COMMENT: Dangerous reactor experiment at Kola NPP supported at a public hearing, but environmentalists hope to change the tide

Стикер против повышения мощности Кольской АЭС

Publish date: June 15, 2011

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – “Boosting” a reactor’s capacity is too risky an experiment, so say ecologists about plans to operate a reactor at Kola Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), a station in Russia’s far northern Murmansk Region, at 107 percent nominal capacity. But at the June 9 public hearing on this issue in Polyarniye Zori – the town which is home to Kola NPP and has no enterprises that do not depend on the plant for livelihood – employees showed support for the project, as they likely would with any plan forced on them from above. Still, environmentalists had the chance both to speak at the hearing and highlight some of the problems that Kola NPP has trouble solving without the added headache of a reactor experiment.

The first hearing

The project that proposes operating Reactor 4 of Kola NPP at a capacity increasing design-basis levels has long been a subject of serious concern and criticism among both experts and environmental organisations. In 2006, when the idea of “boosting” the capacity of old and dangerous reactors operating at Russian NPPs just started to gain traction in the nuclear industry – what was then the Ministry of Atomic Energy had not yet become what is now the State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom – ecologists from Murmansk Region met with Rosatom’s head Sergei Kiriyenko and handed him a letter urging the authorities to abandon the plans.

No reply followed from Rosatom. Both the nuclear ministry in Moscow and the administration of Kola NPP expressed no interest in engaging in a dialogue with environmentalists. Still, the law requires operator organisations to file for a license to operate a reactor at increased capacity, and in order to obtain one, all procedures stipulated by the law had to be complied with – including a state-conducted environmental impact assessment study and a public hearing to discuss the project.

Earlier, Kola NPP had failed to do so when applying for licenses to extend the operation of the station’s Reactor Units 1, 2, and 3 beyond their design-basis useful service life terms.

Environmentalists had been lodging complaints and local prosecutors issuing injunctions to stop violations of the law – all to no avail. Something has apparently changed at the plant, however, because this time, Kola NPP administration has decided to act in accordance with the law and get all the necessary paperwork in order.

Trouble with the environmental impact assessment

Still, it didn’t all go smoothly. The hearing had first been scheduled for April 12 (please see Bellona’s earlier story here), but got cancelled by the organisers a mere day before the date in question. An extraordinary event, indeed: Nothing like that would previously be allowed to happen if the nuclear functionaries could help it. For the nuclear town’s inhabitants, though, the cancellation went unnoticed – that a meeting at the nuclear power plant had been postponed was hardly seen by anyone as a big deal.

What happened was that as of April 12, the documents subject to public discussion at the planned hearing – preliminary materials making what was then called “Environmental Impact Assessment of operating Reactor Unit 4 of Kola NPP at 107 above-nominal capacity” – had not been in compliance with the legislation in force and lacked some of the sections required by the law.

The environmental impact assessment problem was easily solved – patched with a nineteen-page “Explanatory note to the materials of the environmental impact evaluation of operating Reactor Unit 4 of Kola NPP at 107 percent of nominal reactor capacity (preliminary materials)” and an eighty-seven-page “Report ‘Environmental impact assessment of operating Reactor Unit 4 of Kola NPP at 107 percent of nominal reactor capacity’ (preliminary materials).” The hearing was then postponed by two months.

An unshakable trust

The hearing finally took place on June 9 in Polyarniye Zori, a little town on the Kola Peninsula where the NPP is located. The audience hall was packed full: Over 500 people gathered to take part in the meeting, which was scheduled to start in the middle of the work day, at 14:00 pm, and proceeded until 17:30 pm. All twenty-five participants who had requested opportunity to speak were given the chance to do so. Thirteen questions were altogether asked, with eleven of those asked by representatives of ecological organisations, who had come to participate in the hearing.

Hearings on issues that relate to the operation of an NPP and take place in a satellite town that is home to that same station make for a special kind of a “democratic” procedure. It is this kind of a “vox populi” ploy that is normally called “correct in form, a travesty in essence.” Would anyone doubt it that the employees of the station and those working for the municipal enterprises and organisations depending on it would be forced to support a project, any project, proposed by the nuclear higher-ups? This is exactly what happened last June 9. The idea of “boosting” reactor capacity at Unit 4 was not only backed by the numerous workers employed by the plant but also by the town’s pensioners, a librarian, and other representatives of the local population not directly affiliated with the plant. To illustrate this unity of opinion, these are just some of the statements that were made by the hearing’s participants in Polyarniye Zori:

