Checks of Russian nuclear reactors fail safety hopes – and worse, leaked report reveals

Publish date: June 21, 2011

Written by: Charles Digges

A report stunning in its candor prepared for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by state agencies concerned with the safety of the country's nuclear power reacotrs in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster reveals that Russia’s atomic reactors are grievously under-prepared for both natural and man-made disasters ranging from floods to fires to earthquakes or plain negligence.

The report of the first round of stress tests on Russia’s nuclear reactors, presented to President Medvedev at a state council meeting on June 9, was obtained by Bellona Web and other environmental groups and distributed to Norwegian and Russian media.

The report comes as several countries have given up on hopes of a nuclear future. Germany had voted to phase out its last nuclear power plant by 2022, and Switzerland plans to follow suit by 2035. Last week, Italy sent a strong message in a referrundum when 95 percent of Italian voters tunred down the opportunity to have a future lighted by nuclear power. Russians have similarly expressed in polls that they would like to see Russia pursue a different energy strategy.

The report would seem to indicate that as the only reasonalble alternative. In it, 31 serious flaws that make Russia’s nuclear industry extremely vulnerable to natural disasters are catalogued. The report’s authoship remains somewhat unclear: initially, it was thought to have been authored by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom.  But reports from other environmental orgazations in Russia – plus Rosatom’s hollow soudning but vociferous denials it had anthing to do with the report – indicated that it has most likely come from an amalgam or sources, including the Ministry of Natural Resources, Russia’s nuclear oversight body, the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear oversight, or Rostekhnadzor, as well aa Rosatom.

The report is one of the few documents to surface in recent history that actually flatly contradicts Russia’s own rosy assessment that its reactors are safe – a propaganda campaign that was kicked into high gear by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev after the March 11 quake and tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, causing three meltdowns.

Bellona nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer called the report “shocking.”

“It makes for dramatic reading with a view to the fact that the report comes from the owner of the nuclear plants,” he said, describing it as “the most serious description of the status of Russian nuclear plants I have ever seen (…).”

Report confirms long-held fears

The two Russian nuclear power plants that are closest to Finland and Norway – Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) and Kola NPP, respectively – are of the most concern to the international community. Both are in close proximity to Western Europe.

“The report reveals deficiencies which have never before been mentioned publicly, nor reported internationally,” chief engineer Ole Reistad of the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology (IFI) told Norway’s NRK television.

Of particular concern at the Leningrad NPP (LNPP) is its use of the fatally flawed Chernobyl-type RMBK-1000 reactors. LNPP operates four RMBK-1000s, while the Kola NPP runs four aged VVER-440 reactors, two of which received engineering life span extensions in 2003 and 2004. 

The report, stating what many have asserted since Chernobyl, detailed “flaws and defects” in the design of the RMBK-1000 series that could lead to severe accidents – specifically, problems with control rod mechanisms, which are necessary to keep the nuclear reaction in the reactor under control.

The report’s revelations have alarmed the government of Norway. Norwegian State Secretary Erik Lahnstein of the Foreign Ministry, who received an overview of the report, told Aftenposten he wanted a full copy of the report sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying “this confirms what Norwegian authorities have claimed for a long time.”

He stressed that Russia should shut down its oldest reactors. The Rosatom document said four reactors have been in shutdown mode for 20 years, and no decommissioning plans have yet been set in motion. This would arguably present difficulties in decommissioning other aged reactors in Russia.

Ole Harbitz, head of the crisis commission for the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, said of the report that it showed Russia was rethinking the vulnerability of its nuclear reactors to natural phenomena in the post-Fukushima era.

The dangers have been proven before: In the 1990s a severe storm knocked out primary and back-up power supplies to Kola NPP and Norway had to deliver enormous power generators to keep coolant flowing. In 2006, another power outage threatened coolant systems at the plutonium reactor at the Mayak Chemical Combine.

In Finland, Keijo Valtonen, an official at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority Finland (STUK) somewhat soft-pedalled the dangers posed by Russia’s reactors, particularly those at Kola and Leningrad NPPs.

