Comment: Russia’s nuclear prospects: Are we in for renaissance or ruin?


Publish date: August 18, 2008

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - The past several years have seen mass media both in Russia and other industrialized nations produce report after report featuring government officials and industry representatives foretelling a so-called “Nuclear Renaissance.” No mass-scale construction of nuclear reactors is under way, to be sure – not if you look at existing statistics – but statements are aplenty that it is certainly brewing and is soon to gain pace.

In Russia, an extensive nuclear power plant (NPP) construction programme has only been recently ratified. Yet, blocking its path to progress are the many challenges that may well paint the atomic industry’s rosy hopes a cheerless black – which is something one would expect to happen in the long run, anyway.

Renaissance failures of the past
History is yet to reveal a case where at least one broadly advertised nuclear energy expansion programme would fully come to fruition: The atomic industry has always been prone to making grandiose plans reaching far beyond its ability to follow them through with actions. In Russia, the atomic energy development programme of 1992, a first one to be approved after the break-up of the Soviet Union, envisioned the construction of 26 new nuclear reactors. In 1998, the next programme was devised with 12 additional reactor projects included. The outcome? To date, precisely 3 nuclear reactors have been built since 19921.

Interestingly, construction timeframes and costs also set a record, thanks to the Chernobyl catastrophe: After the tragedy, these reactor projects, started well before 1986 and already by then nearing finishing stages, were frozen and only resumed and completed in the late 1990s or later.

These fables of generous commitments and results that would hardly match a tenth of what was promised are not entirely a Russian invention. In the second half of the 20th century, the United States reiterated plans to build as many as 1,000 nuclear reactors, but only 10 percent of that number eventually saw the light of day. Also, the last time an NPP project that would be seen to completion was commissioned in the United States was in19732.

Reactor retirees… or not?
One should not also overlook the problem of old reactors, those that were engineered and built some 10 to 15 years before the Chernobyl accident. Most of them are so aged it would be impossible to upgrade them enough to satisfy the existing safety standards adopted in Western countries.

Sooner or later, these exhausted reactors would have to be taken offline, which is likely to lead to a shrinking of the share that the nuclear segment occupies in Russia’s energy economy today – not to mention that decommissioning old reactor blocks would take a toll on the financial resources available to the atomic industry. Put into the context of the prospects painted by the “Nuclear Renaissance” prophets, this issue plays an extremely important role. At best, the energy output that Russia’s nuclear power plants provide today would simply be cut – though quite significantly. At worst, however, the deterioration and increasingly brittle condition of materials the oldest reactors were built with might result in a serious nuclear accident. What we would get, in the end, instead of a “renaissance” would be a mass-scale decommissioning of nuclear capacities regardless of age or performance record.

Taking into account the 30-year operational limit requirement adopted for all Soviet-made reactors, as many as 90 percent of Russia’s nuclear reactor blocks should, in good conscience, be decommissioned by 20203. However, the Russian atomic industry has made the decision to extend the operational lifetimes of all old reactors by another 15 years despite the clear threat of potential accidents caused by the aging and embrittlement of materials used when these NPPs were under construction. (Quite valuable and detailed information on these processes of aging and embrittlement is available in the report Mythos Atomkraft, published by the German Heinrich Boll Stiftung (Heinrich Boll Foundation) in 2005).

Russian environmentalists have repeatedly voiced their opposition to extending nuclear reactors’ engineered life spans. In the case of the Kola NPP, a site located in Russia’s Far North and which happens to be the world’s oldest and most hazardous nuclear power plant, the organisations Ecodefense and Nature and Youth, as well as Environment and Rights magazine published by Bellona, managed to enlist the support of such a powerful ally as the local prosecutor’s office in Murmansk, which stated that the renewal of the Kola NPP’s operational license was against the law. (See “Consideration on remedying violations in the sphere of application of atomic energy,” March 28th, 2005, Prosecutor’s Office of the Murmansk Region).

