Russian government denies to high court it plans to build nuclear plant that is already approved for construction

Rashid Alimov/Bellona

Publish date: August 27, 2008

Written by: Victoria Kopeikina

Translated by: Charles Digges

MOSCOW - Russia’s supreme court declined Tuesday to declare the prospective construction of the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant to be in contradiction to an October 2008 Russian government decree dictating the construction of electric energy stations between now and the year 2020.

Government officials, who were the defendants in the suit brought by environmental lawyers and groups from the Chelyabinsk Region apparently sidestepped a ruling against them by saying the 2008 decree, entitled “On the general scheme of the placement of electric energy installations until 2020” – which establishes plans for construction of the controversial nuclear plant – was little more than an informal projection.

At issue for environmentalists in court was proving that the construction of the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant – which by all indications, including those confirmed in the government’s general scheme, is already well underway – has widely skirted several constitutional norms, violated a number of laws, and ignored the result of a local 1991 referendum in which the local population delivered a 76 percent landslide no to the building of the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant.

Yet, in a creative appeal to ignore established fact, government counsel denied that any progress has been made on building the plant at all, and that its construction still remained a distant dream – despite media reports, environmental observations, and glowing progress reports by the nuclear industry itself that designing and citing the plant was going swimmingly.

Speaking for the community of the Chelyabinsk Region, where the plant is under construction – and which is one of Russia’s worst wore nuclear punching bags –  were attorney Andrei Talevlin of the For Nature organisation, and Nataliya Mironova, of The Movement for Nuclear Safety.

The environmentalists argued that the confirmation of the general scheme decree violated the constitution, broke the laws and waved off the popular anti-nuclear referendum’s conclusions.

Talevlin and Mironova argued that the government specifically had ignored federal laws on nuclear energy use, which clearly establish a chain of decisions to be taken on building nuclear power plants, which stipulate that local populations, non-commercial and commercial organizations, and other legal entities be included in discussion on whether or not a nuclear power plant will be built in any given region.
However, as was asserted by government counsel during hearings in Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, the government currently has no plan to build the Southern Urals plant, and will not be deciding whether it will build the plant anytime soon. This is a shocking assertion in light of the 2008 decree, which clearly spells out plans for the building to the Southern Urals plant.

What document dictates the decision to build the nuke plant?
Russia legislation does not mince words about what form decisions to build nuclear power plants are to be taken. What is clear for the moment, however, is that the current law nuclear energy use, which took effect in 1995, stipulates that decisions about the construction and location of nuclear power plants are taken on a federal level.

However, in “Regulation on deciding the locations and construction on nuclear installations, radiation sources and storage points,” stated that: “Confirmation or approval by the Russian Government of federal target programmes is one of the route by which the location and construction of installations can be decided.”  

A federal target programme called “The development of the atomic energy complex of Russia from 2007 to 2010 and perspectives until 2015,” which was adopted in 2006, makes no mention of building the Southern Urals plant.  Federal target programmes are a government instrument by which funding allocations beyond those that are budgeted for a particular sector can be augmented.  

In 2008, the Russian government approved the general scheme, in which the Southern Urals plant appears in vivid detail. And the general scheme is specific, stating that the Southern Urals plant will be built 140 kilometers from the city of Chelyabinsk.

As it turns out, any modifications to the 2006 federal target programme are now pure formalities. As the text of the programme reads: “The enumeration and scheduling of nuclear energy block construction can be corrected in instances of additional decisions during the preparation of the general scheme for placement of electric energy installations until 2020 and long-range schemes for network development.”
Who is paying the bills?
According to Talevlin, it is hard to evaluate the meaning of the court ruling, as all depends on the further unfolding of events. According to the government’s representative in court, funds for work connected with the engineering and construction of the n Urals Nuclear Power Plant have not been earmarked.

At the same time, however, as the local press has reported, engineering work and citing spots for the plant are already underway.