Valtonen told Helsingen Sanomat that most of Russia’s nuclear plants meet Western safety standards, but that new threats might arise in inspections made after the catastrophe at Fukushima.

But Valtonen has an agenda of his own: By some estimates, some 30 to 40 percent of power produced at Leningrad NPP is exported to Finland, and annual inspections of the plant by representatives of STUK consistently give it high marks, despite environmental dangers that are regularly revealed and confirmed there.

What the report said

Among the more critical safety failings relayed to Medvedev in the report were that Russia’s plants do not have relevant regulations in place for personnel to know how to deal with large-scale natural disasters or other serious contingencies; protective shelter for workers would not accommodate the largest teams on any given shift in the event of an accident, and Rosatom does not keep records of previous accidents, meaning workers do not have the benefit of learning from previous mistakes or improving remedial measures, among other shortcomings.

Elsewhere in the report is highlighted that electrical and safety-significant systems do not receive the attention they need, resulting in a lack of required protection.

The document also questioned the capability of reactors to remain safe for extended periods of time if cooling systems fail. There is no guarantee that power backup systems will be effective should this happen – the primary difficulty that beset Fukushima Daiichi when the quake and tsunami hit.

Additionally, key equipment involved in the cooling process suffers from metal fatigue and welding flaws – yet another problem that was ignored at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor No 1 when regulators there agreed to give it a 10-year operational life span extension – which contributed to a total failure of cooling at the reactor.

Hydrogen control systems also do not correspond to regulations, meaning Russian reactors are vulnerable to the kinds of hydrogen explosions that tore through three reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi.

Most importantly, in light of the Fukushima disaster, the report also said that the risk of earthquakes has not been considered as a safety factor for Russian nuclear facilities. Furthermore, not all of Russia’s reactors have automatic shutdown mechanisms like the Fukushima Daiichi plant, should an earthquake occur.

Nor are there currently clear guidelines or sufficient infrastructure for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) management, leading to fears of SNF leaks during a disaster – as also happened in Japan. With respect to Russia’s RBMK-1000 reactors, spent fuel is simply allowed to accrue in onsite storage because of lack of space to store it and because no technologies have been developed to reprocess it. Solid and liquid waste facilities across Russia are filled to at least 60 percent, and these facilities at Leningrad, Kursk and Smolensk NPPs – all of which run RBMK 100 reactors – are filled to 85 percent capacity.

Reactor buildings at many of Russia’s nuclear power plants are also aged and susceptible to structural failure – meaning the buildings could collapse without the help of mother nature.

Further, Rostekhnadzor lacks safety inspectors, and there is a shortage of qualified maintenance workers at NPPs across the country.

Rosatom Chief Sergei Kiriyenko was quick to comment on the report once Norwegian news outlets and Russian environmentalists had publicized its findings, saying it was just a matter of money to fix Russia’s shortcomings in the area of back-up power and coolant system deficiencies.

In the Vedomosti business daily, he cited a figure of 5 billion rubles ($986 million) to bring Russia’s reactors up to specifications by enhancing their back-up power and coolant systems. To counter cost overruns, Kiryenko told the paper, Rosatom would rely on the government.

Choking on earlier words

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Russia’s Ecodefence – one of the first Russian environmental groups to get hold of the report – was quick to point out the contrast between the Russian government’s initial statements that what had happened at Fukushima could never be repeated in Russia with the report, which says that it could.

“Soon after March 11, Premier Putin ordered a check of Russias nuclear power plants. Later the announcement was heard that all reactors had been checked and Fukushima will not be repeated here,” wrote Slivyak in his June 9 blog for Ekho Moskvy radio (in Russian).

“No information that would allow the confirmation or refutation of these conclusions was released,” he wrote.

“So what did we get as a result?” continued Slivyak. “That the announcements of authorities at different levels – all the way to the prime minister – that the checks carried out after the Fukushima crisis revealed that Russia’s nuclear power plants were completely safe is a complete fantasy.”