Still, the atomic industry defied the prosecutors’ stance and continues to operate the old reactors even as the decision to extend their operational lifetime has been deemed illegal by authorities charged with overseeing the industry’s compliance with existing regulations. This, mind you, is all taking place in a country whose former president, and currently prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has seen no lack of being called “authoritarian” and for the past eight years has talked incessantly on something he dubbed the “dictatorship of the law.”

Today, it is hardly a matter of doubt that all the lethal rhetoric that Russian powers-that-be churn out on “installing order,” “combating corruption,” and “building the power vertical” skims right over the atomic industry, which, just as in Soviet times, is afforded the latitude to do anything, be it in agreement with the law or not. True to this decades-old tradition, the federal government simply turns the blind eye to the far more egregious infringements committed by the nuclear industry than those, for instance, that cost the former owner of the oil empire Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his freedom and landed him in a Siberian penitentiary in the vicinity of a uranium mine.

Moreover, the atomic industry makes no effort to conceal its unlawful acts – like, for example, the Southern Urals-based chemical combine Mayak’s continual dumping of radioactive waste into the surrounding environment4, or Russia’s import of uranium-generated radioactive waste (Article 48 of the Russian Law on the Protection of Environment, incidentally, bans any radioactive waste imports, whatever purpose they might serve). Or the illegal granting of extensions on the operational life spans of Russian nuclear reactors, as just one of the many examples. The impression one gets is that in Russia, the atomic industry is allowed all and everything and that there are no barriers left for the “Nuclear Renaissance” to make its grand entrance. Yet, this is far from being a complete picture.

For the Russian nuclear industry, the biggest challenges lie in the insufficient capacities to produce the necessary equipment, the strong anti-nuclear sentiment among the public, and the legacy of the enormous piles of nuclear waste and the vast expanses of radiation-contaminated areas inherited by Russia after the break-up of the USSR.

The theory behind the Nuclear Renaissance drive
In accordance with the so-called “Master layout plan for energy-producing capacities projected up to 2020,” a document ratified by the Russian government in April 2007 and then amended and re-endorsed in March 2008, the state envisions building 36 nuclear reactors. The design behind this “Nuclear Renaissance” push is to start in the coming years by first building one, then two reactors annually and by 2020, augment the share of nuclear energy in the overall power-producing industry to 20 percent, later increasing it to 25 percent. Today, according to the Russian federal authority for nuclear energy, Rosatom, Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants operate 31 reactors combined and are responsible for covering 16 percent of the country’s demand in electric power. However, when one considers the consumer’s added need in heating – Russia has in operation nuclear reactors that are capable of producing both electricity and heat – the end result is that together, the country’s NPPs meet no more than just 6 percent of its population’s energy demands.

In March and April 2007, as the government was pondering the “Nuclear Renaissance” offer on the table, environmentalists throughout Russia staged nearly 40 protest rallies demanding that these plans be rescinded. The environmental organisation Ecodefense the one which is behind the Anti-NPP Action Day held in Russia in the spring of 2007, promotes rejecting the idea of new nuclear reactors and, instead, developing the gigantic potential available in renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind, tidal power, geothermal energy and the like. In Murmansk, this public pressure, helped by the two years of vigorous activities as Ecodefense and local environmentalists with Nature and Youth kept protesting the construction of a new NPP, and further reinforced by statements made by Bellona’s Murmansk office, finally took sway over the local governor, who created a working group to commit to developing wind energy. In the spring of 2008, the region hosted an international forum devised to attract the attention of potential investors who might be interested in this field of energy research and production5.

Floating NPPs make for the other major component of the new Russian nuclear master plan. Designed on the basis of technologies developed for the atomic reactors that power icebreakers, these projects have long been the target of harsh criticism as precarious both in terms of safety and from the point of view of nuclear non-proliferation. The nuclear fuel needed for the operation of such a power plant comes with a higher degree of uranium enrichment, as compared to the conventional nuclear reactor fuel.

