Comment: Rosatom grants itself the government prerogative of deciding issues of new nuclear power plants

Publish date: September 3, 2008

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Charles Digges

MOSCOW - The chief of Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko has inked a deal to build a new nuclear power station in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to be called the Baltic Nuclear power Plant, the corporation said.

The plant will have two reactors with a total capacity of 2400 megawatts by the first stage of construction in 2015, when its first reactor is scheduled to go online. When plans for the plant were announced in April, Kiriyenko highlighted the export potential of the project.

The builder of the plant will be Russia’s newly reconstituted Energoatom – formerly Rosenergoatom – the country’s nuclear utility. Engineering work for the plant is planned is scheduled to be complete by 2009 and the total cost for the plant’s construction is estimated at €5 billion.

Numerous odd details, however, surround the unveiling of this most recent mammoth project of the Russian nuclear industry.

Rosatom’s press service first announced the plans for the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant publicly on April 27th. The project was approved, however, two weeks earlier, on April 13th. The reason for the delay is unclear, but the first thing that comes to mind is that Rosatom wants as little attention paid to this project as possible.

Nevertheless, the Russian press grabbed the story and ran with it was soon as the plans for the plant were announced at the end of the month. But it wasn’t writing about environmental consequence s accompanying the appearance of the plant in Kaliningrad, or even about the economic sense of the project. Only the political aspects were covered. No journalists with Russia’s central mass media were apparently interested in how this project is dangerous, or what was at risk for Russian citizens, and that the prospective plant is ruinous.  

At that, it is interesting that this is such a political fuss between the enormous Russia and the itsy-bitsy Lithuania, with whom Russia in this manner has apparently wiped it’s nose. I therefore have a question for the adherents of great power mania and Russia imperialism – aren’t you ashamed? Look around – who are you fighting with and who are you trying to free? It’s all in the great Russian tradition – kick somebody smaller so they can’t answer.
To assert oneself in such a way with small states who have problems up to their ears – a justification can always be found. Something like “they are in the European Union,” or NATO, or have joined some other organisation. On the other hand, if Russia doesn’t give a damn about its own people, then Russia will not treat the inhabitants of a small neighboring country with any more ceremony.

As concerns Russia’s own people, they have already said everything long ago. Around 67 percent of the Kaliningrad Region reacts negatively to building the new plant, according to a poll by Kaliningrad Sociological Center carried out in spring of 2007.

For those who are especially interested in this fact, I will provide the formulation with which they asked Kaliningraders “how do you relate to the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Kaliningrad Region?”

The underpinning for such a public onion is there and then some: there does not exist a single completely safe nuclear reactor there is no technology guaranteeing the isolation of nuclear waste for all time while it emits lethally high levels of radiation. Moreover, Kaliningraders don’t one day want to become a dump-site for nuclear waste from all over Europe. It bears remembering that Russia legislation allows the import of spent nuclear fuel from abroad, and Kaliningrad is the closest Russian point to which it might be taken. Yet the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant will probably be built with its own nuclear waste storage facility.

Rosatom chief Kiriyenko has announced several times that no nuclear power stations would be built in areas there the population is against them, however the decree ordering the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant is already signed. Now Kaliningraders are clued in on what the word of a federal bureaucrat is worth – the very same Kiriyenko, who while serving as prime minister, brought the country to a default from which most Russians suffered. He didn’t get anywhere, and continues top wow us with his fairy tale solutions.

The Baltic Nuclear Power Plant is a phantom station. In the government’s General Scheme for Building Electrical Energy Installations Until 2020, confirmed by the government in February, 36 new nuclear reactors are envisioned, but the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant is not among them. Nor is it mentioned in any other Russian government document. At this, Rosatom is announcing that foreign investment will be attracted to help finance the construction of the plant, which may consist of up to 49 percent of the plant’s ownership. The other 51 percent will remain Rosatom property. This way, not less than half of the cost of the station will be paid for by the Russian budget, and government approval is need for this, which, so far, has not been forthcoming. On the whole, the situation bears witness that at this time, funding for the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant is nonexistent.

