Comment: Rosatom: Planes don’t fly over nuclear power plants – Kaliningrad residents get spurned at yet another hopeless NPP hearing

Galina Raguzina

Publish date: November 1, 2009

Written by: Galina Raguzina

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

KALININGRAD – In late October, legislature in the small town of Krasnoznamensk in Russia’s Kaliningrad Region held a hearing on the contentious issue of the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant. Opened to the public and featuring high-level visitors from Moscow, the hearing proved to be another opportunity for officials to turn a deaf ear to the locals’ legitimate concerns over the project’s safety. Bellona’s Kaliningrad contributor shares her impressions from the Krasnoznamensk meeting hall.

The event meant to compensate for a public hearing scheduled by the local Council of Deputies for October 14th but then cancelled at a recommendation of the regional government. The same strategy had been employed earlier in the year in Sovetsk, another town in the eastern part of the Russian westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom plans to build a new nuclear power plant (NPP) in Kaliningrad’s Neman District, some 15 kilometres from European Union territory. Living next to a potentially hazardous energy site is cause for worry for many both in Kaliningrad Region and neighbouring countries, such as Lithuania. The resentment locals feel toward the aggressively promoted project is furthermore hardly helped by the underhanded tactics to muffle opposition, attempts at whitewashing the project’s dangers, and no visible regard for public opinion – which, as polls show, leans heavily against the idea.

The October 22nd hearing featured participation by Kaliningrad Vice Governor Yury Shalimov, Deputy Chairman of the Energy Committee of the Russian Parliament, the State Duma, Konstantin Zaitsev, Chief Project Engineer Ivan Grabelnikov, Rosatom’s Director of the Department for Communication with Public Organisations and Regions Igor Konyshev, as well as heads of district administrations of Krasnoznamensk and Neman, another town in close vicinity of the future site.
Also present at the event were some 200 residents of Krasnoznamensk and surrounding villages, who took quite a critical approach to the prospect of the “peaceful atom” coming to their backyard. Their questions, however, hit a solid wall of unabashed spin-doctoring regarding what was advertised as absolute safety of the proposed NPP and, accordingly, of assertions that no contingency measures to protect or evacuate the population would ever be needed.

“Krasnoznamensk residents were asking about leukaemia, which, as scientists say, is caused by nuclear power plants even in standard operation mode, about safety measures for the population that must be developed, about the impact of cooling towers, about the storage and transport of spent nuclear fuel, about evacuation plans, about the air corridor that passes over the site chosen for the construction,” said Alexandra Korolyova, co-chair of the environmental group Ecodefense, who was also present at the meeting.

“In other words, they demonstrated they were prepared, that they understood the issues and that they were hoping that in response to their correctly posed questions they would receive competent, exhaustive answers. Alas, that, as usual, did not happen.”
The Q. & A. session at the hearing was an ample corroboration of Korolyova’s point:

Question from the audience: “Please present your evacuation plan, what safety measures are provided for in case of an accident?”

Chief Project Engineer Grabelnikov: “There is no need for one. This is a completely new reactor, absolutely safe, that’s why the perimeter of the sanitary zone is the same as that of the operations site. There will be no discharge of radiation, we will not relocate anyone, we won’t evacuate either.”

A year ago, when the public was just making its acquaintance with Grabelnikov – on October 24th 2008, as part of a Rosatom delegation, he visited Kaliningrad with a report he was presenting to the regional government on the new project – something that may have been his professional training or personal moral compass apparently managed to cause him to refrain from going into such sweeping declarations. At the time, he said there were no absolutely safe nuclear power plants in existence. Either such nuclear power plants have surfaced in the past year – or Grabelnikov has had some schooling in Nuclear PR 101.

Question from the audience: “What will happen if a plane crashes into the plant? An air corridor passes right over there, terrorists won’t even have to change the course…”

Rosatom’s Konyshev: “Planes don’t fly over nuclear power plants. There is no air corridor over there.”

At that point, the audience was so taken aback the hall suddenly fell silent. Thanks to Ecodefense’s efforts, an illustrative map of Kaliningrad Region – complete with the three sites currently competing for the new Baltic NPP and the air passage corridor clearly covering the area – has been made available on the web, and local activists took care to bring the information to those residents who do not have online access. The public gathered in the meeting hall, most of whom had never heard Konyshev speak before, started to gain a better understanding of what further interaction with this Rosatom representative may entail. Promptly, the audience recovers:

Question from the audience: “How will you transport the waste, the spent nuclear fuel?”

