COMMENT: Defiant of Fukushima, yet now mindful of apparent fears, Moscow revs up sales of ‘safer’ nuke energy. Would Russia at least revise stance on old reactors?

ingressimage_likvidators2.jpg Photo: Reuters

For two weeks now the world has been witnessing, with rising alarm, then horror, the developments at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, where twin natural disasters of March 11 knocked out external power supply, leading to partial reactor core meltdowns and exposing spent fuel rods in cooling ponds, which started emitting massive amounts of radiation. Not even professionals, apparently, could have predicted such a catastrophic scenario: No one had it in them to believe that nature and human circumstances could conspire to make an accident of such magnitude a true – not hypothetical – reality.

In 1988, two years after the tragedy at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the outstanding Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident, and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov wrote: “As the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster have demonstrated, the safety of nuclear energy cannot be considered an internal matter of any given country. I believe that an international law must be passed to ban ground-based construction of nuclear reactors and provide for gradual, stage-by-stage shutdown of all reactors already built that do not meet safety standards.”

In the past two weeks Russia’s ruling duo, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have revealed not just short-sightedness, but unprecedented reactionism, spurred as they seemed by the Fukushima accident into a direction rather opposite from that of the rest of the world: Instead of moving to stress-test or shut down Russia’s oldest nuclear power plants (NPPs), they have been stepping up efforts to conclude export reactor contracts with Turkey and Belarus and insisting on further reactor construction plans in Russia. Indeed, how bad does a nuclear accident have to be to persuade Russia to renounce a technology that has already given the world Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Medvedev: We must work to increase public confidence in nuclear industry worldwide

After an incessant two-week nuclear propaganda campaign on Russian TV channels, President Medvedev issued on March 24 a video statement, finally directly addressing the effects that the accident at Fukushima may have on both Russian and international nuclear energy policies.  

“The attention of many people around the world is focused on the events in Japan […],” Medvedev said Thursday in his Kremlin video blog. “At the same time we have been watching with apprehension the relief efforts following the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. The events there have intensified the debate about the development of nuclear power industry worldwide. Various opinions are being expressed casting doubt on the safety of nuclear power. We know and remember everything that has happened, including another great tragedy that we will commemorate in April this year: Chernobyl .”

Medvedev’s speech then returned to the now customary assurances of nuclear energy’s benefits and urged to adopt stricter safety requirements for operation of nuclear power plants worldwide.

“On the other hand, we know that today nuclear power provides the most economic solution to generating electricity. It is also the safest way, provided that the relevant rules of design, construction and subsequent operation of a nuclear power plant are rigorously observed,” he said. “It is clear that these rules and standards should be the same for all countries. We must review the existing legislation, including domestic laws and the international legal framework. I believe that it can certainly be improved. Additional requirements should probably be introduced, as well as restrictions for the construction of nuclear power plants in high-risk seismic zones.”

Curiously, the suggestion to introduce restrictions for reactor construction in high-risk seismic zones comes only a week after Medvedev assured Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a visit to Moscow, that Russia’s NPP project in the earthquake-prone Turkey will be absolutely safe.

The President stressed that the standard that already exists in Russia, prohibiting the construction of nuclear power plants in areas with a risk of maximum strength level, 8.0-level earthquake, “should be adopted internationally because we all know what damage such a catastrophe can cause.”

“Such a [catastrophe] never affects just one state. Unfortunately, it also poses varying degrees of danger to the neighbouring countries, and indeed for the entire planet,” Medvedev added, somewhat echoing Sakharov’s post-Chernobyl statement, even as it remained unclear whether the president meant the earthquake in Japan or the ensuing nuclear disaster.

Reconsidering extensions on old operating licenses

Then a less than expected – and ever so slight – hint at a possible change in policy was introduced into Medvedev’s speech as he indicated that Russia’s custom of extending the operational lifetimes of old reactors beyond the design-basis limit – sometimes, with alleged violations of the environmental law, such as in the case of Kola Nuclear Power Plant in the far northern Kola Peninsula, which is regularly plagued with emergency shutdowns – might be up for revision.

“There is another important point which has to do with the future development of nuclear energy. It is probably more expedient to build new nuclear power plants, with cutting edge safety mechanisms, than to extend the lifetime of old ones,” Medvedev said.

That was it, however. It also remained unclear whether Medvedev meant abandoning the policy of extending the operational life spans of Russian oldest reactors – or making a comment about running aged reactors in other countries. It was discovered earlier this week that Fukushima Daiichi’s 40-year-old reactor No. 1 had received a 10-year extension on its operational license two weeks before the disaster in defiance of several regulatory warnings that it would not withstand an earthquake.