Security-wise, if such materials happen to land into the possession of terrorists, they may well be used as stuffing for an explosive device. Permanently anchored at sea, such nuclear power plants will have to require naval forces to provide security and keep evil-doers at bay – something that will surely drive up operation costs.

As for pure safety concerns, these arise in connection with the idea that has surfaced to equip the future floating NPPs with old nuclear reactors that have already exhausted their life spans. Another risk is that as a sea-based site, such an NPP may contaminate the marine environment with radioactive spills, which, as it is, occur on a routine basis with conventional sites anyway, not to mention accidental discharges.

Finally, from the point of view of technology, a floating nuclear power plant will only be connected to the shore by cable, and if the latter were to get torn apart on account of, for instance, bad weather conditions, storms, tsunami waves, or similar act of god, then the NPP’s supply of electric power from the shore would get cut off, which may lead to a serious accident.

These are the sober points that opponents make regarding floating NPP projects, the first of which was officially launched over a year ago. True, according to latest information made available by the very enterprise in Severodvinsk that is in charge of the project, the construction is yet to actually make any progress. Meanwhile, the results of a public opinion poll held in March 2008 to evaluate the population’s response to the floating NPP plans revealed that 90 percent of locals are opposed to the idea 6. Even financially, the operation of floating nuclear power plants makes one doubt their expediency. In June 2007, Russia’s Economic Development Minister German Gref, speaking at a government meeting, expressed doubts that the $7,000-per-1kW-of-capacity costs such an NPP would incur would allow any economic sense for running such a site7. The price tag he cited is three to four times that of operating a conventional nuclear power plant..

Nuclear Renaissance vs. Revival of public dissent
Building new nuclear power plants almost always brings to surface the chronic, systemic animosity existing between the atomic industry and public organisations. Even though 22 years have already passed since the Chernobyl tragedy, the Russian public is still ill-disposed toward new NPP construction plans. According to the results of a public opinion poll commissioned by the above-mentioned Ecodefense and the Heinrich Boll Foundation and held in late 2007 by Romir, a representative of Gallup International in Russia and a leader in public opinion surveys in the country, around 78 percent of Russian citizens think negatively of new NPP projects on offer for the regions where they reside9. This statistic is confirmed by data collected earlier by another major sociological research company, the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which conducted a similar poll in February 2006 and documented that some 70 percent of Russians do not want to see a nuclear power plant near where they live.

Although in recent years Russia has been viewed widely as a country stuck on the wayside of democratic progress, such an intense grade of disapproval expressed by the nation’s population could become that tipping point that will thwart the “Nuclear Renaissance” prospects trumpeted by the state. Moreover, the new NPP construction programme may well reinvigorate the mass-scale anti-nuclear movement which, back in the end 1980s, sprang up in the USSR as a backlash following the Chernobyl catastrophe and forced a freeze on all NPP projects in development at the time – but then gradually waned in the 1990s as the population grew progressively indigent as a result of liberal reforms.

Data compiled by various state institutions show that between 1988 and 1992, public protests and economic hardships pulled the plug on 108 Soviet, and then Russian, atomic site projects.

A revival of that erstwhile sweeping anti-nuclear campaign is yet possible in Russia if those public organisations that have survived Putin’s “dictatorship of the law” assume the task of kindling and steering a wide-reaching public debate regarding the new NPP plans and manage to carry the opinion of ordinary citizens all the way through to the authorities. Candidates that could be up for such a job are few among today’s environmental organizations. The reason for that is that in the post-Soviet era, the development of the atomic energy industry screeched to an almost complete halt, meaning that there was no breeding ground for new anti-nuclear activist groups, which usually appear as a response to the state’s “intrusion” into this or that region. Another reason is that throughout almost a decade, the Russian government has been exerting itself enormously to establish rigorous control over the country’s public organisations and limit their operating resources. However, any crude “intrusion” attempted by the atomic industry into the established order of things in the regions is bound to spark a wave of anti-nuclear activities.

