European Commission calls on Russia to close aged nuke plants

Russland vil forlenge driftstiden for de to eldste og farligste atomreaktorene ved Kola Atomkraftverk med minimum 10 år. Foto: Thomas Nilsen
Foto: Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: May 17, 2007

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - The European Commission (EC) intends to seek the closure of aged nuclear power plants in Russia during on-going talks on a new agreement on Russian-EC cooperation.

Having poured millions of Euro into heightening safety at Russia’s older nuclear power plants, the EC is now pushing for their closure in the interest of averting a catastrophic nuclear accident.

Issues of nuclear safety is not on the agenda of the Russia-EC talks currently taking place in Samara, Western Russia, however they will be included in the new cooperation being hammered out between the two sides, said EC representative Christiana Homan in an interview with Bellona Web.

The agreement on cooperation and strategic partnership encompasses a wide range of issues that the EC and Russia mutually work on. On December 1st of this year, the current agreement –signed in 1997 – will expire. It is expected a new one will in fact be signed.

If these expectations are not met, however, the 1997 agreement will remain in effect. But a new one is desirable from an environmental point of view.

“The new agreement must encompass a wide range of issues, among them nuclear safety,” Homan said.

EC: ‘no sense’ in funding aged NPPs in Russia
Specifically, the EC plans to confront Russia with questions on the dismantlement of nuclear submarines as well as closing aged first generation nuclear power plants.

“The European Commission considers that Russia must close old reactors because in the event of an accident, all of Europe would be affected,” Ferran Terradellas Espuny, spokesman for EC Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, told Bellona Web in a telephone interview.

Terradellas added that the EC no longer sees the sense in expensive programmes to improve safety at aging Russian nuclear power plants (NPPs), though he could not say which reactor units in Russia the EC would like shut down first.

Which reactors would go first still an open question

Russia is home to 12 first generation nuclear reactors with a an output of 5,7762 Megawatts. The Bilbinskoye NPP is home to four first generation reactors; and two a piece are located at the Kola, Kursk, Leningrad and Novovoronezh NPPs.

Each of these reactor blocks were built in the 1970s and have surpassed their engineered life-spans, but have all received so-called life span extensions of 15 years from Russian nuclear regulators.

Money for enhancing NPP safety
Over the past 15 years, Europe has earmarked a tidy sum of money on nuclear safety in Russia. One of the most powerful programmes –TACIS (Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States) – which was called in to help boost safety at Russian nuclear plants, has spent EUR 150 million. In 2007, TACIS carried out 50 projects in Russia for a total of EUR 4.5 million.

In the opinion of NGOs and other nuclear industry watchers, programmes geared toward heightening safety at old plant only puts off making decisions about dangerous situations, and at the same time allows old reactors to run even longer thanks to extended life-span certifications.

Meanwhile the question of closing these dangerous plants remains unresolved: the nuclear industry confesses that is fund for decommissioning nuclear power plants is empty, and that it has no plans on the drawing-board to begin any decommissioning projects for at least five years.

Submarine dismantlement
The EC is also concerned about the problem of nuclear submarine and ice-breaker dismantlement in
Russia’s northwest. According to the EU Observer, an EC analytical document accused Russia of dragging its feet in this process. Of the EUR 150 million earmarked by the EC for submarine and ice-breaker dismantlement, only EUR 2 million has been spent thus far.

During the Cold War era and the arms race between the Soviet Union and the united States, Moscow built 250 nuclear powered submarines. According to the Federal Service for Atomic Energy (Rosatom), 148 of the 198 submarines that have been taken out of active duty, had been dismantled by the end of 2006.

However not one of these dismantled submarines has been fully dismantled, says Bellona’s Igor Kurdrik, an expert on the Russian naval submarine fleet.

“The majority of these boats have been cut into sections, but the problem remains how to deal with the fuel that remains aboard them even now,” he said.

The rusting subs, nuclear icebreakers and so-called nuclear technical service ships have become a headache not only to Russia but the countries of the EC as well – and these nations are pouring huge sums of money into saving the world from the brewing catastrphohe these vessels represent.