Belarus unveils latest folly, resuscitates eccentric mobile nuke plant project

Publish date: March 24, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – The March 16 meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State of Russia and Belarus – an odd supranational political entity still in the process of formation – delivered quite a surprise: Right before the meeting, reports indicated the two nations might be considering reviving a long-abandoned project of a low-capacity mobile nuclear power plant. Bellona’s regular contributor Andrei Ozharovsky doubts that this project will serve the needs of anyone other than its developers.

The March 16th meeting that gathered ministers of the Russian-Belarusian Union State took place in the Belarusian city of Brest. No information passed through official media reports on any discussion taking place about the rather difficult issues related to the construction in Belarus of a nuclear power plant (NPP) to an experimental Russian design.

The project, called NPP-2006, is being developed by Atomstroiexport, a structure within the Russian nuclear state corporation Rosatom which is in charge of the atomic authority’s intergovernmental cooperation agreements. And there are quite a number of issues to discuss – the amount of the export credit and credit agreement stipulations under which Belarus is expected to obtain it, general liability insurance against potential accidents and incidents at the future site, the price of fresh nuclear fuel and conditions of delivery, as well as management of the spent nuclear fuel that will be generated during the plant’s operation, among other items. Likewise, media reports mentioned no other nuclear projects under discussion between the two countries. The absence of the nuclear theme at the talks is an unusual turn of events and could be interpreted as a sign that the conversation may have in fact taken place, but no agreement was reached between the parties.

Yet a more unusual event occurred even before the meeting. On the eve of the talks, interviews spread across media outlets in which Vyacheslav Kuvshinov, head of the Belarusian Joint Institute for Power and Nuclear Research Sosny, announced that Belarus – following a proposal forwarded by Russia – is considering building a mobile nuclear power plant:

“On a suggestion from our Russian colleagues, we are looking into the possibility of resuming our work on a mobile nuclear power plant. We hope that at least the first steps toward implementation of this project will be supported with funds from the [Union State’s] budget,” Kuvshinov was quoted by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti as saying.

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The price tag

Kuvshinov’s announcement did, indeed, come as a complete surprise. Modern nuclear power plants are heavy-duty energy production sites, with each reactor yielding commonly between 500 and 1,000 megawatts of electric power. The NPP that Belarus wants Russia to build as part of the NPP-2006 project – the tentative location proposed for the plant is Ostrovets, a town in Grodno Region – is expected to have an energy output of 1,200 megawatts.

The reasons behind the growing capacity of modern nuclear reactors are purely commercial: The bigger the site, the easier it is to save on maintenance, repairs, or security. A mobile NPP’s capacity, on the other hand, does not exceed 10 megawatts – a hundred times less power than what a standard reactor would produce today. In other words, an energy installation with this much output will be nothing short of a financial suicide – worse even than the significantly more powerful floating nuclear power plants, where, experts say, construction and operational costs will translate into electricity prices 7.5 times higher than for energy generated by a standard-capacity reactor.

Is there any specific demand for low-capacity NPP that the general public is unaware of? Kuvshinov believes that Russia is currently in need of mobile nuclear energy installations that it could use in its extractive industries. That is a valid enough point, but there is little to suggest that such mobile installations should necessarily be the prohibitively expensive and dangerous nuclear power plants.

Clearly, Kuvshinov is trying to turn on the money tap that shines brightly behind the project. should it be approved. He is, in fact, quite candid about his intent to finagle the Union State into bankrolling a certain economic fiasco. If such an installation were indeed something that Russian oil and gas producers were after, they would have themselves funded the project, without ever turning to Russia or Belarus to dish out subsidies from the Union State budget.

The Pamir and other experiments

The idea of a roving nuclear power installation has been realised at least twice before – and rejected both times.
Back in the Soviet era, Sosny – it was then known as the Institute for Nuclear Energy of the Academy of Sciences of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic – was once on the very brink of actually creating a transportable nuclear power installation, a project dubbed Pamir. It was supposed to move around on a four-chassis heavy-duty MAZ-537, a late 1950s all-terrain tractor truck model that was used for transport purposes by the Soviet military. Other transport options were also provided for, including transport by rail, by sea, and even by air. The Sosny institute came as far ahead as building a pilot unit – the only thing left to do was fuel the reactor and start testing. A second unit was in the final stages of completion. Then on April 26th, 1986, the world’s greatest catastrophe to date occurred at the neighbouring Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. A shaken Byelorussia made the decision to halt the project, lest it wanted to invite any additional risks. The dangerous installation was never taken online.
Dismantling the reactor was an easy task, given that it had never had the chance to become radioactive waste to begin with. And for Belarus, putting the project on indefinite hold may have been the right call to make: No more risks, no more tinkering with the “peaceful atom.”