As for the authorities, they are well aware, even today, of the unfriendly sentiment that the public feels toward the new NPP initiative – yet, they are doing their best to feign ignorance or, in some instances, making unabashed statements indicating intent to disregard the opinion of the public. Still, the current state of affairs reveals that as soon as the public does express its opinion, the authorities’ reaction follows immediately. This has been repeatedly confirmed in many instances in the past several years. In the Kaliningrad Region, the residents’ active stance forced the local authorities to abandon a project for the construction of oil transshipment terminals (although no official decision has been announced, the project has been effectively in a freeze state for over a year now). In Irkutsk, a series of rallies helped rework an oil pipeline’s project so that the new pipeline’s route was shifted away from Lake Baikal. A widespread public campaign throughout Russia that protested the imports of the European uranium industry’s radioactive waste into the country has turned the tide of Rosatom’s policies and led to the agency’s decision to stop the imports. A future anti-nuclear movement does, too, have excellent chances to make itself heard if it acts efficiently, allows for growth, and does so in cooperation with the public.

The atomic industry in Russia has no illusions about how mighty an obstacle a negative public view can become to its development. But today, rather than trying to change that sentiment, its ambitions amount to flaunting indifference: No public opinion can influence the nuclear industry, hence, why pay attention to it?

All through 2007, Rosatom’s chief Sergei Kiriyenko vowed repeatedly that the population’s opinion would be given crucial weight in decision-making regarding where the new NPPs would be built in Russia. In particular, when he spoke with representatives of environmental organisations at a meeting at the Kola NPP in 2006, Kiriyenko said new nuclear power plants would only appear in those regions where more than 50 percent of the residents support the idea. (From a statement by Ecodefense’s Andrei Ozharovsky, a participant of the Kola NPP meeting, 2006).

In February 2008, Romir published the results of a public poll conducted in nine Russian regions that demonstrated universal discontent with the atomic energy industry. However, at an Atomic Energy Fair in Nizhny Novgorod only a month later, Rosatom officials declared at a press conference that they had data attesting to the population’s positive views on nuclear power plants – though they refused to produce that data. (From correspondence with the Nizhny Novgorod Anti-Nuclear Movement, March 31st, 2008). My opinion is that if such data did in fact exist, Rosatom would have no scruples about making sure it was available for publication in all major media in Russia. This example serves well to highlight the modus operandi that the Rosatom press service currently employs: Deny any information that does not suit the agency’s purposes and, furthermore, use every opportunity that presents itself to discredit the atomic industry’s opponents from whom such information has originated.

Are Russian production capacities up to par?
Practically every expert from the nuclear industry who I have talked to about the prospects of a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the past two years emphasized one very serious problem: All current efforts may turn out to be in vain due to the scarcity of machine-building capacities available. In the recent years, the Russian atomic industry’s average production rate has not exceeded one complete set of reactor equipment per two years. In order to double that production rate, bringing it to one reactor annually, a very propitious set of circumstances is required indeed – something that in Russia hardly comes in steady supply.

Considering that Rosatom is planning to build, or already building, new nuclear power plants in Bulgaria, China, Iran, and India, Russia’s machine-building enterprises are almost fully booked as it is. According to a Rosatom report publicised last year at a closed meeting of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, Russia’s plans for domestic NPP construction imply building 36 new reactors in the next 12 years, but the agency’s hopes for foreign-based commissions are even more ambitious than that: 40 to 60 reactor blocks in countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Chile, Brazil, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Belarus, and Egypt.

As of right now, it is not entirely clear where exactly Rosatom intends to produce these reactors – it is clear, on the other hand, that Russia is capable of manufacturing no more than 20 to 25 percent of the equipment needed to complete these projects. Last year, information surfaced that a number of attempts were made to negotiate cooperation with several European reactor-producing companies – such as Siemens, Areva, etc. – but it is unlikely that Russia’s reactors would be made by foreign companies. One factor to play a role here is that Rosatom finds itself in tough competition with Western corporations where foreign markets are concerned and making its reactor technologies available to market rivals will hardly figure into the agency’s policies.