Medvedev finished by saying that “most importantly, we must work to increase public confidence in the development of the nuclear industry worldwide. It has great potential.” Much of the rest of the speech sounded like another round in an aggressive sales strategy that was launched two weeks ago, as Moscow apparently rushed to seize a market niche that may have ostensibly opened up in the wake of the nuclear accident in Japan.

Russia’s nuclear sales pitch

None of the Fukushima woes seem to be leaving any noticeable mark on the mindset of the Russian government – other than to insist on the safety of nuclear technologies Russia has to offer its customers abroad. On March 15, Prime Minister Putin travelled to Minsk to hold a meeting with the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko, praise Russian nuclear energy achievements, and sign an intergovernmental cooperation agreement that envisions construction, by Russia, of a nuclear power plant in Belarus’s Ostrovets, in Grodno region – a project that has been vigorously criticised by environmentalists, independent international experts, and the public alike.

Back in the Kremlin on the following day, President Medvedev was holding a meeting with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, praising Russian nuclear energy achievements, and promising Turkey – though not signing, not just yet, any agreement on – the safest nuclear power plant ever designed, another one to be built in an earthquake-prone region.

“The position taken by Russia and the [Russian State Nuclear Corporation] Rosatom in this situation is, to put it mildly, inappropriate,” said Andrei Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s branch in Murmansk, on the Kola Peninsula. “It’s like offering someone matches and petrol during a raging fire, saying ‘they’re safest, safest as they come!’ Could the signing of [the deal with Belarus] have been postponed for some time, if only for appearances’ sake?” 

Yevgeny Nikora, chairman of the Murmansk regional parliament, offers a different, if imaginative, interpretation.

“Signing the agreements during such a dramatic time cannot be considered a lack of respect for the tragedy in Japan,” Nikora told Bellona. “This is a symbolic gesture showing the support of one nuclear nation to another. Nuclear nations must support each other right now in the development of nuclear energy.” 

During his meeting with Turkey’s Erdogan, and again in his video address, Medvedev stressed the many factors that will completely rule out any safety risks for Russia’s NPP project in Turkey’s Akkuyu. 

“The project […] in Akkuyu fundamentally differs from the nuclear power stations operated in Japan, it is more advanced and secure and employs different safety principles. Therefore […] there is and may be no need for any drastic safety measures improvement as they are absolutely sufficient already,” Medvedev said responding to a reporter’s question during a press conference after his conversation with Erdogan on March 16.

The president assured that even as Turkey is within a seismic activity area, the Russian construction standards would make all necessary precautions to guard against even “a most devastating earthquake.”

“I am therefore certain this will be a good project. […] It is […] very beneficial for our Turkish friends precisely because, for the first time really, Russia is accepting liability not for merely building the nuclear power plant, but also for its maintenance and operation, and hence is accepting the title to the power plant which significantly simplifies the issues encountered while erecting such sophisticated facilities,” he added.

Turkey has had a period of certain visible hesitation in its earlier negotiations with Russia about the NPP project in Akkuyu, not least because of the extortionate prices calculated for the future power produced there. As for the “unique ownership model” devised by the Rosatom corporation, it is in fact one where a Russia-owned nuclear power plant is built on the territory of a different state on the Russian taxpayers’ dime.

Safety assurances built on shaky ground

Another point that Medvedev did not fail to make in his video address was ensuring against cooling problems:

“Kudankulam NPP in India is another Russian nuclear project that features a passive heat removal system, which will continue cooling the reactors even during a power cut such as in Japan and thus prevent a catastrophe,” Medvedev said.

But the assertions that the construction and operation of an export nuclear reactor, in Turkey or elsewhere, will be performed by Russian specialists does not at all guarantee that the same problems that plague Russia’s reactor construction at home will not be transplanted onto other lands – substandard management of building works, poor operational record, and even outright violations such as theft at construction sites by means of substituting cheaper, sub-quality materials for the ones approved for construction. Such incidents are reported by Rostekhnadzor, the Russian federal industrial safety oversight agency, year in, year out.

Turkey’s Premier Erdogan, in his turn, revealed a surprising lack of understanding of the principal difference between bridges and nuclear power plants, as he said during the meeting with Medvedev: “I am sure that the nuclear power plant that will be built in Turkey will become a benchmark for the rest of the world. […] an earthquake is possible anywhere. And, unfortunately, our country is in an earthquake-prone zone… But we are building other sites as well that can withstand earthquakes, large bridges, for instance. […] Of course catastrophes can happen than may bring enormous harm to humankind, but we cannot give up our joint projects […] because of possible catastrophes like these.”

