern sudden changes in a reactor’s operation, like emergency shutdowns, and problems with the supply of water used to cool the reactor.

Nuclear expert and journalist Andrei Ozharovsky says damage caused by a transformer failure or breakdowns in power lines are a greater risk than the state nuclear operator is fessing up to: “Such events cause emergency stopping of the reactor. For the reactor, any transition regime [is] something that can lead to unexpected situations. This has happened in Chernobyl – when, after several attempts to switch the reactor off and on, the reactor was out of control.”

Besides, said Ozharovsky, the efficiency factor of modern nuclear power plants does not exceed 33 percent, which is why two thirds of the heat produced by a reactor has to be absorbed by the surrounding environment, which is not easy in the conditions of murderous heat outside.

A press release issued by the Russian ecological group Ecodefense! underscores that the continuing heat wave and fires threaten NPPs with equipment failures and damage done to the power lines that supply electricity to the plant’s systems – back-up generators cannot always be counted on to come online in case of a power failure.

Nuclear power plants are furthermore highly dependent on stable water levels in the lakes and rivers from where water is supplied to the reactors’ cooling systems, and these can be affected by the merciless spells of heat like the one that has taken hold in Central Russia, where temperatures have for weeks now remained at a steady 40 degrees Celsius (104 F).

The anonymous source at Novovoronezh NPP confirmed to Bellona that additional risks are indeed created by the extreme heat. In case that cooling water overheats, reactor power output will have to be reduced, he said. But all back-up systems are regularly tested, and several levels of protection make sure the plant is operating as usual. He said the plant’s staff do not feel especially worried.

“We’ve never had 40 degrees here, and we’re hoping it doesn’t get to 50. Then again, it’s not too long to wait before September comes [and temperatures go down],” the source said.

In an extreme development, according to Vladimir Slivyak, Ecodefense!’s co-chairman, should the plant’s safety barriers fail and a fire reach close to electrical cables inside the NPP – though the risk is remote – “major problems can happen as the reactor’s control systems are dependent on them.”

Last but not least, with all the damage incurred on the country’s economy by the raging fires, Russia cannot afford to overlook potential losses caused to power supply to the consumers.

Ecodefense! quotes Vladimir Milov, former Russian deputy energy minister and currently president of the Institute of Energy Policy, as saying nuclear power plants account for the highest share of electricity production on the energy market of Central European Russia, and emergency shutdowns could lead to significant power shortages in these regions.

bodytextimage_picture-03-heavy-smoke-from-a-wildfire-billowing-over-Novovoronezh-environs-on-August-4.jpeg Photo: Source: Sergei Morozov for Rossiiskaya Gazeta

It was in the conditions of a similar heat wave in 2006 that several reactors were shut down in the United States and Europe, Ecodefense! said, and power output was decreased at other sites. France was forced during that summer to import 2,000 megawatts’ worth of electricity daily to make up for the shortages. In certain countries, ecological norms had to be revised for the maximum allowed temperature of used cooling water discharged by NPPs, which led to additional risks to the environment.

A source in Rosenergoatom, who wished to remain anonymous, told Bellona’s Russian website that despite his agency’s assurances, further emergency shutdowns may be expected at Kalinin, Balakovo, Novovoronezh, and Rostov NPPs. The reservoirs from where water is taken for the cooling systems operated in these plants are heating up, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius, which may cause problems with reactor cooling. “If the water temperature rises another couple of degrees, we will have to stop the [NPPs],” the source said.

Sarov research facility among the ongoing emergency’s hot spots

Meanwhile, wildfires have spread dangerously close to the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics, a nuclear research facility in Sarov, Nizhny Novgorod Region.

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The experimental physics institute operates a number of research reactors in what in Russian is called ZATO – a restricted-access area reserved for classified military or nuclear research.  According to experts, the institute’s reactors are likely even better protected against natural disasters than civilian nuclear power plants, since the centre is directly affiliated with the military nuclear industry.

However, media reports have said wildfires on August 2 spread inside one of the testing grounds of the institute – an emergency serious enough to have warranted a visit by Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s nuclear state corporation, Rosatom.

Kiriyenko has said there was no threat of nuclear or radioactive explosion because of the fires.

