No round two for Kola NPP?

Anna Kireeva/Bellona

Publish date: August 5, 2009

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MURMANSK – A report presented by Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko at the International Forum Atomexpo-2009 in late May indicates none of the new reactors of the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, earlier projected as part of Russia’s nuclear programme expansion plans, are any longer on the atomic corporation’s agenda.

In accordance with 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 April 2007 and then amended and re-endorsed in March 2008 – the Kola Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was to launch its new reactors in 2016. Moreover, all the four new reactors were among the programme’s priority goals, something called a “Mandatory Programme for the Introduction of New Nuclear Capacities.”

Yet, a report made by the Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom’s Kiriyenko at an industry event late last May – and published in June in the industry publication Atompressa, complete with charts illustrating Rosatom’s newly revised NPP modernisation and construction plans – shows Kola NPP-2 has apparently not made the final cut.

Overall, around 30 percent of the new capacities planned previously in the Master Layout have apparently been dropped since the expansion programme was adopted last year. Of the three dozen reactors projected for construction in the next decade, at least a third of the new reactors no longer appear in Kiriyenko’s charts: two reactors for the as-yet non-existent Primorye NPP (a new station envisioned for Primorye Region, the southeastern tip of the Russian Far Eastern coast); the four new reactors for Kola NPP’s second stage of construction; Reactor Blocks 3 and 4 for South-Ural NPP (a likewise not yet existent new nuclear power station envisioned for Chelyabinsk Region, home to the infamous nuclear reprocessing site Mayak); and Reactor Block 3 for Nizhny Novgorod NPP (another new station planned in Central European Russia).

Altogether, a combined added capacity of around 8 gigawatt is no more on the cards. Two more reactors, though, have appeared in the charts: Reactor Blocks 1 and 2 of the future Baltic NPP in Kaliningrad Region, to be built by 2016 and 2018, respectively – and that despite vociferous protests against the construction by the local population of Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost enclave, where the new station is planned.

However, at a meeting held in late July by the task group of the Public Council on the Safe Operation of Nuclear Energy in Murmansk Region, Kola NPP’s chief engineer Alexander Ionov said that construction plans for Kola NPP-2 are still reflected in the so-called Nuclear Road Map and any official cancellations were yet to be heard of.

Ionov was alluding to the industry’s construction doctrine in progress, an itinerary of sorts which indicates the sequence of taking the country’s new nuclear capacities online and, conversely, scheduling for shutdown the old reactors – such as Reactor Blocks 1 and 2 of the old Kola NPP. In the case of these latter two, shutdown still remains a hazy prospect as Russia’s regulatory authorities have recently once again extended the operational life spans of the two reactors.

At the same time, in Ionov’s words, “construction of one reactor takes at least seven years,” so a conclusion may be made provisionally that plans for Kola NPP-2 are at least shelved, if not abandoned altogether.

“Our company is lobbying the construction of the new plant,” Ionov said, referring to the state corporation Rosatom, “we just have to choose the right reactor type.”

Rosatom’s nuclear élan hits a dry spell
As little as two years ago, the Russian government had quite dramatic ambitions where it concerned amassing the country’s nuclear energy capacities. Born out of this dramatic dash of enthusiasm promoted in the industry as Russia’s age of new Nuclear Renaissance was a programme that envisioned first building one, then two reactors annually – 36 new reactors altogether – and by 2020, augmenting the share of nuclear energy in the overall power-producing industry to 20 percent, later increasing it to 25 percent.

Today, according to Rosatom, Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants operate 31 reactors combined and are responsible for covering 16 percent of the country’s demand in electric power.

However, by this past spring, it became clear that the current financial crisis was bound to slam a brake on Rosatom’s far-reaching endeavours. Nuclear experts predicted the plans were headed for revisions and that cutbacks would likely be applied to state subsidies needed for the construction of new nuclear power plants and the modernisation of old ones. Indefinite delays would come into play, industry observers said, both because of the need to tighten up the federal purse strings and on account of the reported drop in energy demand caused by the crisis.

During his April visit to Kalinin NPP in Central Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged his support for the nuclear energy industry expansion programme, but the figures he spoke of  included only 26 new reactors.

Kiriyenko concedes some of the observers’ concerns, but downplays other perceived limitations.

“Any potential amendments only allow for certain shifts in launch time frames, taking into consideration that there is a two-year lapse in energy demand in the country,” Rosatom chief said at the Atomexpo event as quoted by Atompressa.