This question is a frequent one, and there is little wonder in that: The text of the state-sanctioned environmental impact study, published earlier regarding the Baltic NPP project, treats this subject meagrely at best, resorting, mostly, to such uninformative sentences as “All operations with spent fuel rule out completely its contact with the environment.” No design specifications are listed for the cooling pond, nor any time frames specified for how long it will store spent nuclear fuel (SNF). No emergency scenarios are taken into consideration for cases involving accidents while loading and unloading SNF or leaks in the cooling pond.

Such accidents have taken place at other nuclear power plants and the possibility cannot be ruled out for the Baltic NPP, either. No probability assessments are given on potential accidents while transporting waste generated at the plant and no measures are considered to mitigate consequences of such accidents. It is likewise unclear where exactly the SNF from the Baltic NPP will be transported to – there is just a fuzzy mention of “an enterprise specialised in nuclear fuel reprocessing.”

Konyshev does little to clear up the fog: “We’ll transport it by water, ground, air transport – whichever transport we need to. All over the world, huge amounts of nuclear materials are being transported every second.”

A local resident: “I would like to see some figures on the screen here: How much energy will the nuclear plant produce? How much does Kaliningrad Region need? How much does Krasnoznamensk District need? It’s not like we have any industry here in our district… Tell me this, do they drill for oil in Krasnoznamensk District? Oh yes, they do! So what, locals now are all rich like Saudi sheiks? Doesn’t show, does it…”

Head of Administration of Krasnoznamensk District: “No, there is no industry in Krasnoznamensk District. And that’s because we have no energy. No investors stay in Krasnoznamensk! The Hungarians wanted to build a plant to manufacture distemper paints (someone from the audience: “That, too, is a hazardous industry!”), then there was an offer from Latvia to build an ecologically friendly polystyrene plant (again, from the audience: “God forbid, we’re fine, thank you very much!”). Only a nuclear power plant will save Krasnoznamensk, and we’ll see to it that we get electric power at preferential prices.”
A representative of the local health care system: “I’m not against an NPP, not particularly anyway. But we’ve got very big problems with health care, for instance, a maternity hospital has been closed – they opened a parental care centre in Kaliningrad. Can we count on Rosatom to renovate our hospital?”

The closing of the maternity hospital is no small matter for the town, which is 180 kilometres away from the city of Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad Vice Governor Yury Shalimov (looking irate): “Give me your figures – what budgets have you had, in 2008 and 2009?”

The health care official looks like this has knocked him for a loop, cannot seem to remember the figures, but says that the budget has grown by 50 percent.

A voice from the audience: “What about the inflation?”
Shalimov (ever so menacingly): “Call and get the figures, your salaries alone are now double what they were!”

The health care official: “Our salaries have actually shrunk because of the per capita financing we’ve been switched over to…”

With a pilot “per capita financing” project undertaken in several Russian regions, the Russian Ministry of Health has been trying to encourage clinics and hospitals to provide better health care services by calculating their budget funding based on the scope and quality of services rendered.

Question from a resident of one of the area’s villages, a mother of a large family and a reprehensive of the Association for Mothers of Three or More Children: “Those residents of Krasnoznamensk District who have children cannot but feel concerned about the issues of the nuclear plant’s impact on health. It’s no secret that nuclear power plants, even as they run in normal operation mode, discharge radionuclides into the environment. And studies done in Germany show that children who live in the vicinity of nuclear power plants get sick with leukaemia twice as often. Do you understand that we won’t even be able to treat these illnesses anywhere, our hospitals are closing! Who’s going to build hospitals for us? Rosatom?”

Konyshev goes off on a habitual round of dismissing German medical studies, telling the audience that the authors had been relying on too small a sample – hadn’t examined enough children to be able to make the conclusions that they made – and that this study hasn’t been corroborated by any other research.
Konyshev apparently claims more extensive knowledge of the issue than that available to the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection, which had commissioned this study. As has been previously reported by Bellona in a story on this research, German scientists analysed statistical data gathered on 1,592 children with cancer and 4,375 healthy children, who in the period of between 1980 and 2003 lived in 41 German districts in close proximity to the 16 NPPs the country operates.

Elsewhere, a study performed by scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina, among many others, has shown increased levels of leukaemia incidence in children and young adults living near nuclear power plants. Overall, reports on health levels among populations living near 136 nuclear sites in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and Spain have been examined.

It turns out, deaths among children under nine occur five percent to 24 percent more frequently than is the case with children living at substantial distances from nuclear power plants. Similarly, the increase in mortality among young adults under 25 is between two percent and 18 percent. The risk of developing leukaemia increases by between 14 percent and 21 percent among children, whereas for young adults residing near nuclear power plants, that risk is seven percent to 10 percent higher than for those living far enough.