“All explosive materials have been evacuated from there, and all radioactive materials have been evacuated from there,” Kiriyenko has been quoted by the press as saying. “We can guarantee that even in an extreme situation, with storm winds, at the level of a natural disaster, even in this case, there will be no threat to nuclear safety, nor to radiation safety, nor a threat of explosions, nor a threat of ecological consequences on the territory of the centre.”

He said the only risk was that the costly equipment might be destroyed and important research for government contracts halted, which “must, of course, be prevented.”

But the situation remains especially worrisome in Sarov, where fires re-emerge despite all efforts to extinguish them and locals are forming volunteer patrol teams to help emergency services.

Response measures are being led in the area by Colonel General Pavel Plat, a chief expert with the Ministry of Emergency Situations. On August 6, Plat’s headquarters said that emergency services have managed to stop fires encroaching on the southern border of Sarov and that despite the heavy smoke, the situation remains under control. Two fire sources, however, are still active inside the ZATO, as visible via aerial reconnaissance, and putting them out is the task for the day.

bodytextimage_picture-05-sarov-volunteers-helping-in-firefighting-efforts-in-Sarov-forests.jpg Photo: Source: Sarov.net

Earlier, Plat was quoted by the press as saying his people are doing their best, but have to re-canvass the area to extinguish the fires that keep breaking out anew: “The reason is that after extinguishing the rest of them and covering them with sand, the fires go deep into the ground, and then resurface again. And there are cases when fire sources remain active through the fault of some people who are not careful enough.”

Sixty additional tonnes of special foam agent and close to a hundred units of heavy machinery, including aviation, have been deployed to Sarov to fight the fires. The ZATO’s sites are said to be safe from any immediate threat.

Will Russia learn its hard lesson?

While scepticism remains strong among Russians with regard to climate change, or at least its anthropogenic origin, this year’s unprecedented weather patterns – the unfathomably severe snowfall during the winter and the heat, fires, and even hurricanes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which is in Russia’s northwest and has commonly a much milder climate – are bound to bring some lessons home.

Last December in Copenhagen, where parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathered for their fifteenth session, was a chance for both Russia and the international community to negotiate a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, and to settle on ways to jointly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming – a chance they all but failed on.

Russia’s position, in particular, has been to say that its CO2 emissions are already far under 1990 levels, due largely to the collapse of industry following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. As of 1998, however, a new industrial rebirth in Russia has put it among the three top worldwide emitters of greenhouse gasses. But Russia also continues to insist that a new UN sanctified international climate agreement would take into account the capabilities of its forests to absorb CO2, and Moscow has lately been using it as a bargaining chip, dodging a strong commitment to an emission reduction target.

That bargaining chip is fast losing its value, however, as seven regions are now under a state of emergency, with wildfires tearing across some 196,000 hectares (484,326 acres) of land. More than 160,000 firefighters have been deployed, and reinforcements are coming from abroad. The Russian capital is suffering, too, as blazing peat bogs around the city have degraded air quality in Moscow to a level of a health hazard. But for now, Russia’s response is limited to firefighting and rescue efforts or disciplinary action: On August 4, several top military officials were sacked for failing to stop wildfires from destroying a naval base outside Moscow.

According to Ecodefense!’s Slivyak, this heat, the drought, and the wildfires are clear consequences of climate change and, indeed, a lesson for Russia, but it’s not certain that Russia’s policies will change.

“For Russia, the losses have to be very, very big before the government starts paying attention,” says Slivyak. “That is, this whole epic misfortune has to be waited out and the scope of losses looked at. Theoretically, we might even be in for a change of political course, but this will unlikely happen before next year.”

Russia is furthermore still keen on further amassing its commercial nuclear energy capacities, with new reactor projects being under consideration or construction in various sites across the country. The development of nuclear power is sometimes used as an argument for the mitigation of climate change, as it might arguably decrease the use of fossil fuels.
 
But the case for nuclear energy is undermined by the newer risks made apparent this summer.

According to Ecodefense!, the new NPP construction plans will lead Russia on a path toward instability of energy supply and new accidents and will further increase these risks as extreme weather patterns are only expected to intensify. It is obvious, Ecodefense! says, that in an age of climate change, energy development must be founded on renewable energy sources, which are becoming dramatically cheaper and are also safe for people and the environment.

“The Russian government is bringing its own punishment on itself. It’s just a matter of time before the [anthropogenic] link with climate change is acknowledged,” Slivyak said. “The more they stall, the more losses they’ll suffer.”

 

 

Maria Kaminskaya