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Anton Dezhev, young specialist: “I’m not going to prove or substantiate anything! They have a good salary here, it’s believed to be the highest in Murmansk Region.” Valentina Smirnova: “We can’t do without nuclear energy. It’s the present and the future of our town.” Olga Smetanina, employee of the municipal library: “We trust Kola NPP. We are for this.” Kuzina (first name not on the record), nuclear industry veteran: “[Kola] NPP allocates money for pension allowances, [health resort] vouchers, transport passes. I am proud of [Kola] NPP!” Svetlana Stepanova, couch with a local sports club: “If the plant goes on working, sports will develop, too!” Lyubov Solomon, teacher: “All the calculations have been done by specialists. We have to trust them! The development of the atomic industry cannot be stopped! Children are learning that there is no replacement for NPPs, Rosatom is organising seminars for the teachers here!”

This storm of emotions, declarations of love for the nuclear industry as a whole and Kola NPP in particular, all of this seemed quite out of place at a public hearing dedicated to a very concrete project. There were a number of to-the-point speeches by nuclear officials, too, but all of the specifics drowned in the sea of blind, unshaken devotion to the “peaceful atom.”

Environmentalists take the floor

Some balance was finally provided at the hearing by representatives of local ecological organisations – Nature and Youth (Priroda i Molodyozh), Ecodialogue (Ekodialog), the Kola Ecological Centre, and Bellona-Murmansk. The environmentalists spoke to a general shared position that boosting reactor capacity at the NPP was a dangerous and, furthermore, unnecessary experiment. They talked about the non-existent demand for the additional energy that the experiment is hoped to yield, of how the region is energy-saturated as it is, and of how inappropriate it is to start experimenting with nuclear power at a time when the accident at Fukushima is yet to be completely brought under control and its consequences to be understood in full. The audience gave its opponents a polite, respectful reception.

Lake Imandra as the NPP’s service water reservoir

Yury Ivanov, of the Kola Ecological Centre, spoke of his organisation’s concern for Lake Imandra, whose water is used to cool the NPP’s reactors.

“The lake is being turned into a processing water reservoir… The lake is polluted! The NPP is polluting it with its heat. It’s abnormal, for a part of a lake that is above the polar circle, to be emitting steam. We believe that the capacity increase will bring a negative impact on the lake. We disapprove of this project,” Ivanov said.

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Galina Yevdokimova, deputy director of the Institute of North Industrial Ecology Problems, who spoke later at the hearing, confirmed there was indeed reason to be concerned about the lake and that the NPP’s operation was being detrimental to the local environment: “The thermal pollution has led to reduced biological diversity in the lake; the fish species native to cold-temperature water are migrating, leaving the lake. We are observing damage being done to the plankton, which is food for the fish, as it passes through the NPP’s cooling systems.”

Why Polyarniye Zori only?

Before Tatiana Kulbakina, from the regional organisation Nature and Youth, took the floor, the lights went out suddenly in the meeting hall. The blackout lasted for a few minutes. “Oh don’t tell me something’s just gone kaboom at the station,” somebody in the audience joked morbidly. Kulbakina said that young people were concerned about issues of radiation safety and suggested that the public hearing procedure get expanded to include other Kola Peninsula towns as well.

“Because if something does happen at [Kola] NPP, it will not be just the town of Polyarniye Zori will it, that will suffer, but the whole region. Therefore, the hearing must be held in Kandalaksha, Apatity, and Murmansk as well, it’s an issue of regional significance, isn’t it? Plus, the population of Polyarniye Zori depends on [Kola] NPP, depends on it financially […]  I don’t want another Fukushima, all NPPs must be closed!” the young activist said in closing.

A lawyer with Kola NPP said in response to Kulbakina’s proposal: “According to the legislation in force, [Kola] NPP has the obligation to organise a public hearing only on the territory of the municipality where the station is located. But if Kandalaksha and Apatity administrations wish to hold such hearings and provide the funding for them, then the project initiator can make the decision to send its experts to the hearing, no more than that.”

It makes sense that Kola NPP would have a stake in pursuing a policy of “transparency” and an “open dialogue” relying on just those hearing participants that would consist of its own employees or other members of the public who depend on it for their livelihood. “No more than that.” Otherwise, a hearing, if it is held in any other town of Murmansk Region, could suddenly veer off from the approval scenario planned by the nuclear officials.

The Kola Ecological Centre’s Ivanov has in fact approached the administration of the town of Apatity with a proposal to hold a public hearing on the issue of capacity increases at Kola NPP, but he was informed that in order to conduct such a hearing, a decision by local legislators had to be obtained, “but everyone was out on holiday, on account of it being summertime.” 

