Comment: President Medvedev – Proud of the Russian nuclear industry. Oh really?


Publish date: October 7, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he is proud of the country’s nuclear industry – the same one that the federal industry oversight agency Rostekhnadzor reveals to have fallen far below par owing to disruptions in the operation of nuclear power plants, substandard management and maintenance, personnel incompetence, and even counterfeit materials used in the construction of new reactors.

The Russian nuclear authority Rosatom and nuclear power plant (NPP) operator company Rosenergoatom report that President Medvedev’s hearty endorsement of the national nuclear industry’s achievements came during a conversation with Rosatom’s head Sergei Kiriyenko in the Russian pavilion of the World Expo-2010 exhibition in Shanghai.

The event was the last point on the agenda of the Russian leader’s three-day presidential visit to China late last month. After the ceremonial opening of the exhibition’s Russia Day, President Medvedev and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Rosatom’s stand and examined a number of exhibits – such as Rosatom’s automated background radiation monitoring system, which keeps track of radiation levels around all of Russia’s nuclear sites in real time, a scaled-down copy of a nuclear energy information centre for high school students, and the safety systems Russia has been using in its latest nuclear power plant construction projects, including in China. A contract was also signed that day for building two more power-generating units at the Tian-Wang NPP.

President Medvedev congratulated Kiriyenko on the 65th anniversary of the Russian nuclear industry – the Soviets’ rush to develop the USSR’s own A-bomb started in 1945 – and said the nuclear energy industry had a bright future ahead of it, according to Rosatom’s press service.

“…I ask you to let all Russian nuclear workers know that we are proud of our nuclear industry,” Medvedev said to Kiriyenko.

But what is there exactly to be proud of? Let’s take a look at some documents made public by the Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Industrial, and Atomic Supervision, or Rostekhnadzor.

The industry oversight agency dedicated the better part of its 2009 Annual Performance Report to the atomic industry, and the information it makes available offers few reasons for celebration.

Among the many problems plaguing the nuclear industry as a whole – the report lists a long roster of issues concerning the operation of various nuclear industry enterprises, nuclear and radioactive waste, aged reactors awaiting decommissioning etc. – incidents at Russian nuclear power plants deserve special attention.

And according to Rostekhnadzor, violations in the operation of the Russian NPPs that it cites in its report are the result of “such underlying causes as mismanagement, flaws in maintenance organisation, manufacturing defects, and design defects,” while new reactors are being built with the use of what has been revealed to be counterfeit or uncertified materials, as well as “insufficient qualifications, [and] the personnel’s meagre knowledge of federal norms and rules, design documentation, and the technological processes of equipment manufacturing.”

Russia’s NPPs: Equipment failures and personnel’s errors

The Rostekhnadzor report read in part: “Of operational disturbances that took place [in the reported period] at nuclear power plants, 30 occurred that are subject to reporting as per the Regulation on the Procedure of investigation into and registration of violations in the operation of nuclear stations […], which is nine violations fewer than in 2008.”

Can one be proud of the nuclear energy industry allowing fewer operational violations than the year before? Probably yes, but one needs to be sure that the following year will not turn out to be a grim disappointment. But as operational disruptions go, 2010 will likely take the prize for a record high number of “incidents” at Russian NPPs, half of which were far from being harmless mistakes, but were rather precursor events to much more serious accidents that, thankfully, never happened.

As with any trouble disrupting the normal operation of a system, the emphasis lies with understanding the causes and assessing ways to improve the situation. This is what the report says on the subject:

“The majority of disturbances in the operation of NPPs in 2009 were brought about by such underlying causes as mismanagement, flaws in maintenance organisation, manufacturing defects, and design defects.”