“Our task now is to find out who is financing this work,” said Talevlin in an interview with Bellona Web. “It is entirely possible that it is coming from the Regional budget in the guise of some kind of research. We intend to send inquiries to scientific institute about the content of their work.”  

The government’s representative at Tuesday’s hearing, as it turned out, was ignorant of the results of the 1991 referendum against the Southern Urals plant. In answer to one of Talevlin’s questions in court, the government’s counsel said that the opinion of the local population would certainly be taken into account in the decision making process.

More recently than the 1991 referendum, recent surveys of Chelyabinsk area residents have revealed that 60 percent are against further nuclear builds, 20 percent for, and the remaining are undecided. To another question from Talevlin: “When (the government) was coordinating the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant, did you take into consideration the opinion of the public?” government counsel answered that, “we have not yet taken anything into account yet.”

All fu4ther questions from the environmentalists about why research was being conducted without a decision to actually build the plant where referred by government counsel to Rosenergoatom, Russia’s nuclear utility.

Atomic megalomania not on trial
The court appearance was not the first time environmentalists have tried to clear the smoke from the issue. In 2002, Greenpeace contested the legality of another federal target programme, which projected the construction of 60 nuclear reactors. Environmentalists demanded that the federal target programme be declared invalid.

The federal target programme documentation had never gone through an environmental impact study, which at that time was a legal requirement for the undertaking of such decisions. (Environmental impact studies were dumped as a requirement for all manner of construction projects, including nuclear power plants, in 2006.) The environmentalists also insisted that the federal target programme be confirmed by the Federation Council, Russian parliament’s upper house.  

The Supreme Court and, later, the appellate collegium did not consider Greenpeace’s arguments sufficient. Whether language in a federal target programme concerning a nuclear power plant was to be regarded as a “real” decision about prospective construction was not addressed.

Why do environmentalists oppose nuclear energy in Chelyabinsk?
Opponents of expanding nuclear power in the Chelyabinsk region are many because the region has already been one of the most radioactively contaminated areas of the country for many years, and is acutely feeling the effects.

In 1957, on of the most serious nuclear accidents in history – topped only by Chernobyl in most estimates – occurred when a holding unit for spent nuclear fuel exploded at the Mayak Chemical Combine. The fallout contaminated a large portion of the Ural Mountains, and the results are still visible today.

“A nuclear power plant cannot be viewed as separate from the nuclear cycle, which is reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and nuclear vessels that takes place at Mayak and all of the other problems,” said Talevlin.

“ The issue of safely decommissioning nuclear waste is not decided. We stand for conducting a Russia-wide referendum on Russian citizen’s attitudes toward nuclear power, as was done, for example, in Norway,” he said.  

Local mass media in Chelyabinsk are trumpeting that the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant project is ready to go, and its safety has already been thought through.

“According to the engineering director of (Russian nuclear reactor builder) Atomenergoproekt, Ruben Topchiyan, the soundness of the nuclear plant can withstand the impact of a 20 ton airplane flying at a speed of 20 meters a second,” wrote the newswire Ural Press Inform.  
“In other words,” said Talevlin wryly, “we are talking about a very small plane traveling at a very low speed – 72 kilometers an hour.”

A presentation of the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant was held last spring in the closed city of Snezhinsk, which is possible to enter only by special government permission. Specialists from Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom said that the engineering of the plant met all standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Rosatom is already planning to invest more than 268 billion roubles ($11.4 billion) in the construction of the plant by 2020. According to Rosatom forecasts, the four reactors of the future station will produce 4.6 gigawatts of energy. At current, the entire electrical production of the Chelyabinsk region is 5 gigawatts, meaning the plant will nearly double the region’s output.

But environmentalists say that the Chelyabinsk Region does not need additional power generation – which is already receiving a significant current from the neighboring Tyumen Region, and the Troitskaya State Regional Electrical Station is currently operating at 40 percent capacity. Who and for what purpose new expenses for dangerous projects in the region are needed remains to be seen.