He added that at the same time, energy demand is different in different regions in Russia and this has prompted Rosatom to consider, for instance, expediting the launch of new reactors at Rostov NPP in South Russia, where a “stable growth in electric power demand is being registered.”

In his report, Kiriyenko reiterated his agency’s position: “The government has not changed the scale of development of the atomic industry in crisis conditions. The big task set ahead for us is to build 26 new reactor blocks  […] We are confident that this time of crisis is only a short breather for the world atomic industry, because strategic priorities cannot change.”

The industry and the public
According to Vitaly Servetnik, head of the Murmansk-based ecological initiative Environment and Youth, the nuclear energy complex today still remains the most shielded industry in Russia in terms of access to information, transparency, and other challenges the public faces trying to establish a dialogue with the atomic authorities. Yet huge funds are being allocated annually on public relations events to create the illusion that Rosatom is in fact communicating with environmental organisations and the public at large, according to Environment and Youth.

“Some examples of such actions in Murmansk Region are Rosatom’s Public Council, the task group on Kola NPP, and contracts concluded on information cooperation with certain local media,” a recent press release from Servetnik’s organisation said. “At the same time, statements and demands made by organisations that are direct opponents of Rosatom are simply ignored, and [officials] at the [Kola] plant say dialogue is impossible with them.”

Environment and Youth’s data reveal that in 2008, over 10,000 Russian residents – including several thousand of those living in Murmansk Region – addressed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with a request not to build any more nuclear power plants and invest, instead, into developing alternative energy sources.

A poll conducted two years ago by Romir, a representative of Gallup International in Russia and a leader in public opinion surveys in the country, revealed that around 78 of Russian citizens think negatively of new NPP projects on offer for the regions where they reside. In the same poll, 85 percent of Murmansk residents said they were against extending the operational life spans of Kola NPP’s old reactors and 87 percent said the same about building new ones.

To a certain extent, confidence shown by Kiriyenko in his May statements seems to validate environmentalists’ grievances. In his speech quoted by Atompressa, Kiriyenko said: “Our policy of transparency is already yielding results. We thought that with a large-scale development of atomic energy, society’s concerns associated with its safety may deepen and that as new sites appear in new regions, the number of people who consider the development of atomic energy inexpedient may grow.”

“However, new sociological research data shows that the situation is quite the opposite. The share of people who actively support the development of atomic energy has risen by five percent, the share of those who support its development on the whole has remained the same, and the share of those who have doubts and oppose the development of atomic energy has somewhat decreased.”

If anything, this goes to show at least one likely trend – namely, that the industry’s public image budget may be expected to increase, while the funds it plans to spend on construction, safety, and other numerous issues it is facing are bound to be downsized.

Special commission to look into Kola NPP operational hitch
Meanwhile, an incident that took place at Kola NPP in late August casts a deeper shade of doubt on the recent extensions that were granted on the design life spans of its old reactors. At around 9 p.m. on August 25th, two turbogenerators at Reactor Block 3 were switched off by the automatic transformer protection system, and the plant’s operational load went down from 980 megawatt to 600 megawatt as a result. The cause of the generator trip was an unwarranted response of the transformer fire prevention system. The defects were dealt with on the following morning and the plant started operating again at its design capacity.

A special commission headed by the plant’s chief engineer Ionov will be looking into the incident. According to a press release from the site, the boundaries and conditions of safe reactor operation were not exceeded and the incident could not in any way have impacted the plant’s safety or that of the local population.

“From the point of view of safety culture, we do not leave any event unattended. Any deviation in the operation is examined and investigated,” Viktoria Nigorenko, Kola NPP’s head of information department, told Bellona Web. “The commission will investigate the causes of this event and recommend measures to check against such events [in the future].”
However, Servetnik takes a larger view at the incident.

“This situation with two turbogenerators being switched off at Kola NPP has demonstrated that the plant’s systems are imperfect. If small incidents are possible, where is the guarantee that there will be no serious accidents or catastrophes?” said Servetnik. “Besides, Kola NPP’s reactors were designed in the pre-Chernobyl period and have a number of design defects.”

He insists that such incidents be examined to the smallest detail and with participation of independent experts, with results made openly available to anyone concerned about the plant’s safety.

Maria Kaminskaya contributed to this report from St. Petersburg.

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