Formal logic would suggest that the deficiencies in management and in the organisation of maintenance do lend themselves to some sort of remediation. Yet, these deficiencies are reported by Rostekhnadzor year in, year out – with no improvement in sight. But where manufacturing and design defects go, these are impossible to rectify to begin with: If a reactor has been badly designed and runs on defective components, it will sooner or later conk out. Just what kind of conking out it will be –a quiet, easy-to-sweep-under-the-rug incident or a horrible catastrophe – is a matter of likelihoods.

A dubious record

Rostekhnadzor states in its report that:
“The reactor units with the majority of operational disturbances [in 2009] were:
•    Reactor Unit No. 3 of Novovoronezh NPP (VVER-440);
•    Reactor Unit No. 3 of Kola NPP (VVER-440);
•    Reactor Unit No. 3 of Leningrad NPP (RBMK);
•    Reactor Unit No. 1 of Smolensk NPP (RBMK).

Each of these reactors sustained three reportable operational disturbances in 2009. Altogether, among Russian NPPs, most of the operational disturbances registered took place at Leningrad NPP (six incidents).

The majority of operational disturbances at Russian NPPs in 2009 (18 operational disturbances) have been ascribed to reactor power reduction caused by system (component) failures.”
[picture1 left]So Russian NPPs sustain system or component failures – though, fortunately, none have to date led to a discharge of radiation into the surrounding atmosphere: “No events that carried consequences for the radiation safety of the population, personnel, or the environment, were registered in 2009,” Rostekhnadzor reports. What is there to be proud of?

Reactor scrams

Scramming a reactor is often that one last-resort action that stops the reactor going up in smoke. Further on, according to Rostekhnadzor’s report:

“In 2009, nine disturbances occurred that were accompanied by the activation of the emergency protection system […](compared to 10 such incidents in 2008).

Such disturbances took place at the reactor units of Smolensk NPP (three emergency protection activation incidents), Kalinin NPP (two incidents), Leningrad, Balakovo, Bilibino, [and] Novovoronezh NPPs (one incident each).

Of the total number of incidents involving activation of the emergency protection system, five such incidents were caused by the necessary implementation of safety functions, while the remaining four were caused by erroneous actions on the part of the personnel.”

In other words, in five out of nine cases, it was only thanks to reactor scrams that serious accidents were avoided. What is there to be proud of?

Most significant violations

It is indeed interesting to understand which of the violations registered by Rostekhnadzor could have had potentially disastrous consequences.

The agency’s report has plenty information on incidents at Russian NPPs that do not qualify for accidents, but are serious enough – with each event categorised as per existing guidelines on a scale of 10 to 1, where E01 is characterised by a discharge of radioactive substances onto the operations floor or into the surrounding environment through system or component failure, defects in prescribed procedure, or personnel errors, with resulting contamination and radiation exposure, and E10 is associated with damage done to either fresh or spent fuel rods through system or equipment failure or personnel errors, where contamination or radiation exposure does not take place.

Most events Rostekhnadzor reports on fall under the category of E06 – activation of the safety system train due to the necessary implementation of safety function that is not accompanied by additional – as compared to those relevant during design-basis accidents – safety system component failures beyond a one-time failure, nor by personnel errors.

These are just some of the examples of “NPP operational disturbances with most significance (in terms of classification and potential consequences), of the total number of disturbances registered in 2009,” that resulted from errors on the part of the personnel on site or mechanical damage done to fuel rods – at least two incidents – while performing various handling operations.

“January 12, 2009. Reactor shutdown at Reactor Unit No. 3 of Leningrad NPP, by mode of [quick load reduction], due to a drop in the [water level] in the steam drum, which resulted from erroneous actions of personnel. Event category E06,” read the Rostekhnadzor report.
[picture2 left]“February 08, 2009. Disengagement of a fuel assembly from the grip with the assembly’s resulting fall into the transport and packaging complex from a height of 500 millimetres at Reactor Unit No. 3 of Novovoronezh NPP […]. Event category E10,” read another incident in the report.