As it stands, Russia’s “Nuclear Renaissance” is a pipedream from the point of view of necessary technologies alone. Any developments that may be in store for the industry in the near 3 to 5 years simply elude prognostications – except that public opposition to new NPP plans is only likely to gain force. The atomic industry’s colossal budget and the power it wields depend on the state, while the state’s budget, in its turn, is contingent on the stability of global oil prices. Predicting those is even dimmer a possibility.

Rosatom’s economy

The funds stocked in Rosatom’s coffers for the “Nuclear Renaissance” programme amount to RUR 3,000 billion, which, according to today’s currency rates, nears €80 billion (From “Why Rosatom needs a spokesperson,” Vera Ponomaryova, Bellona, March 28th, 2008). Obviously, it is impossible to know what might happen, economically, between now and 2020 or 2030, or whether the nuclear industry development programme will be completed as it is envisioned. It is quite likely that it will follow the hapless destiny of similar “Renaissances” that have come and passed before this one – at least, this would be the logical assumption if one takes into account the whole history of post-Soviet Russia. In any case, such is the amount that the state has approved for all the expenditures anticipated while carrying out the atomic industry reform, including construction of nuclear power plants as well as sites designated for the production and enrichment of uranium, storage and treatment of nuclear waste, and many other related activities. By our calculations, however, these funds will only stretch as far as covering some 60 percent to 65 percent of the works ahead.

Last year saw the creation in Russia of a state corporation, which became something of a cross between a state organisation and a private-owned company. The new entity was christened Rosatom – the same name that stands for the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, the governmental authority responsible for overseeing the Russian nuclear industry. This metamorphosis means, effectively, that on top of the resources that the agency receives from the state, it will also enjoy another venue of income: borrowing money from private investors. Additionally, the corporation will be responsible for converting most of the enterprises of the atomic industry into joint stock companies, which, nonetheless, will still remain under state control. All of these developments are to be opportune for attracting more funds. However, it is yet too early to make any forecasts as to how successful these endeavours will be. One should note that passing the law that authorised the creation of this new entity had been delayed for a few years by the opposition that came from the Russian Ministry of Economic Development and Trade: The ministry was of the opinion that such transformation may lead to dramatic economic losses and a weakening of the state’s control over the industry. (From November 2005 electronic correspondence and a conversation with a ministry source who wished to remain anonymous).

One can also safely project that the development of technologies needed for the operation of plutonium-based breeder reactors will require far greater expenses than anticipated by Rosatom. The agency has resolved to complete the previously frozen construction of a BN-800 reactor at the Beloyarsk NPP. The cost of that project, according to unofficial data, may reach €4,000 billion – roughly three times as much as building a new light water reactor would cost. The Russian atomic community deems the breeder technology to be extremely promising and thinks that the future atomic energy industry will be based wholly on plutonium fuel. Interestingly, since the 1970s, when the idea of a plutonium-based economy was first suggested, no country has been able to advance the technology enough to justify commercial interest.

Other, relatively less understandable, future expenses include the yet-to-be-established costs of decommissioning and dismantlement of aged reactors. The price tag of this endeavour depends a great deal on which technologies will be employed by Rosatom. Today’s reality is such that Russia has neither the technological capability nor the experience necessary to dismantle its soon-to-retire reactor blocks, meaning that one will have to wait to hear an answer to this dilemma.

Even more controversy surrounds the issue of nuclear waste management. For now, it is plain impossible to imagine what the atomic industry might decide to do with its spend nuclear fuel. It is highly likely that in the short-term perspective at least, Rosatom will continue to store this waste, preferring to procrastinate with finding a viable solution for as long as it is able to. In fact, the world simply has no ready-to-use technologies, nor any experience to rely on, to provide a sure exit out of this quandary. The dread of having to deal with nuclear waste is one big headache for any country that owns any.

