UPDATE: Russia’s Kola NPP still struggling after recent shutdowns and a slump in energy demand, but authorities remain unperturbed

Publish date: July 26, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Russia’s Kola Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) is still not out of the woods as engineers failed to re-launch Reactor Unit 3 after thunderstorms caused emergency shutdowns at the site in early July. It is also struggling against a record low demand for energy in the region, but local industry leaders are staunchly defending the aging plant, looking to make it tax-exempt and pushing for construction of new reactors.

Kola NPP, located 200 kilometres south of the Kola Peninsula’s regional centre of Murmansk in Russia’s Far North, supplies electricity to the region’s consumers via two high-voltage power lines. On July 6 and 9, heavy thunderstorms caused breakdowns in the lines, and turbogenerators needed to be shut down as a result at Reactor Units 3 and 1 at Kola NPP, respectively. Measures were taken at the plant to avoid scramming Reactor 1, but Reactor 3 still had to be unloaded and scheduled for emergency repairs.

Subsequent attempts to re-launch Reactor Unit 3 failed, however. At 10:50 am on July 15, the generating unit was plugged back into the grid, but already at 7:34 pm it was shut down again. A statement released by the Public Information Centre of Kola NPP on the official website of Rosenergoatom, the Russian nuclear power plants operator, said (quoted below verbatim): “On July 15, 2010, at 7:34 p.m. power unit No. 3 of Kola NPP was shut down by activation of automatic protection of the turbine plant for vacuum decrease. The cause of vacuum decrease is being found out. The turbine start-up is scheduled for July 16.”

So far, however, no updates on the situation have been posted by Kola NPP’s information centre, and it is unclear whether the reactor has been taken back online. The delay may have been caused equally by problems of a technological nature and by the extremely low demand for energy produced by the plant. The economic and financial crisis has intensified the issue of “pent-up output” at Kola NPP: As the grid cannot accept and distribute excess energy, the plant has to operate under necessary dispatch limitations. And In June, as follows from official press releases from Kola NPP, the site was working at 50 percent capacity.

Bellona repeatedly attempted to contact Kola NPP’s press service for three days to obtain comments, but phone calls placed to the numbers announced for press contacts went unanswered.

Kola industry captains circle the wagons around the nuclear industry as they disparage wind energy…

Originally published on Bellona’s Russian site, the previous story on July emergency shutdowns – and the related troubles of Kola NPP, whose two reactors have long been operating beyond their engineered life spans, though were twice licensed to continue operation, and the other two are soon to exhaust theirs – has triggered a swift reaction, but not from the information service of the plant itself, but from the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Murmansk Region, of which Kola NPP is a member.

The statement, published on two Murmansk regional websites (this version, in Russian, hints broadly that the comment has been written in response to Bellona’s article) is both pro-nuclear (that may not have been so unexpected) and, oddly, against the development of wind energy – something that is deemed by many experts to be quite a viable alternative to nuclear power in the region.

The most scandalous sentences in the comment have to do with the fact that Reactors 1 and 2 of Kola NPP have been in operation beyond their engineered life spans. This is what the union had to say on the matter: “The notion of ‘the operational lifetime of a reactor’ is an obsolete one. If you prove that your reactor is safe, you get a license for it. Operational life spans for [nuclear power plants] are determined by operational licenses, which are issued by the Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Industrial, and Atomic Supervision (Rostekhnadzor). Kola NPP has such operational licenses.”

The problem with this statement is that when Kola NPP was obtaining its extended licenses for the two aged reactors, it did so in violation of the Russian law – to wit, without a state-mandated environmental impact evaluation and without public hearings on the subject. Kola NPP’s Reactor Unit 1, commissioned in 1973, was to go offline in 2003, but its license was extended that year and again in December 2009. Another ten-year extension was obtained for Reactor Unit 2, which was launched in 1974. Both the VVER-440 reactors, built to run for 30 years, could only be legally licensed to remain online provided that a prior federal environmental impact study ascertained that there were no risks to prolong their operation. Though required by law, this had not been done.

Because the first five-year extensions were granted for the reactors in 2003 in clear defiance of this requirement, Murmansk regional prosecutors, who were supportive of environmentalists’ claims, made several attempts at the time to force government authorities to comply with the law – all to no avail. After that, the prosecutors seem to have dropped the matter altogether.

That industry captains and entrepreneurs want to defend Kola NPP – which is both a technological dinosaur from the point of view of modern industry standards and a physically worn-out one as well – should not come as a surprise, though one is forced to wonder what comes next: Will the notion of “nuclear and radiation safety” be announced obsolete, too?

Strangely enough, Kola NPP defenders seem to be angered by the proposition that the nuclear power plant could be shut down with no losses incurred to the region’s energy supply and that the peninsula’s wind potential could be taken advantage of to provide enough energy to the consumers. If anything, there are strong commercial opportunities in the development of renewable energy as well.

“The claims that the plant should be shut down and that wind farms should be built are likewise unsubstantiated,” the industrialists’ union’s statement said.

“Firstly, the existence of this powerful electric power resource in our region is the cornerstone of the region’s successful development and its investment appeal. Secondly, renewable energy is already developed in our region – namely, hydropower plants. A wind farm is not the most environmentally friendly way to produce energy: There is the issue of colossal noise pollution, of destruction of fertile lands used for the infrastructure of wind turbines, etc.”