“August 25, 2009. Fall of a [spent nuclear fuel assembly] from the transporting device into the cradle of the transport cask at Reactor Unit No. 4 of Leningrad NPP, due to a rupture of [the grip mechanism] cable which occurred during the loading of [spent nuclear fuel] into the […] transport cask of a container wagon under preparation for shipment to the [Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility]. Event category E10,” Rostekhnadzor reported.

Two more reactor shutdowns are also cited in this section of the report, at Kalinin and Smolensk NPPs, and a shutdown of a turbogenerator at Balakovo NPP. Another incident cited by Rostekhnadzor creates the impression of someone making a wretched, if misplaced, attempt at alleviating the overall gloom with some absurdist humour:

“December 10, 2009. Load reduction to 40 percent of nominal power capacity at Reactor Unit No. 2 of Leningrad NPP due to damage done to power cables while performing excavation works for beautification purposes on the territory of the industrial site by a contractor organisation. Event category E06.”

Even if the December incident at Leningrad NPP, when some workers digging into the ground for “beautification purposes” cut into power cables and brought a reactor almost to a dead stop, could be taken for a freak occurrence, the stuff of future urban legend, the scram at Smolensk NPP – caused, as Rostekhnadzor reported, by a leaking pipeline – is nothing short of a very serious disruption.

And that, two nuclear power plants in one year had to report dropping fresh or spent nuclear fuel – the latter needing special care during loading or transport operations – is grounds for shock and dismay, far from something to be proud of.

Personnel’s erroneous actions

The notorious “human factor” put in an appearance four times in 2009, according to Rostekhnadzor. The report says:

“Four personnel errors occurred in 2009 which became initiator events for operational disturbances and accounted for 15 percent of the total number of disturbances (compared to five such personnel errors in 2008)”.
[picture3 left]The specific descriptions provided range from erroneous actions while attempting to maintain the optimal water levels in the steam drum, when the reactor was being taken online even as the automatic water level regulator was out of order (Leningrad NPP) to “operating [a] control and protection valve in a tardy and disorganised manner [..] owing to insufficient communication between [the staff involved] and an ineffective assessment of the ongoing situation, which resulted in a scram of Reactor Unit No. 2 due to dropping levels in the steam generator” (Balakovo NPP).

At Bilibino NPP, two simultaneous emergency protection signals were given out when checking the emergency safety system, as a result of which Reactor Unit No. 2 was taken down.

And a reactor scram that occurred at Reactor Unit No. 3 of Kalinin NPP was traced down to two violations at once: a leak and botched repairs, both resulting in the emergency shutdown.
[picture4 left]

Summing up: At Leningrad NPP, staff were unable to take a reactor safely online; at Balakovo, responsible personnel could not agree on who was handling the isolation valve; and at Kalinin NPP – probably, the most disturbing of the four accounts – errors committed by the repairing personnel, while performing planned maintenance works in a hurry, almost led to a serious accident.

What transpired at Bilibino could have been a funny guess-what-happened-to-me-at-work-today story, were it not for the resulting reactor scram: Two employees, while checking the functions of the automatic protection system, apparently both pushed the emergency buttons at the same time. Thank God this led to a scram – and not to a power surge.

There probably is no better illustration of the overall level of nuclear personnel qualification than these four stories. Indeed, something to be proud of!

New nuclear power plants under construction: Incidents and accidents in the making

The crazy thing is that none of the violations or “operational disturbances” cited by Rostekhnadzor’s reports – the 2009 report being one of the more modest ones in terms of the mistakes and incidents allowed to happen – lead to any lessons being learnt by the responsible top-ranking officials. Those in power turn a blind eye to these accounts and push doggedly forward with more nuclear power plant projects. And nothing stands in the way of the already detected “manufacturing and design defects” fully revealing themselves in the newly built NPPs.

But if that were not intriguing enough, the plot thickens when we discover that new reactor construction is further compromised by run-of-the-mill theft – perpetrators substitute cheaper, subquality materials for the ones approved for construction:

“Supervisory measures undertaken led to the discovery of 959 units of counterfeit concrete reinforcement supplied to Reactor Unit No. 2 of Rostov NPP. The company […] responsible for the delivery of the mentioned concrete reinforcement had [its] license revoked.”