It might be useful to compare the potential consequences of a devastating earthquake for a “large bridge” and a nuclear power plant. If a bridge implodes, the destruction will affect only those who happened to be on it or near it during the impact. The price of a radiation accident, especially one like in Chernobyl or Fukushima, is simply incommensurate with the collapse of even a big bridge.

One can understand Erdogan’s position, though: Even if Russia does launch an NPP project in Turkey, construction will unlikely be completed before 2020, when the prime minister himself will be happily retired and it will be difficult to hold him reliable should an accident occur.

The case of Belarus

The other customer who was enjoying Russia’s heightened attentions as the Fukushima disaster was exacerbating was Belarus’s President Lukashenko. He doesn’t seem to be retiring any time soon, but is also quite ready to welcome Rosatom and its nuclear salesmen – despite environmentalists’ warnings and the apparent exorbitant costs of this project for his-less-than affluent country.

During the meeting in Minsk on March 15, the Russian premier and the Belarusian ruler were united in their demonstration of an absence of any doubts or willingness to learn on others’ mistakes.

“ I can assure you that the projects we are discussing and about to implement are of the latest generation and that their security level is much higher than the Japanese plants, despite the fact that Belarus is not situated near the same sort of seismic area. The Japanese reactors were made in the US 40 years ago. And we are talking about brand new technology,” Putin said.

Putin may in fact be aware that Belarus, too, is within a seismic-risk area – hence the careful “[not] near the same sort” as Japan. Yet, the Ostrovets site in Belarus’s Grodno Region is quite near the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, where a 7-magnitude earthquake shook the area near the village of Gudogai in 1909. Japan was confident its nuclear power plants would withstand a strongest possible earthquake – at least one didn’t. The Russians are now asserting the same for their projects. It is uncanny that some simply take their word for it.

A new NPP is better than an old one?

The current marketing strategy employed by the Russian nuclear industry and its political supporters is buttressed by a very simple thesis, or variations thereof: “An old Japanese nuclear power plant is worse than a new Russian one.”

True, Fukushima Daiichi was an old station, but if Russia’s Turkish and Belarusian projects are successfully completed – they are proposed to be built to a new and yet untested Russian reactor design dubbed AES-2006 (for NPP-2006) – these plants, too, will become old in 40 years.

Furthermore, even though the new Russian NPP-2006 design is based on a pressurised-water-type reactor (VVER-1200), which is not the same as Fukushima’s boiling reactor design, the two have frighteningly much in common. Both are tank-type reactors – meaning that the temperature, the pressure, and the radioactivity inside are contained within a metal vessel, the reactor vessel.

If cooling systems fail, the temperature and pressure inside may grow, pressing against the walls of the reactor vessel and the pipelines, which just may give. That is to say that the scenario where radiation-saturated vapour is intentionally released into the atmosphere to relieve dangerous pressure build-up in the reactor – something that was done at Fukushima – may well happen at a station running VVER reactors as well. The radius of the protective perimeter around such a station must thus be made a minimum of 20 kilometres, just like the one installed in the early days of the disaster at Fukushima – not the 3.5 kilometres now provided for new Russian NPPs in official environmental impact assessment reports (or even less for some old ones).

Another important factor to remember is that the accident in Japan does not just involve the overheated reactors, but also the cooling ponds with spent nuclear fuel, where the collapse of external power supply and the resulting failure of standard cooling means led to the exposure of highly radioactive spent fuel rods and massive releases of radiation.

Similar cooling ponds with spent nuclear fuel will be installed at the sites of Russian NPP-2006 project nuclear power plants as well. However, no accident scenarios involving emergency situations with spent nuclear fuel are even considered in Rosatom’s official environmental impact statements drafted for its NPP projects – something that has been repeatedly pointed out by environmentalists when these documents were presented at public hearings. But Rosatom simply dismisses all such concerns.

In an attempt to allay the public’s mounting apprehension toward nuclear power in the past two weeks, journalists and politicians in Russia have been keeping the population awash with information about safety of Russia’s nuclear reactors, new and old alike. A report aired on one of St. Petersburg’s channels featured a group of parliamentaries on a fact-finding mission at Leningrad NPP – where a “densified” method for on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel, similar to that at Fukushima Daiichi, has been employed.

Furthermore, Leningrad NPP, located in a closed town near Russia’s second capital, St. Petersburg, runs four Chernobyl-type reactors, of which the oldest received a 15-year extension on its engineered life span in 2004. Surely, if Russia’s policy changes at all in light of Medvedev’s suggestion to stop providing license extensions to ancient reactors, retiring the oldest units at the Kola and Leningrad stations should be at the top of the list.  