In the long run, the only prognosis that can be made with any certainty regarding the Russian atomic industry’s economic future is that as long as Russia keeps raking in billions in oil profits, no financial problems should be expected with funding the state’s “Nuclear Renaissance” drive – which is not to say that the industry should not start getting prepared for other roadblocks it will have to overcome. Still, any expenses that may come out of left field plus, very possibly, mass-scale corruption may with time become too damaging a factor and throw a killing curve ball at the “Nuclear Renaissance” hopes.

Soviet legacy and nuclear waste
Accumulation of radioactive and nuclear waste has become one of the most challenging problems stemming from over 60 years of the industry’s development. Russia by now has amassed some 20,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel (SNF), but still has no technology that would guarantee that this waste will be stowed away safely to avoid harming the population and surrounding environment for the whole period that it is expected to preserve its lethal radioactivity levels – which means thousands of years. Apart from the SNF, which is the waste that remains after nuclear fuel is burned up in reactors at nuclear power plants, there are also many millions of tonnes of other types of radioactive waste or radioactive materials that possess no usable purpose and whose precise quantity is yet to be established. This waste is scattered across the many different enterprises operated by the nuclear industry or, in some cases, hoarded up, with no security provided, somewhere out in an open field – like the stockpile of monazite concentrate near the Urals town of Krasnoufimsk. After the Second World War, the government meant to use monazite concentrate for the purposes of its atomic programme, but the plans were soon dropped, and now these materials are at the mercy of winds blowing them out of the dilapidated warehouse where the concentrate is stored and sprinkling radioactive particles all over the surrounding crop fields. It is hard to imagine the costs of liquidating this legacy of the Soviet nuclear might, for which no comprehensive data is even available that would account for all of the waste in the entire country. But it is clear that the costs would be demanding.

Interestingly, any time that the confusing issue of radioactive waste is raised, Russian nuclear industry officials like to the play the game called “What waste? This is not waste.” For instance – as Russia has no plan or technology available to approach the SNF challenge – the nuclear authorities, eager to postpone tackling the problem for as long as possible, have come up with quite a curious solution: asserting that spent nuclear fuel is, in fact, in no need of liquidating, because it is not waste at all, but, rather, a precious commodity that can be used for production purposes. But is it? Simply slapping a new label on spent nuclear fuel will not help and theory has to be supported with developed technologies and a reprocessing plant in place, in order that the SNF be reprocessed into a source material with commercial applications.

The better part of SNF accumulated in Russia comes from Chernobyl-type reactors, or RBMKs. The Soviet nuclear industry has never considered reprocessing RBMK-generated SNF because doing so serves no economic purpose. As a result, Russia has no technological capability to reprocess this type of nuclear waste and it is simply tucked away in storage facilities with no apparent plans of further utilization.

What Russia does have is technologies allowing the reprocessing of SNF generated by VVER-400 and BN-600 reactors (as well as reactors from nuclear-powered submarines). But this SNF constitutes a very small part of the overall quantity of waste in storage in the country. Reprocessing is done at the chemical combine Mayak in the Chelyabinsk Region, one of the most contaminated places on earth. The facility itself is considerably worn-down and is frequently the site of various accidents accompanied by radioactive leaks. The latest took place on March 27th, 2008 (see “Another nuclear incident at Mayak,” Bellona, April 1st, 2008). Years of SNF reprocessing at Mayak have also led to the accumulation of several dozen tonnes of plutonium – but there are no specific plans with regard to what to do with it further down the road. Apparently, there exists no expedient purpose for reprocessing this waste, which renders doubt to the assertion that Russian SNF is a precious commodity.

In any case, SNF reprocessing is not the way to solve the dilemma of nuclear waste as much as it is a way to generate more of it. The reprocessing of one tonne of SNF results in producing a meagre amount of plutonium and over 100 tonnes of liquid and solid radioactive waste. Part of this newly generated waste is regularly dumped by Mayak into the surrounding environment, despite the laws that clearly prohibit it.

