Comment: Putin marks Chernobyl anniversary with yet another nuclear PR stint

Председатель Правительства РФ В.В. Путин снова выступил главным лоббистом атомной промышленности.

Publish date: April 28, 2009

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG - Less than two weeks before Russia remembered victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin paid a visit to the Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant to hash over issues of the country’s future nuclear development. In this comment, Bellona’s regular contributor Andrei Ozharovsky looks at how the industry reported on its latest alleged achievements and asked for big handouts, how Putin nodded his head in agreement, posed no uncomfortable questions, and promised more money – and what all of that means.

Putin’s visit to the town of Udomlya in the central Russian region of Tver – where a fourth nuclear reactor is being built at the Kalinin plant – was a kind of an overture in preparation to the impending meeting in the Russian government, where plans of mapping out Russia’s future energy sites are expected to come into review.

To summarize the gist of Putin’s performance in Udomlya: The prime minister is still a big nuclear believer. He believes despite the ineffective management, despite the lack of any progress in solving a host of persistent technological issues, and in defiance of the near-prohibitive costs and the resentment toward the nuclear energy industry on the part of the Russian society.

Having engaged a lobbying edge as powerful as Putin’s support, the nuclear power plant (NPP) industry may yet ensure money continues to be siphoned into obsolete and dangerous technologies. This may result in deeper adverse implications of the current economic crisis in Russia and drive the country into a yet more desperate nuclear cul-de-sac. Whether we will find an exit will probably not be seen before a successor replaces Putin at the helm.

The crisis and how it matters – or does it?
Despite the inauspicious economic conditions, the state will continue to invest into the atomic industry – this looks to be the bottom line of Putin’s stance voiced in Udomlya. Such a policy will meanwhile seriously impair the chances of modernising Russia’s energy industry and upgrading it to existing world standards – namely, through the development of renewable energy sources and a complete switch-over to combined gas-and-steam energy cycle.

At the Kalinin NPP, Putin reiterated his allegiance to the peaceful atom and earlier decisions:

By 2030, the share of nuclear-generated power in the total output of electric energy is to reach between 25 percent and 30 percent. Today, I’ll remind you, we have 16 percent. I’ll also remind you that in many European countries, this share exceeds 25 percent to 30 percent already now. So in this respect, we even need to start catching up with developed industrial countries.
[…] Here, we need commensurate financial backing.
[…] But whatever may happen, all of us have to fulfil the task that I have just mentioned. This means that in order to raise the total output of nuclear-generated power to 25 percent to 30 percent, we need to build 26 reactor blocks.

This sounds bizarre – at best. What the prime minister is calling for, essentially, is for us to pay no heed to the crisis and plough ahead bone-headedly, no care in the world, with the earlier programmes and plans that even as they were being approved by the government were seen by experts as overconfident and hardly feasible. This rhetoric would have merited at least some understanding if only any of the promises ever given by the Russian government or president were actually fulfilled – if, for instance, all the programmes aimed at improving healthcare services or the educational sector ever saw the light of day, or if the support pledged to small businesses and farmers did not remain the lofty talk that it was.

It is impossible to assess realistically the options that the nuclear industry has or the problems it creates if one’s point of reference is only the reports issued by the head of the state nuclear corporation Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, and when all opposing views fall by the wayside. The meeting in Udomlya only serves to prove it.

Kiriyenko’s spending spree equals growing energy bills for the population
At a meeting the government is soon to have, the so-called “Master Layout for Prospective Electric Power Producing Sites for the Period of up to 2020,” – the energy industry development programme ratified by the Russian government in March 2008 – is bound to undergo revision. It is apparent that cutbacks will be applied to state subsidies envisioned for the construction of new nuclear power plants and the modernisation of old ones, both because of the need to tighten up the federal purse strings and on account of the drop in energy demand caused by the crisis. The industry lobbyists thus have their work cut out for them: snatch as big a piece of the budget pie as possible.

And Putin, as it would seem, does not need any convincing. He somehow just believes that nuclear power plants are good and that the nuclear industry has to have as much money as it asks for.

During his visit in Udomlya, Putin stressed that “despite certain problems, we will continue to invest into nuclear energy.” He said that in 2009 alone, the total investment budget available to the state-owned NPP operator Concern Energoatom will exceed RUR 160 billion ($4.79 billion), of which around a half – RUR 73.3 billion – will come from federal coffers. A $4.7 billion investment budget is a lot of money, especially during an economic crisis. Apparently, we have no better use for all this cash, do we?
The industry may still have to overcome resistance in the government when it tries to justify spending over a hundred billion dollars on building Kiriyenko and Putin’s 26 reactors. It could be economic concerns precisely that it will likely have to dispel: the long construction cycles, the exact prospects of seeing a return on the investment, the sheer amount of money requested in the first place.