According to the results of an extensive epidemiological study that examined the health of children who reside in the vicinity of five shut-down nuclear power plants in the US, in the first two years after the sites were closed, infant mortality in the 40-mile-wide areas located downwind of the sites dropped by 15 percent to 20 percent, as compared to the preceding two years, when the plants were still operative.

Furthermore, the American Cancer Prevention Coalition has publicised the results of a study that had been undertaken in 268 districts situated within 80-kilometre distances from military nuclear industrial sites as well as civilian nuclear power plants. The study showed a significant increase in mortality caused by breast cancer in these areas.

All of these data were included into a 22-page document written by Ecodefense and entitled “Critical Notes on the State Environmental Impact Assessment of the Construction Project of the Baltic NPP.” Several copies of this report were brought to the hearing and given to Rosatom representatives early last month and district administration officials, under the authority of whom this project is being promoted and who will then have to assume responsibility for the project’s consequences.

The hearing’s protocol did not make it possible to read these findings to the audience. Three times during Ecodefense’s Korolyova’s speech the organisers tried to shut her down and each time the audience, in no ambiguous terms, demanded that she be given the chance to speak.

“Now that the decision to build the Baltic NPP has been made by the federal government, now would be the time for Rosatom to stop making promotional declarations about the nuclear power plant’s absolute safety and start having a real conversation about the measures that will be taken to ensure said safety,” Korolyova said.

“The document entitled “Environmental Impact Assessment of the Baltic NPP Project” is, in effect, where such measures should be provided for, but they aren’t,” she continued. “I have quite a long question for Rosatom and the project designers: Why does the [environmental impact assessment] underestimate, by a factor of 20 times, the levels of radioactive discharges in case of a beyond-design-basis accident and has no estimations at all on such discharges in case of a design-basis accident? Why does the [assessment] contain no population protection measures? No comprehensive nuclear waste management or NPP decommissioning measures? Why does it have no assessment of the impact of liquid radioactive waste discharges? The  impact of cooling towers is not considered…”

Konyshev: “Plumes from cooling towers are not even 500 metres long!”

Yet, according to what residents of the town of Udomlya, in Central Russia’s Tver Region, say – Udomlya is home to Kalinin NPP, where a fourth nuclear reactor is being built – “under certain weather conditions, the vapour plume from the [Kalinin plant’s] cooling towers stretches as far as dozens of kilometres, puts a shroud of thick fog over the town, which is some three to five kilometres away, and in winter, covers the trees around with a thick layer of frost. The vapour plume can reach no less than two kilometres in height and no less than 15 to 20 kilometres in length.”

Korolyova: “Can you comment on this fact: The [Environmental Impact Assessment report] on the Finnish nuclear power plant Fennovoima [currently in development] says: ‘Design-basis accidents at the NPP may potentially impact [an area within the radius of] 1,000 kilometres.’ This is the accident scenario stipulated by the Finnish government in order to prevent representatives of the nuclear industry from underestimating the consequences of NPP accidents. And the Baltic NPP [environmental impact assessment] claims that even in case of a most severe accident, radiation will not escape the territory of the site.”

Chief Project Engineer Grabelnikov: “The [environmental impact assessment] for the Finnish NPP was prepared for a broad range of reactor designs, so that different companies could take part in the tender.”

That is one daring statement, if one takes into account that, in accordance with both national and international legislations, an environmental impact assessment is done on each particular project at hand, be it a nuclear reactor or a milk-processing factory. First, a reactor design is chosen for the project under development, then the environmental impact study is done on the project. Tender first, then the assessment.

Question from the audience: “What about the investors? Anyone signed up yet?”

Vice Governor Shalimov: “Yes, but even if they don’t [sic!], the NPP will be built with government money.”

Someone from the audience: “There’s, like, nothing else to spend it on, right?”

Meanwhile, a campaign to collect signatures is on foot in Kaliningrad Region to send a collective letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, asking him to abandon the plans to build an NPP in the region. Around 1,500 residents of Sovetsk and some thousand Krasnoznamensk residents – including eight of the 15 district council deputies – have already signed the letter.

The letter says, in part: “The decision of whether to build or not to build an NPP should only be taken based on the opinion of the population. Otherwise, the result is that the authorities are intentionally provoking public tensions, because 67 percent of the population of Kaliningrad Region and 78 percent of the population of Russia have a negative attitude toward [nuclear power plants].