What about the old stations?

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the ecological group Ecodefense!, in an interview he gave to the Russian publication Sobesednik, named five nuclear power plants in Russia that pose the biggest risk: Leningrad and Kola NPPs, as well as Kursk, Smolensk, and Novovoronezh NPPs (in Western European Russia). In terms of safety, these plants run reactors that are even inferior to the embattled Fukushima Daiichi.

According to Slivyak, in the 25 years after Chernobyl, the nuclear industry succeeded in convincing many politicians that nuclear power is safe – but in the four days of March 2011 that bubble has burst definitively. The reality is such that any nuclear power plant in any country is susceptible to the risk of a major accident if it loses its external source of power – and it doesn’t have to take an earthquake.  

In Russia’s Far North, this was already sadly proven in February 1993, when ice accumulation knocked out all power lines feeding power to Kola NPP, where the reactors were immediately shut down, but two out of four diesel-powered generators failed to start. Reactor cooling was maintained for some time via natural circulation. Had it failed, Kola NPP would have likely faced a partial meltdown scenario just like at Fukushima.

“Failure of external energy supply is the beginning of a catastrophe for any NPP, something that the accident in Japan has confirmed once again,” says Bellona-Murmansk’s Zolotkov. “Back-up generators, which are provided for just such a contingency, can fail, too, or there may be circumstances when it would be impossible to start them.”

Zolotkov adds that eight years on, Kola NPP is yet to provide open, reliable, and unbiased information about the event, classified as a Level 3 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which rates nuclear accidents by their degree of severity. Japan’s official rating of the Fukushima accident now stands at Level 5, while France classifies it as a Level 6 event.

bodytextimage_P1040741.JPG Photo: Anna Kireeva

Murmansk regional parliament’s speaker Nikora denies that Kola NPP poses any threat at all:

“As a nuclear specialist, I can assure you that the population of Murmansk Region has absolutely nothing to fear – neither the Japanese radionuclides, nor the nuclear sites in our region,” he told Bellona.

Nikora also remains a supporter of the idea of nuclear renaissance on the Kola Peninsula, in Russia as a whole, and globally. The nuclear industry must learn its lessons and subject all of its nuclear power plants to increased scrutiny – in terms of seismic safety, reliable supply of back-up electricity and water, and safe management of spent nuclear fuel. But Nikora believes “it must continue to build new nuclear power plants, guaranteeing their safety one hundred percent. […] This is possible.”

“I dare not even think of how large-scale a catastrophe needs to happen to shake the Russian nuclear industry and politicians’ blind faith in the safety of our nuclear power plants at least a little,” Zolotkov said. “The nuclear industry must draw its lessons, but learning on mistakes of the kind that lead to catastrophes such as in Japan and at Chernobyl is a crime. Such ‘learning’ simply costs humankind too much.”

The world’s reaction

According to Ecodefense!’s Slivyak, “The accident in Japan has already made an enormous impact on the nuclear industry across the world. After Japan, plans to build new nuclear power plants may be abandoned in various countries, since the situation shows clearly that safe nuclear energy is a myth.”

The reverberations that Fukushima has sent across the globe serve to confirm this view. The U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, said in a March 16 letter to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s head Greg Jaczko: “If the citizens of the US and the world cannot be adequately protected from the risks of nuclear power, then nuclear power should not continue to exist […].”

Statements questioning the virtue of continuing to use or develop nuclear power have also been heard from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

China, one of the customers of Russia’s export reactors, said it was halting the issuance of permits required to build new nuclear power plants, including those to be built by Russia. Even Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela, with which Russia maintains very friendly relations, has announced his country was rejecting plans to develop nuclear energy.

Likewise, Thailand announced it was putting a freeze on a construction project envisioning five new nuclear power plants on its territory.

The European Union intends to stress-test some 150 NPPs on its territory to assess potential safety risks. In Finland, Minister of the Environment Paula Lehtomäki believes the disaster in Japan will certainly influence the issue of increasing nuclear capacity in her country. Concerns regarding construction of new plants were clearly expressed during the latest discussion of future development of Finland’s commercial nuclear programme, according to the minister.

Germany was perhaps the country where most responsible and swift decisions were made. Angela Merkel’s government, despite being generally sympathetic to the nuclear industry, moved to shut down temporarily all German nuclear power plants that were commissioned before or in 1980. The earlier decision that allowed some of the old German NPPs to continue operating until 2032 may be revised.

Germany operates 17 nuclear power plants. On March 17, the energy concern EnBW took off the grid two out of the seven oldest: Neckarwestheim-1 and Phillipsburg-1, commissioned in 1976 and 1979, respectively. And Neckarwestheim-1 looks to be shut down for good.