In the second experiment, in the 1960s, Soviet scientists managed both to create and put into operation a kind of a “crawler” nuclear station. The installation, dubbed TES-3 (or TNP-3, for Transportable Nuclear Plant) and built in the nuclear city of Obninsk in Moscow Region, near the very first Soviet nuclear power plant, was taken online in 1961. This was a pilot model of a modular transportable small-capacity nuclear power station based on a two-loop cycle with an 8.8-megawatt boiling water reactor. It was burning 74 fuel assemblies with highly enriched uranium. The station’s equipment was mounted on top of four self-propelling fully-tracked carrier vehicles based on a T-10 heavy tank model. Two of the vehicles carried the reactor and the steam generator, the other two held the turbogenerator, a control console, and various auxiliary equipment. Altogether, the track-mounted plant equipment weighed a total of 210 tonnes.

The turbogenerator’s power capacity was only 1.5 megawatt, though it could be increased to 2 megawatts. By comparison, modern wind power generators in commercial production offer a capacity of 2 megawatts of 2.5 megawatts. The Danish firm LM Glasfiber, for instance, manufactures wind power installations with a unit capacity of as much as 5 megawatts – that is, they are capable of giving 2.5 times more power than the TES-3 crawler nuclear power station could produce.

The TES-3 plant went through a trial run in the 1960s, but then Moscow moved to shut the project down: It turned out the transportable nuclear station had not quite fit the profile of a portable energy source that the Soviet military needed for its remote strategic missile and submarine deployment areas. Likewise, no branch of Soviet national economy, not even the so-called “projects of the century” – the construction of giant hydropower plants in Siberia or the Baikal-Amur Railway or any other grand civil engineering endeavours that the Soviet Union attempted across the vast and, at times, uninhabitable reaches of the country as it mobilised the population – including the endless ranks of political prisoners – to work and serve for the bright future of communism – required the services of this high-maintenance, radioactivity-emitting, low-yield power machine.

It is unlikely that, a few decades on, circumstances will change much for the Pamir project. Technologically, taking the crawler nuclear power plant project to completion does not present a particular challenge, but there may be as little need for this expensive and dangerous nuclear installation as there was back in the Soviet years – with the possible exception of smooth talkers trying to wangle their way to state budget coffers or terrorists, for whom the prospect of hijacking a uranium-loaded, reactor-ready nuclear truck would be like getting a Christmas bonus, birthday present and a valentine all at once.

The 1960s in the Soviet Union were a special time when atomic energy was thought to be a sort of a cure-all, a true scientific miracle, a breakthrough that bestowed humankind with a novel and reliable technology of the future. Nuclear planes, nuclear ships, the sheer scale of dreaming and inventing! Why not a nuclear tank? “Too cheap to meter” was not just a slogan – it was everyone’s daring belief.

Today, however, an unbiased observer understands nuclear energy comes equipped with a whole package of hazards, complete with mountains of nuclear waste, accidents, catastrophes. And last but not least, it is expensive! And only people like Kuvshinov, who are still hoping to make a buck on promoting an obsolete technology that many nations have left where it belongs, in the past, keep proselytising for the religion of the pre-Chernobyl generation. No trust should be afforded those who repeat the old “peaceful atom” slogan like a mantra while looking to line their own pocket. 

Nuclear scientists grasping at straws

Should Belarus’ latest bout of nuclear craze gain any traction, scepticism is likely to come from scientific as well as environmental quarters. Yegor Fedyushin, a Belarusian nuclear scientist who participated in the Pamir project in the 1980s, told Bellona he had little faith in the project’s feasibility.
[picture2 left]“I seriously doubt that anyone will be found who will be willing to finance this work,” Fedyushin said. “We worked on this project for twenty years. But back then, it could still be realised – the entire [Soviet Union] was working for it, and certain [government] agencies, to the best of my recollection, spared no expense. It’s hard to say how much was spent on it, but every kilowatt was the price of gold for sure.”  

As far as disadvantages and hazards that might be expected from a nuclear power plant like the Pamir, they are the same as with any NPP, Fedyushin said, including the risk of accidents, the issues of radioactive discharges and radioactive waste, “plus, it’s that it will have highly enriched fuel, that it’s a means of transport, in a way, with enhanced risks, plus the risk that it might be seized by terrorists, and so on.”

To Fedyushin, it was clear where the idea was coming from: “Those guys from [Sosny], my former colleagues, I can understand them and I sympathise. In the circumstances where science is being financed with leftovers in Russia and Belarus, they are forced to grasp at anything at all, including reviving a project that is almost fifty years old.”

Back in the day, Fedyushin and his colleagues worked with enthusiasm of the kind that could hardly be restored today, he said. “As they say, you can’t step into the same river twice. Sure, you can make plans all you want – paper doesn’t blush. And if the ministers of the Union State have nothing better to do than look into this project, so let them.”