Former deputy minister of atomic energy, Professor Bulat Nigmatulin said in an interview given to the industry information agency PRoAtom (in Russian) late last March that building new nuclear power plants will sooner or later lead to a rise in energy prices:

Inflated construction plans are no harmless thing, they will inevitably translate into rising electric energy rates. In the atomic energy industry, investment-related mark-ups on the usual rates have grown from RUR 34.2 billion to RUR 51.7 billion, or by 50 percent. This in addition to the multi-billion funds earmarked from the federal budget for Rosatom’s investment programme. Thus, since January 1st, nuclear-generated electric power supply rates have grown by 23 percent, with headline inflation at 13 percent.
[…] Investment plans are sponsored by the consumer, that is, you and I. As I said earlier, three or four nuclear reactors a year is a pie in the sky. These plans cannot be sustained by either production capacities or electric energy demand. Yet, money to spend on this chimerical programme is being taken from our pockets.

So if the government does the industry’s bidding we can safely expect our electric energy bills to continue to go up in the near future – paying not for the modernisation of electric energy production, but for the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Reactors for export – again, a hole in the Russian budget
One of the pro-nuclear arguments industry lobbyists like to use is that Rosatom builds reactors abroad. However, the high demand placed for Russian reactors by foreign customers is not an indication of their superb quality or safety assurances – quite simply, Russia builds reactors on the cuff, at low prices, and frequently, at its own expense.

As if to confirm that this is how it will continue to be, deputy prime minister Igor Sechin asked Putin during the Kalinin NPP visit to help with export credits that would allow Russian subcontractors to foot the bill for nuclear power plant construction abroad – leeching, effectively, the Russian federal budget.

“I am asking you to consider the possibility of giving an instruction to the (Ministry of Finance) regarding the arrangement of credit backing toward such Rosatom projects. This will enhance the concern’s competitiveness on the global market,” Sechin addressed Putin at the Kalinin site. He elaborated that the projects in question focussed, in particular, on supporting Rosatom’s investments in China, Bulgaria, India, Belarus, and other foreign-nation customers. 

The costs involved would presumably be in the ballpark of $20 billion to $40 billion. Basically, Sechin’s proposition amounts to lending the money to the “buyers” of Russian reactors abroad – on preferential terms and with credit repayment periods starting only ten to twenty years later. All that at a time of a crisis, while the country lacks funds for scores of indisputably vital investment projects of its own.

Technologies of the atomic future, or the Benjamin Button effect
Another trick up a regular nuclear lobbyist’s sleeve is constantly making allusions to some new industry advancements, novel reactor designs, and other wonders of the contemporary technological thought. This theme again came up during the Udomlya meeting.

“Rosatom has prepared a programme on next-generation nuclear technologies and is hoping to see it adopted as soon as possible,” the state nuclear corporation’s head Kiriyenko said.

“By 2015 to 2017, we are to introduce the new product to the market. A programme on next-generation nuclear technologies has been prepared that centres on the fast-neutron reactor technology. We are 10 years ahead of our competitors in this technology, and we mustn’t waste our competitive edge. The programme has been approved, we are now awaiting decisions.”

Kiriyenko’s moves are not hard to figure out: Year 2015 is a distant enough future to make any kind of promises – if only that helps secure the “next-generation” funding already now.
The reality, however, is that we do not even have prototypes for so-called “Generation III” reactors – fuel, thermal, maintenance, and safety efficiency upgrades of Generation II reactors that were developed in the 1970s and are mostly in use today. Unlike Japan, which has already started building Generation III boiling and pressurised water reactors, or Europe, where models with similar improvements have been approved for construction, Russia continues taking online designs that were already old by last century’s standards.

The Kursk Nuclear Power Plant, for instance, is building an RBMK-1000 – a reactor of the same type that destroyed in 1986 the plant at Chernobyl, whose four reactors were built between 1977 and 1983. Likewise, at the Volgodonsk (Rostov) site, as was revealed during recent public hearings, the plan is to build a second reactor block to a design developed in the 1970s and with equipment produced in the 1980s and 1990s.

As for Russian fast-neutron technologies, this “born old, died young” pattern is even more conspicuous: The BN-800 reactor block at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant near Yekaterinburg has now been under construction for 25 years. The design will have been long outdated even before the reactor is put online, but both Kiriyenko and Putin seem to ignore this as they try to pass the technology for a twenty-first-century engineering breakthrough.

