Life-span extension of Russian reactors causes concern in Europe

Publish date: October 6, 2006

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Voices of concern over Russian’s continuing practice of extending the engineered life-span of its aging first and second generation reactors were raised Thursday in a hearing held in the European Parliament (EP) sponsored by Member of European Parliament (MEP) Rebecca Harms, a German Green, and the Bellona Foundation.

The primary question of the hearing was raised by its title "Another Chernobyl Waiting to Happen?”. It was widely attended by European Commission (EC) representatives, Members of European Parliament (MEPs) and NGOs who wished to discuss the implications of the dangerous life-span extensions for Russian reactors. Among those reactors being granted extensions include the fatally flawed Chernobyl-style RBMK reactor.

Sergii Mirnyi, a liquidator who took part in cleaning up the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, shared his still vivid impressions of the accident 20 years after the fact. One can argue about the direct health implications of the incident, said Mirnyi, but no one can dispute the psychological effects. In the days following the explosion, the 45,000 residents of Pripyat—where the bulk of Chernobyl’s workers lived—were evacuated for a period of what they were told would be three days.

It was not until three months had passed that a handful of residents whose homes had not been too highly contaminated were let back in to collect some of their belongings from houses that, in many cases, had been looted. The remainder of Pripyat’s citizens were never allowed to return, and the remaining ruins of Pripyat stand as a ghost of the Soviet past.

Russian nuclear power plants
Today, Russia operates 10 nuclear power plants with a total of 31 reactor units, including 11 RBMK reactors. Nuclear power supplies approximately 16 percent of country’s energy needs. All nuclear power stations—except for the Bilbino Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in far eastern Siberia—are located in the European part of Russia.

The government’s current nuclear expansion plan suggests building up to 40 new reactor units by 2040. But for the time being, the plan is lagging behind. During the past five years, only two reactor units have been put into operation—although five were planned.

[picture1]Each reactor unit costs around EUR 1 billion to build and commission. Russia, therefore, has to attract up to EUR 40 billion in investment during the coming years to fulfil its nuclear expansion plan. Russian government-connected natural gas giant Gazprom is one likely cash cow to milk to foot this bill.

But the gas monopoly’s managers are sceptical. They say nuclear power plants are ineffective, expensive, and difficult to run. However, if the question is taken out of the realm of practicality and put into the arena of politics, Gazprom will have no choice but to obey the received wisdom of the Kremlin.

Spinning out of service
Eleven of the 31 reactor units operating in Russia surpassed their 30-year engineered life-span in 2006, and taking them out of service is no easy task. If these reactors had been decommissioned on schedule, it would have reduced the current output of the Russian nuclear energy sector by one third, creating social tensions in the regions where nuclear power plants are the core of economical activity. The ensuing cash crash in these regions would have required huge cash infusions into the communities affected. At a less crucial level, it would also have sapped Russia’s knowledge and expertise in running nuclear power plants.

New lease on life
Having considered these consequences, Russia decided to breathe new life into its aging reactors.

Operational life-span extension work was completed on seven first generation reactor units by 2005, allowing them to operate for another 15 years. Twelve more units will receive life-span extensions by 2013. Second generation reactors will get an even better bargain. Their life-spans will be extended for 20 years as they are considered to be safer than first generation reactors.

According to Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, who heads the organisation’s St. Petersburg office, the disturbing question of Russian reactor life-span extensions gives the EU full rights to question Russian nuclear policy.

Isidro Lopez Arcos, principal administrator for the EC’s Directorate General of External Relations, said the Commission attempted to get a commitment from Russia to shut down first generation reactors. A working group between the EC and Russian authorities was even established to explore different ways of reaching this agreement.

The group has held several meetings since 2001, and an incentive package of Euratom loans to finish new reactors under construction in Russia in exchange for Moscow’s commitment to shut down its first generation reactors was offered. The Russians rejected the compromise.

Yet the EC continues to explore new possibilities and compromises. One opening for leverage may come when Russia joins the Western European electrical grid, meaning that a level environmental and nuclear safety playing field between Europe and Russia would have to be adopted.

Life-span extensions are unsafe, economically impractical and illegal
Bellona has analysed Russian extension practices and concluded that Russian authorities have overlooked a significant number of important points while making the decision to bandage their aging reactors.

First, the practice is inherently unsafe. During extension works on a reactor unit, some components are replaced or repaired. But there are vital parts, such as the reactor vessel, which are not feasible to replace. At some nuclear power plants, the deterioration of the reactor vessel is a key safety factor that remains unresolved.

Second, an infrastructure for managing the additional volumes of radioactive waste that will be produced by reactors receiving life-span extensions has to be in place, and so far, the Russian government has remained mum on this point. The requirement for a better system for dealing with spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is especially acute for RBMK reactors, whose fuel cannot be reprocessed and, as a consequence, piles up in storage facilities on site.

Third, extending reactor life-spans is also expensive. For some reactors, the price tag for performing the process is as much as half the cost of building a new reactor. To make life-span extension economically viable, extension costs should not exceed one-third the price tag of building a new reactor form scratch.

Finally, the whole process of reactor life-span extension, as it has been practiced so far, is illegal under Russian law. Russian legislation requires state environmental impact assessments of these projects to extend engineered life-spans. Yet none of the reactors that have received life-span extensions has undergone any kind of state environmental expert assessment.

Valery Ryzhov, who is responsible for energy issues in the Russian delegation to the EU, said that nuclear regulatory authorities are in place in Russia, and that the EU has no cause to worry. He also said that Russian reactors designs are as safe as any western prototype.


Nikitin replied that in today’s Russia—in the environment of President Vladimir Putin’s power vertical—all the key decisions about the nuclear industry are taken on a political level.

"If a Russian regulator was told to extend the life-span (of a reactor), they will do so regardless of whether it is safe or not, and regardless of the formal procedures," Nikitin said.

Bellona’s Russian Programme Director Nils Bøhmer said: "What we try to achieve with this discussion, at the absolute minimum, is making Russia follow its own regulations." Bøhmer was underscoring the statement that life-span extensions must be carried out by conducting legislatively required state environmental evaluations.

"We should work to ensure that the Russian civil society is involved in this process," MEP Harms said. Yet, so far, there have been no public hearings about the life extension practices.

In summary, the hearing concluded by saying that the system already in place in Russia should work off paper as well as on. It is impossible to prevent accidents, participants in the hearing agreed, but it is possible to greatly mitigate the possibilities for mishaps if only the controlling functions of both regulators and civil society are in place.

Download Bellona Position Paper on Lifetime extension of Russian NPPs as PDF or read as HTML by clicking on the links box on the right side.