Mayak is also known for a series of severe accidents that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The most notorious of those took place in 1957, when an explosion in the nuclear waste storage facility led to an immense discharge of radioactive substances. Around 23,000 square kilometres of land was contaminated. Parts of the population that resided in this area – which was, altogether, nearly 270,000 people8 – were evacuated and relocated into clean territories. However, several villages remained unmoved despite peak levels of radioactive contamination.

Muslyumovo is one of these, now infamous, places. It is located not far from Mayak and is still inhabited. For over 15 years, Russian environmental organisations have fought to secure evacuation of Muslyumovo residents and in late 2005, Rosatom’s resistance finally gave way. Relocation, for which state funds have already been earmarked, is to take place this year. However, 100 out of the 400 villagers will only get to move as far as 2 kilometres away from Muslyumovo. They will still drink contaminated water and use other natural resources poisoned with radiation. There is no way to know the exact reason why Rosatom decided to relocate these people only 2 kilometres away from the village. Furthermore, there remain other villages in the area, such as Tatarskaya Karabolka, whose plight is no less dire than Muslyumovo’s. Rosatom still refuses to evacuate those settlements, and local residents and environmental groups can be expected to continue bringing their pressure on the atomic authority for a long time to come.

Other safety issues
The Muslyumovo story is a stark illustration of the contemporary history of the Russian nuclear industry: Even when the industry finally remembers to take care of the many problems it has amassed, it is hard pressed to do it right. One is reminded of a saying that used to be in fashion in the Soviet times: “Whatever they make, they end up with a bomb.” The joke was that this was such an industry that had been created with the purpose of producing the atomic bomb to begin with and never really learnt to do anything else.

The Chelyabinsk Region is not the only radioactively contaminated place in Russia. Other territories have fallen prey to the Chernobyl catastrophe, uranium production, or enterprises manufacturing nuclear weapons. There is also radioactive contamination associated with the operation of nuclear reactors.

The highly unreliable reactor technologies make for that other major headache inherited by Russia and other nations from the Soviet regime. In contrast to the consequences of accidents that have taken place at Mayak, safety issues related to reactor operation are not acknowledged by the atomic industry. As a result, no steps are ever taken to solve these problems.

First-generation Soviet reactor blocks – RBMKs and VVER 440/230s – are known for a large number of significant defects impacting their safety. In Ukraine, all Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors have already been shut down, and in Lithuania the last such reactor still in use at the Ignalina NPP is to be taken offline in 2009, in compliance with requirements set forth by the European Union. Similar requirements have recently been enforced in Bulgaria, which has shut down the first-generation VVER-440 reactors at its Kozlodui NPP. Yet, in Russia, these reactors continue operation despite being both aged and technologically inadequate in terms of safety.

All these first-generation reactors were designed in the USSR several decades before the explosion at Chernobyl – that is, at the time when safety standards were a few notches below what they are now. Still, even though these reactors cannot be upgraded to meet the more exacting standards of today, the Russian atomic industry is set on extending their 30-year operational license. This is already being done at the Leningrad, Kola, and Novovoronezh NPPs and the same policy is likely reserved for other reactors in the future. As these reactor blocks and their equipment continue to age and wear down, the grave risk of another grievous accident of the Chernobyl calibre will continue to grow.

This threat is well perceived by some among industry insiders. Misgivings are expressed in private conversations, but no one will take their concerns public. Today, everyone simply entertains the hope that future accidents can be averted, but this hope is unlikely based on a 100-percent certainty. It is, rather, faith-like trust that all will turn out all right.