It is of interest that Sergei Novikov, Kiriyenko’s personal press secretary, told the English-language paper, The Moscow Times, that Rosatom does not require any government green light to go ahead with building the plant, and that Rosatom will finance the construction with its own money. I wonder if after they have built the plant, the government will, as before, not be deciding anything. It probably won’t pay any attention to some nuclear plant on the border with Lithuania. Consequently, the Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Technical and Atomic Supervision will not have any say, and this nuclear power will be controlled by none other than Rosatom itself. And they will be inspecting themselves. Nothing but a private shop.

For foreign investors the situation is remarkable – not a single foreign company has so far publicly expressed an interest in participating in the construction of the plant. However, Rosatom and the Regional Government of Kaliningrad have been talking about the presence of these investors for six months. The Ecodefence environmental group wrote to each of the foreign companies that have participated in building nuclear power plant in Eastern Europe over the past 10 years, and not a single one of them confirmed an interest in the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant. CEZ, a Czech company referred to in the Russian press as having interest in the nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad, answered Ecodefence that it had not made any decisions one way or the other. Germany’s Siemens said that it was no longer investing in nuclear power plants at all. The Russian business daily Kommersant has long wanted to write at least something about the investors. Long sympathising with Rosatom, the publication could not possibly cast doubt on the words of nuclear industry bosses. Kommersant therefore began to simply list western companies – Fortum, EOn, Enel and others – that have at one time or another surfaced on the Russian energy scene and bought something. The companies themselves were surprised. The companies did not confirm their interest in participating in the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, but Kommersant apparently did not need their confirmation.  

Such trivial matters as nuclear waste do not interest the financial publications of Russia at all. The Wall Street Journal has written about how much it will cost in the United States. This month, for instance, the paper wrote about how new estimates for a storage site for nuclear waste in the United States will cost almost $100 billion. This is a fantastic sum, even for the United States, and it is one more proof of how serious are the problems of radioactive waste. Kommersant is similarly oblivious about were the waste from the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant will be sent.

Then again, Kommersant loves to write about the Russian nuclear industry in uncritical terms because writing in critical terms would raise problems with Rosatom. Apropos of that, Georgy Boos, governor of the Kaliningrad Region, apparently doesn’t even know what nuclear waste is – the less you know, the sounder you sleep. But all the same, I will note for no one’s particular interest:

At present, there is about 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel piled up in Russia that contains plutonium, and as many millions of tons of other kinds of radioactive waste. Even former President Vladimir Putin made note of radioactive waste during a government council meeting that took place at the Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant in 2003.

As a note, plutonium’s half-life is 24,00 years, and it becomes safe only within 10 epochs. At present, Russia has absolutely no legislatively formulated strategies for dealing with radioactive waste, and this means that the government has no definite attitude about its future disposition. The Kaliningrad Region will be held hostage to this situation when a storage site for radioactive waste is built at the nuclear power plant, and decisions about its fate are constantly put off because of a lack of reliable technologies for interring nuclear waste.

Sooner or later, this will lead to the use of the Kaliningrad Region as a dump for radioactive waste from Europe, although Russian law provides for the import of foreign spent nuclear fuel only for commercial purposes. As and example, the problem of decommissioning such fuel at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania will come up next year. In Germany and Sweden, where all nuclear power plants are being taken out of service, there will be lots of waste. As such, another financially profitable project for Rosatom – which will doubtless be supported by Governor Boos – will come up. Boos has an ideal picture in his head – in France, he saw nuclear power plants and sacredly considers that they should be built everywhere. In truth, there were five large radioactive emissions in France this summer, with more than 1,000 victims. But this will hardly be of interest to Boos. He surely orients himself well in the flow of information and just plucks away the inconvenient facts.

The goings on with the Kaliningrad nuclear power plant are muddy. What is actually going on with investors, what the Russian government needs or needs not to do, what will happen with the radioactive waste, in what period a contemporary station can realistically be built – and it is certainly not five years, as Rosatom insists – remains to be known. Let it be hoped that there will be no results that are comparable in their magnitude with the 1998 default. However, taking on the work of trying to confirm this will not be taken on by anyone at present.  

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the environmental group Ecodefence, is a frequent contributor to Bellona Web.

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