It is strange that noise pollution and destruction of fertile lands should be deemed such a problem for Murmansk Region, where construction of wind farms is planned to start in areas stretching along a highway connecting Murmansk and the remote village of Teriberka, located on the shore of the Barents Sea – in other words, lands that are neither fertile nor inhabited. Then again, Murmansk’s industrialists and entrepreneurs might benefit from an orientation tour around Denmark or Germany, where they could see for themselves what a modern wind farm really looks like and listen to its “noise” – the quiet sound of a rustling wind – and watch local farmers tending to their wheat or potato crops in the surrounding fields…

Likewise, they might be interested in acquainting themselves with the assessments made by the Kola Science Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose experts conclude that Murmansk Region has an annual wind energy potential estimated at 360 billion kilowatt-hours – or twenty times the energy the region is consuming at present. These and other favourable findings are available in Bellona’s 2007 position paper and report entitled “Prospects for Development of Non-Conventional and Renewable Sources of Energy on the Kola Peninsula.”

Ecological non-governmental organisations operating in the region – among them, Bellona’s Murmansk branch, Priroda i Molodyozh (Nature and Youth), and Kola Ecological Coordination Centre Gaia – believe that the lack of comprehensive development of wind energy on the peninsula testifies to the practice of neglectful management and an irresponsible approach to the use of natural resources – something Murmansk industrialists seem to have no objections to.

… push for tax exemption for Kola NPP


A surprise development in the sad story about Kola Nuclear Power Plant also came in late July, when former Kola NPP director Yevgeny Nikora – he is now Chairman of the Murmansk Duma, the regional parliament – indicated all was not so well with the plant’s finances. Apparently, as follows from the information offered by Nikora at a July 21 meeting of the Governing Board of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) – an international multi-member entity founded in 1989 with a mission, according to its website, “to improve safety at every nuclear power plant in the world” – Kola NPP is so deep in financial trouble that it is no longer capable of meeting its regular-bracket tax burden. Nikora said the Murmansk Regional Duma had just passed amendments to Article 4-1 of the regional law “On Property Taxes for Organisations,” which eliminated property taxes for assets obtained by organisations on a charitable basis as foreign aid aimed to enhance nuclear safety in the region.

According to data made available by Kola NPP, $33.87 million’s worth of equipment was entered on the books of this “cornerstone of investment appeal” as part of foreign aid between 1989 and 2002 alone. Sponsored funds were coming to the site from the US, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Union.  

Grants and foreign aid money have been instrumental to improving radiation and nuclear safety in Russia, especially in Russia’s north, where a host of problems related to dealing with the legacy of the Soviet nuclear fleet still demands attention. In the 1990s, when Russia was going through its early post-Soviet period and its industry and economy were in a state of total collapse, the country simply had no money to spend on these pressing issues.

But the history of the Russian nuclear industry suggests it has become accustomed to its privileged position enough to enjoy foreign aid and resent paying taxes. In today’s circumstances, it seems unreasonable, when considering tax exemptions, to equal health care and public education institutions with sites of nuclear power generation, which, being branches of the joint stock company Concern Rosenergoatom, are part of that fully incorporated commercial organisation.

… and dream of building Kola NPP-2

And then there is the old idea to launch the second construction line of Kola NPP – a project that has been buried several times before and is being brought to life once again.

According to a press statement released by the regional duma, during the WANO event, parliament speaker Nikora also met with Rosenergoatom’s general director Sergei Obozov and Kola NPP’s current director Vasily Omelchuk.

One of the issues on the agenda – which may serve as a further illustration of the financial woes plaguing Kola NPP, as well as that the plant may be providing power in excess of demand – was the problem of the region’s energy consumption market falling behind on its electricity payments. In particular, that concerned one of the regional power supply companies, Kolenergosbyt, which had run up a debt it now owes to Rosenergoatom.

Then, as they discussed a draft declaration of intent earlier put forward by Rosenergoatom, which envisions investment prospects for building future Reactors 1 and 2 of Kola NPP-2, the meeting’s participants underscored the importance of bringing this project as soon as possible under consideration of the local government’s inter-agency commission in charge of deciding on the planning and siting of new industrial capacities in Murmansk Region.

As it stands, Kola NPP-2 had not made it into the most recent federal programme for prospective energy generation sites approved by the Russian government – for reasons of the project’s commercial inadvisability and prohibitive costs. This is not stopping nuclear officials from apparently still trying to score a home run via other avenues – namely, holding talks with regional authorities, which would give the impression that the venture is only being newly resurrected following a request made at the local level, rather than something imposed on the region from Moscow.

And at the local level, a 2007 poll commissioned by the environmental group Ecodefense! and the Heinrich Boll Foundation to ROMIR, a representative of Gallup International in Russia and a leader in public opinion surveys in the country, revealed that 87 percent of Murmansk Region residents “disapproved” and “rather disapproved” of plans to build new reactors at the old plant. Only 10 percent of respondents said they were in favour of this idea. And 52 percent said they were for the promotion and development of renewable energy sources on the peninsula.