These measures did not lead to a shortage of power supply in Germany, nor to an increase in electric power import. This would serve to dispel one of the nuclear industry’s myths – that without nuclear power, humankind will be forced to regress back to caves dimly lit by candles.

Germany may go further than the measures already taken: The country’s environmental authorities are not ruling out complete shutdown of nine nuclear power plants currently in operation. Jochen Flasbarth, who heads the German Federal Environment Agency, told

Süddeutsche Zeitung that this step was not expected to undermine Germany’s energy security, nor to force Germany to import more power from other countries. He also said that the enormous surplus of power produced in Germany – 15 gigawatts – would, combined with energy efficiency, energy conservation, and new and clean energy technologies, allow Germany to abandon nuclear energy without any detriment to the economy or the level of comfort the population is used to. In Flasbarth’s estimates, Germany may be fully set to leave nuclear energy behind by 2017.

Medvedev, in his video address, urged the international community to increase its oversight of the nuclear industry, measuring levels of radiation automatically and communicating them to various information websites, “expanding the mandate of international organisations responsible for nuclear power safety” and giving it “different powers, appropriate to every given situation that would make it possible for each such organisation to address the problems within its scope of responsibility.”

But these recommendations, reasonable as they may be, may prove moot if more nations choose to explore other, cleaner, energy technologies rather than fight a losing battle against the “peaceful atom” that just won’t stay “peaceful.”

Nuclear energy: Not a source of power, but a liability

In the early days of the Fukushima disaster, as alarming events at the plant were forcing experts, increasingly, to admit that the situation was very serious and TV news segments aired reports showing radiation measurements taken hourly in the Russian Far East, Putin did issue an order to examine the state of the Russian nuclear industry and its development prospects and submit it to the government within a month. Still, the Kremlin is yet to drastically revise its domestic or foreign nuclear energy programme or announce any specific steps to enhance safety standards, eager as the government is to assure the public that the Russian nuclear energy sector is safe enough.

If Russia were to follow Germany’s example and its revised safety policy, it would need to shut down for further tests almost half of the 32 commercial reactors in operation – fourteen reactors that were all commissioned before or in 1980. The oldest of these, Reactor Unit 3 at Novovoronezh NPP, has been in use, just like Reactor Unit 1 at Fukushima, for forty years – since 1971.

Do the president and the prime minister know of these reactors? Are they aware that these reactors are plagued by constant operational disruptions, incidents and accidents, that they are not sufficiently protected against earthquakes or plane crashes? That according to Rostekhnadzor’s 2009 Annual Performance Report, violations in the operation of Russian nuclear power plants are the result of “such underlying causes as mismanagement, flaws in maintenance organisation, manufacturing defects, and design defects”?

Medvedev, in his March 24 video address, has promised that “Russia is already conducting public inspections at its NPPs, checking their reliability and seismic stability, despite the fact that our country, as I have said, has the most stringent standards […] Public control is carried out by the media, non-governmental organisations and other public associations. Public information centres will be set up in cities that have nuclear facilities.”

These measures, if true, are hardly enough.

The lesson of the still ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima is not that a 9-magnitude earthquake or a 10-metre-high tsunami wave can crush the defences of a nuclear power plant – that could have been guessed before. The lesson is that a country that employs nuclear energy is more – not less – vulnerable than one that does not. No natural disaster, falling airplanes, terrorist attacks, or military hostilities can lead to consequences as mass-scale as a nuclear calamity, capable as it is of making itself felt across thousands of kilometres from ground zero and contaminating with hazardous radiation vast surrounding territories for hundreds and thousands of years.

Indeed, Fukushima is bitter evidence that no such thing exists as safe nuclear power plants, that engineers simply cannot predict all possible accident scenarios, and that any accident already provided for in numerous procedures and guidelines may take unpredictable turns and evolve into a full-blown catastrophe – complete with evacuation of over 200,000 people from the affected areas and thousands more hurrying to leave the country and its capital city, with contaminated foods and water supply found in various areas of the country, and with workers still striving, in conditions of deadly levels of radiation, to bring the ailing plant under control.

Medvedev’s words must be confirmed by real actions. The energy Moscow is exerting so lavishly on assuring Rosatom’s customers abroad of Russia’s competitive advantage in nuclear technologies would be better spent on giving intense scrutiny to the oldest and most dangerous nuclear power plants at home.

Revoking the extended operational licenses issued for the reactors that have long exhausted their engineered and safety capacity – letting them retire peacefully – would certainly be a start.

Andrey Ozharovsky

idc.moscow@gmail.com