“As established in the course of supervisory activities, uncertified concrete reinforcement was supplied to Leningrad NPP. An administrative penalty was imposed on the [supplier company] in the amount of RUR 30,000. Due and well-timed measures undertaken (necessary calculations and strengthening of concrete structures) reasonably substantiated further use of the concrete reinforcement mentioned.”

It’s hard to say whether a fine of RUR 30,000 is the right price to pay for substandard construction materials for a future reactor… At least one thing is good here: That the falsification was caught in time, that the structures were duly reinforced… That they didn’t do it by guesswork, but with all proper calculations. Finally, something to be proud of.

Rostekhnadzor’s conclusions offer little comfort

Still, the oversight agency paints a sad picture in its report, as it says:

“The main causes of violations [in NPP construction works] are insufficient qualifications, [and] the personnel’s meagre knowledge of federal norms and rules, design documentation, and of the technological processes of equipment manufacturing. In particular, the top management of OAO Izhorskiye Zavody have been advised of the low quality of the enterprise’s products and have been warned that sanctions might be enforced, up to suspending the enterprise’s equipment production licence. Timely measures undertaken have eliminated further risk of substandard equipment supplies to nuclear power plants.”

Lots of reasons to be proud of. Counterfeit and uncertified concrete reinforcement supplies have been seized just in time, and the danger to future structures prevented. The question persists, however, just how much sub-quality construction materials and equipment has made it past Rostekhnadzor inspectors? How many violations have been committed but, for some reason or other, never detected by the agency?

Now there is finally some clarity as to the scandals involving the supplies of substandard materials and equipment to the Russian-built nuclear power plant in China’s Tian-Wang – the same site where Russian and China have just agreed to build two more reactors. The station’s launch was delayed time and again, and China sent back tonnes of equipment that didn’t pass scrutiny on delivery. Will the same be expected when construction starts on the new reactors there?

The situation with Izhorskiye Zavody is plainly outrageous. Izhorskiye Zavody is a leading Russian manufacturer of nuclear power engineering equipment, one of the main suppliers of equipment to nuclear power plants. What kind of guarantee regarding the safety of our nuclear power plants can we expect at all if this major producer receives Rostekhnadzor’s citations for substandard equipment supplies? Indeed, food for thought for the residents of those Russian regions where Rosatom is building or preparing to build new reactors…

In a separate congratulatory message to Russian atomic industry employees on September 22, President Medvedev said, in part:

“The implementation of the nuclear project became one of our nation’s most outstanding achievements of the 20th century in science and technology. […] It is important that today, the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation not only continues these legendary traditions, but also actively participates in resolving high-priority national challenges. Its innovative potential is in great demand in developing new types of reactors and modernising existing power generation units […]  It is in great part thanks to your dedicated work that Russia is well-represented on the global high-tech market.”

But given the state of the industry, as described by Rostekhnadzor, how exactly is Rosatom going to hold on to its place on the market and continue building its nuclear power plants abroad – in Turkey, or in Belarus, where it is actively pushing for the project of an NPP in Ostrovets? Who can guarantee that equipment sent for export will be of better quality than what is used domestically?

Suppliers have been known – and exposed – to cut corners, they do it now, and will likely continue to do so. Double-dealing with counterfeit concrete or steel grades or making unreliable relays or coolant flow rate meters – in other words, playing dirty with equipment that can ensure or compromise something as crucial as a nuclear power plant’s safety – this helps someone get rich and makes the rest of us live in fear. It is about them, after all, NPP builders and equipment suppliers, that the oversight agency writes in its report – “insufficient qualifications, meagre knowledge of federal norms and rules, design documentation, and of the technological processes of equipment manufacturing.” So what is there to be proud of?