The more technologically advanced VVER-1000s are, however, not perfect either. For instance, nine years ago, two lakes near the Kalinin NPP – some 300 kilometres off Moscow – were revealed to contain 15 to 20 times as high levels of radioactive tritium as is considered the accepted norm. (From materials of the State Committee for Environmental Protection of the Russian Federation, 1999). The situation is aggravated by the fact that these lakes supply drinking water for local residents. When tritium finds its way into the human body, it can cause genetic disorders10. In almost a decade that has passed since the discovery, the nuclear authorities have not been able to contain the tritium leaks, but have already taken a new reactor online at the Kalinin NPP and another one is in the works. Agencies charged with environmental oversight have, of course, tried to solve the problem, but the sheer absence of any political weight that environmentalists could use as leverage in the country’s governing system made sure that authorities simply turned a deaf ear to such demands.

All these facts, while hardly helping endear the already unpopular atomic industry to the public, represent an enormous load of problems that will require a great deal of money and time to solve.

Any one of Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants can be shown to host a number of considerable defects which the government’s supervisory bodies gloss over in the name of economic development or simply because of the inclination to maintain friendly relations with the atomic industry. That information about these defects has even been made public is solely the achievement of the Russian environmental movement, which in the past 20 years has done much to keep the country’s population informed. If a broad public debate is launched regarding the construction of new NPPs in Russia, and the public succeeds in making its impact on the state’s decision-making process, the “Nuclear Renaissance” is bound to go up in smoke. If, on the other hand, the Russian government proceeds with its doctrine of tightening the screws wherever possible, building up on the authoritarian policies introduced by Putin, the Russian civil society will simply cease to exist and technological challenges will remain the only obstacle blocking the course of action chosen by the nuclear industry.

The conclusion I have to make when analysing this situation may seem a surprising one. Assuming that Russia in the future preserves any standards of democracy, albeit with limited applications, the chances for the atomic establishment to insure a successful future development and increase the industry’s share in the country’s energy economy will be close to zero. The proportion of electric power generated by Russian NPPs as compared to other energy sources will begin dwindling in the next two decades. Even if by 2030 it still remains at its current levels, this will constitute a major achievement on the part of the atomic industry.

In my opinion, a gradual decline of the role that the atomic energy industry plays in the country is the most likely scenario one can expect to unfold. In the next ten years, the share of atomic energy in the overall energy economy in Russia may even show a slight growth as new capacities will be taken online and efforts will be made to hold out on decommissioning aged reactors. But no later than in ten years, the nuclear energy sector will find itself on a steady downward course which will gain all the more momentum as more and more old reactors will have to be shut down. Laying out any specific estimates here is a challenge as unforeseen factors no one thinks to provide contingency against are the forces that traditionally come to shape the Russian history. But I will allow myself one assumption: By 2030, Russian NPPs will be responsible for about twice as little energy output as they are generating now – unless, of course, a serious accident leads to a decision to scrap the atomic development plans altogether and that roughly 8 percent of national energy production becomes even less of a feasible prospect. None of this warrants calling the future of the Russian atomic industry a “Nuclear Renaissance”: The industry is in a limbo, from where its fall into obscurity may not be immediate, but is inevitable.

1. “Environmentalists against the atomic community,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 27, 2007.
2. Atomic Train. The Truth is Out There, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, USA, May 12, 1999.
3. “The Russian Atomic Industry in 2003,” report by Ecodefense!, 2004.
4. “The treacherous light of Mayak,” Trud, February 1, 2007.
5. Murmansk ecologists secure the creation of a governmental working group for renewable energy , news agency Murman, March 23, 2007.
Ecologists protest operation of floating NPPs at Shtokman field news agency Rosbalt, March 8, 2008.
7. “NPP to moor at APEC forum,” Kommersant, June 6, 2007.
8. Exhibition “A 50-Year Catastrophe,” Heinrich Boll Stiftung (The Heinrich Boll Foundation) and Ecodefense!, September 2007.
9. Romir Press Centre 10. “The danger of tritium,” Movement for Nuclear Safety, Chelyabinsk, 2003.

Vladimir Slivyak is co-chair of the Ecodefense environment organisation and a frequent contributor to Bellona Web.