Still, the government seems likely to fall again under the spell of the nuclear grandiloquence and the industry will probably get its funding. It is a real pity: If the government had invested half the money it has by now spent on “cutting edge” nuclear technologies into energy conservation and efficiency policies and the development of renewable energy sources, not only would Russia have been in a position to save on its resources, but it would have been able to cover up to 20 percent of its electric power needs by using wind and tidal energy alone. But wind and tide wait for no man. And they certainly have no lobbyists.

Accidental fishing
Since April 26th, 1986, hardly any conversation about nuclear power plants in the former Soviet Union is possible without a flashback to Chernobyl – especially if such a conversation happens in April. But Kiriyenko and Putin managed not to let the anniversary of the disaster overshadow their optimism.

They did, in fact, talk about safety – but in their own peculiar way. A surprising thesis was forwarded by Kiriyenko on an allegedly incident-free operation of Russian nuclear power sites: “Since 2003, no significant malfunction has been registered at Russian NPPs.”

This statement is a blunt contradiction to the statistics kept by the Russian federal nuclear oversight agency, Rostekhnadzor, which documents 30 to 40 reportable incidents annually. And even though no nuclear catastrophe has indeed taken place in the past two decades, experts say that half of these operational failures were precursors to serious accidents. That is to say, Rosatom’s nuclear power plants are on the brink of a Chernobyl déjà vu 15 to 20 times a year.

“There have been instances of unscheduled disconnecting of NPP reactors from the grid (and) reactor power decreases in order to carry out repair works to remove equipment defects, as well as due to erroneous actions on the part of personnel. The majority of malfunctions in NPP operation results from such fundamental causes as management deficiencies, flaws in the organisation of maintenance, as well as design-related defects,” Rostekhnadzor reiterates in each of its yearly reports. It is unclear whether the participants of the Udomlya meeting included a representative of Rostekhnadzor’s or whether this information was ever available to Putin.

Putin’s mood while discussing NPP safety on his visit to Udomlya is telling. This was apparently a subject to be treated lightly – as seen from the following banter with Kiriyenko, quoted here from an excerpt of meeting minutes released on the Russian Government’s official portal (in Russian; an abridged release version on the English page says, verbatim, that “as he examined the accident statistics of Russian and foreign nuclear power plants, Mr Putin noticed that other countries’ rate exceeded that of Russia twofold”).

bodytextimage_kirienko-vodolaz2-1..jpg Photo:

Putin: You have been scuba-diving here, haven’t you?
Kiriyenko: Guilty as charged. Together with the governor, Vladimir Vladimirovich.
Putin: When?
Kiriyenko: This was two years ago. There’s plenty of fish here, Vladimir Vladimirovich.
Putin: And did you eat it?
Kiriyenko: Yes, right here, too. I highly recommend it.
Putin: All right.

One is lost for words trying to describe this. Stupid? Cynical? The top manager of a nuclear monopoly and a prime minister seem to agree that Kiriyenko’s tasting fish out of Lake Udomlya on the grounds of the Kalinin NPP is proof of said NPP’s safety…
This sounds worse than an amateur’s stand-up gig or an early morning sitcom rerun. “Are your nuclear power plants safe?” – “Oh sure, I’ve been scuba-diving and easting fish here!” This is the level of understanding afforded to the issue by the prime minister of Russia. Such an approach alone is a sure recipe for disaster.

Wait a minute… what was all this about?
Even if the whole meeting dedicated to discussing the development of the Russian atomic energy industry were to be reviewed as nothing more than a lobbyist farce, the entertainment failed spectacularly. If this, however, were intended as a serious discussion, it warrants a number of equally serious questions, such as:

•    Why did genuinely pressing issues – like taking older NPPs out of operation or those related to nuclear waste management and “sanctioned” radioactive discharges from nuclear power plants, including tritium contamination of that same lake which Kiriyenko has taken a liking to – never come up for consideration?

•    Why does Putin, an ardent promoter of Rosatom’s corporate interests, allow himself to look incompetent at best? Has he forgotten his embarrassing speech at the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000, when he was advertising non-existent Russian fast-neutron reactors?

•    Why had no one among nuclear industry critics been invited to the meeting? What would actually be the benefit of having the state’s top executives speak out of turn about the real problems that the industry struggles with?

•    Why does it so happen that a unilateral and frequently unfounded notion promulgating the advantages of nuclear power plants is broadcast via all official media outlets, but opposing views are hushed up?

•    Why not start catching up with Europe on improving energy efficiency and increasing the share of application of renewable energy sources – which in certain European countries approaches 20 percent, but flounders at a mere 0.2 percent in Russia – rather than on the number of dangerous nuclear power sites in operation?

•    And last but not least, why is it that the industry completely ignores the opinion of 87 percent of the Russian population who say they do not want new nuclear power plants?