Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer
MURMANSK – The Murmansk Regional government says that decommission the elderly No1 and No 2 reactors at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant would within a year leave the area with an energy deficit and send it had in hand to buy energy elsewhere.
All the reactors at the plant are already operating on borrowed time: The first two reactors both15-year life engineered lifespan extensions only three years ago. The No 1 and 2 reactors went online in 1973 and 1974, respectively, and their age has been a subject of concern for Russian environmentalists when the subject of extending their runtimes is discussed.
The station’s other two reactors have been licensed to operate longer as well: Reactor No 3 is set to run for 60 years with a closure date of 2036, and reactor four will work until the same age and come off line in 2039.
The first two reactors were initially scheduled for shut down in 2018 and 2019, but the Murmansk Regional government told the Atomic Energy in the Arctic: Ecology and Safety conference last week that losing the two reactors would mean energy supply headaches for the Northwesterly region.
“Because of a lack in the region’s energy system of reserve power, taking [Kola] units 1 and 2 off grid […] means the Murmansk region could experience an energy deficit, and by 2019, the Murmansk Region would become energy dependent,” Yevgeny Nikora, the Region’s deputy governor told the conference. “ Aside from that, further industrial development and implementation of investment project can’t be imagined as possible, the potential of a rise in energy demand would not be secure.”
Nikora said extending the reactors’ run time would address the energy needs of Murmansk residents. He said the Murmansk Administration has already submitted an investment plan to guarantee the extension of the No 1 reactor’s runtime when it’s current lifespan expires in 2018.
He further said he hopes the Murmansk government will receive “an affirmative decision” on extending the runtime of reactor 2, and said the investment plan for that extension has likewise already been submitted to Russia’s Ministry of Energy, MinEnergo.
Addressing a question from Bellona, Nikora deflected and emphasized that approval of a license for what would be the third runtime extension for reactors 1 and 2 “is effective and single possible variant toward guaranteeing a stable growth of industry and preserving the attractive investment climate in the Region.”
In other words, the local government, realizing since 2003 that extending reactor runtimes cannot continue without end, has undertaken nothing toward finding an effective substitute for that presumed energy loss.
The Murmansk Administration thereby seems to be saying that there are no other alternatives but the continual extension of licenses for nuclear reactor lifespans. But what effect will that have on the Region’s energy safety if something goes wrong with just one of those reactors?
Environmentalists have been at pains to draw the administration’s attention to existing alternative energy sources in the area since early in the century.
Alexander Niktin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in St Petersburg said the reactor extensions are only being approached from an economic standpoint.
“The risks, when equipment is made to work two time longer than it was designed for, are always there,” he said. “In circumstances when all four reactors have received extensions – and some of them more than once – it presents a real risk for the energy safety of the region.”
Further, noted Nikitin, the public has no influence at all, and is stuck just having to listen to further and myriad explanations for these runtime extensions.
Kola plant near running at a loss
Vasily Omelchuk, the Kola Station’s director, said the biggest problem is not assuring further reactor use, or even guaranteeing environmental safety.
“The biggest problem is that we can’t produce enough electricity allowed by our power – we currently produce 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, but are capable of producing 14 billion kilowatt hours,” Omelchuk told the conference. “Because we produce 30 percent less than our capability, the Kola nuclear plant is on the edge of running at a loss.”
He further said the plant always runs at heightened levels of safety, saying the plant and its four reactors have run “safely and reliably” for 40 years, during which it has experienced no incidents or accidents that could have posed a threat to the Murmansk Region. He added that the plant annually spends about 2 billion rubles ($30 million) on safety enhancement.
Omelchuk said such significant expenditure had since the 1990s finances “more than 1,500” safety projects, adding that the plant meets international safety criteria.
“We are an environmental standard bearer as an operation, and are open and accessible to the public,” he said.
But Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist, said it was nearly impossible to bring VVER-440 reactors – the type that operate at Kola – into compliance with contemporary safety requirements.
“The situation with repeat extensions to reactor runtimes at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant and the boosting of its reactors output is becoming plain scary,” he said. “And this means, probably, that everyone has to get used to the risks of a potential accident at the plant within the next few decades.”
Extending old reactors cheaper than building anew
Omelchuk said an investment project to extend a reactor’s run time was typically 5 billion rubles ($76 million) in 2014. Two reactors can be done for 9 billion rubles, he said.
He added that the Kola plant was aiming to secure that price for the upgrades requited to extend it’s No 1 and 2 reactors. He said the cost of building a new reactor would cost at least 10 times the cost of extensions.
“This is the fundamental factor for deciding whether to build a second Kola Nuclear Power Plant,” Omelchuk said. He also said the reactor extensions were supported by international experience.
“All countries except those that have announced they are giving up nuclear power in a set amount of time, take the path of licensing extensions of their reactors up to 60 years,” he said.
He noted that if the Murmansk Region sees even a nominal growth in energy demand, then the reactor extensions would be worth it.
He too the same view of boosting reactor capacity to up to 107 percent nominal power production. In 2012, the Kola station was permitted to run its No 4 reactor up to 107 percent its nominal output through 2015. During that time the reactor spent 94 days working at 104 to 107 percent.
At the end of this year, the Station wants to boost power output at the No 3 reactor as well, explaining the step only in economic terms.
“The more power, the more economical the unit,” said Omelchuk. “Hiking up power output to 107 percent gives us an economic effect.” He added that the Kola nuclear station and the Murmansk Regional Administration expect the local economy to actively grow in the foreseeable future, demanding more energy.
The announcements about economic savings to bet netted by running reactors at expanded capacity don’t look sufficiently convincing, especially when you consider Kola’s No 1 unit ran at 107 percent over a four year period for a total of 94 days. And the high expectations for an economic boom in the Murmansk Region are anticipations that have come and faded just as quickly for decades.
Year in and year out, the region hears discussions and perspectives on growing energy demands and arguments for extending the runtime of the Kola Station’s nuclear reactors. But amid the din of authorities that push for this, arguments for the vast potential of hydroelectric power stations in the region are barely audible. Their power output yields nothing to nuclear, and they aren’t even working at a full load. The installed capacity utilization factor of the Kola Nuclear Station in 2015 was 61.6 percent, while the same factor for TGC-1 and its hydroelectric holding in the area was 44.7 percent, according to the latest available figures for 2014.
It could be suggested that the Kola Nuclear Station, while occupying the leading energy producing role in the Region and availing itself of government support, is trying to dictate its own term for a cushy production environment in economically troubled times. The coming of gas pipelines to the Kola Peninsula could pose a catastrophe for nuclear energy in the Arctic.