The law, however, provides for just such cases with the right, for the public, to initiate a hearing on the part of a public organisation. According to Ivanov, his organisation intended to do just that – though whether a hearing gathered by the public, in contrast to one organised by the authorities, would be attended by representatives of the nuclear industry remains open to speculation.

Increasing capacity while reducing safety

Bellona’s expert, nuclear physicist Andrei Ozharovsky spoke at the hearing about threats to the NPP’s safety that the planned increase of thermal reactor capacity at Kola NPP could entail:

“Increasing thermal capacity will lead to an increased pressure on the reactor vessel, the pipelines, steam generators, and fuel assemblies.”

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This, in turn, will lead to an increased risk of accidents and a growing number of fuel assemblies in the core experiencing loss of seal, as well as a significant rise in levels of radiation emitted by the primary circuit and – as the materials of the environmental impact assessment acknowledge – a nearly two-fold rise in the amounts of radionuclides discharged by the station through its ventilation pipes.

Furthermore, said Ozharovsky, the plant’s current efficiency factor stands at about 30 percent; more than two thirds of the thermal energy produced by the station is simply not used at all and ends up heating up the waters of Lake Imandra instead. What sense does it make, in such a situation, to “boost” the reactor, trying to produce an additional seven percent of energy of which two thirds will go to waste in the first place?

“Yes, the reactor has a reserve, but this reserve is there in order to be used to resolve potential emergencies, so is there really a point in reducing it?” was Ozharovsky’s rhetorical question for the audience.

Bellona’s expert also spoke of research, done in Germany and the United States, that shows considerable increases in cancer incidence among populations residing in the vicinity of nuclear power plants – information that Bellona has earlier reported on and that apparently came as a surprise for the inhabitants of the nuclear satellite town of Polyarniye Zori.

“Isn’t Vadim Korolyov, the chief sanitary inspector of Polyarniye Zori, a representative of the [Federal Bio-Medical Agency of Russia], who spoke here earlier, isn’t he aware of this?” Ozharovsky asked.

The harmful health effects of nuclear power plants, as revealed in the reports cited by Ozharovsky, can be traced across distances as large as fifty kilometres around a particular station, so both Kandalaksha and Polyarniye Zori are well within the hazard area. The nuclear industry, however, does not like to make these risks known to the population.

Does Kola NPP conceal “sanctioned” radiation discharges?

For those who live in nuclear towns, the serious issues of the risk of radiation accidents and the problem of radioactive waste are closely followed by a no less alarming subject – the danger of so-called “sanctioned” radiation discharges, or limited amounts of radionuclides emitted regularly through a nuclear power plant’s ventilation stack.

This is why the issue of how much and which radionuclides exactly an NPP releases into the atmosphere takes on a special significance. As for the situation at hand, the environmental impact assessment materials presented at the hearing offer the reader a fantastic tale rather than any hard facts. According to these documents, Kola NPP does not discharge any inert radioactive gases or radioactive iodine-131 at all into the atmosphere.

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Not since 2007, anyway. So before 2007, there were discharges of these radionuclides from the plant. But there have been none since 2007. By way of proof, here is Table 11, Page 24 in the environmental impact assessment report, complete with charts.

The situation is a marvellous one, indeed. All other nuclear power plants, both in Russia and abroad, don’t attempt to hide the fact that they do release certain amounts of radionuclides into the surrounding atmosphere as part of their normal-mode operation. And if iodine does lend itself to “filtering down” – though not eliminating such discharges completely – then for the inert gases, such as argon, krypton, and xenon, the filtration process is not as effective and their emissions into the environment are quite noticeable and quantifiable at nuclear power plants.

The logical assumption, then, is that Kola NPP does discharge these radionuclides into the atmosphere, but does not measure them, nor speak about them openly. What serves as confirmation of that is a yearly report published in 2010 by the Russian Federal Service for Environmental, Technological, and Nuclear Oversight (Rostekhnadzor), an entity that supervises the operation of Russian nuclear power plants as part of its activities.

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The report, available for open access here (in Russian), states on Page 34 that “no control is maintained or records kept of [inert radioactive gases] or [iodine-131] in the NPP’s discharges” at Kola NPP, which stands in conflict with a whole number of federal regulations stipulating rules and standards of operating nuclear power plants in Russia.

A question about this apparent breach of regulations was asked at the hearing by Bellona’s Ozharovsky. The shocking answer came from Alexei Smelov, Kola NPP’s deputy head of radiation safety department: “I haven’t read that unfortunate report, haven’t had the honour of seeing it or familiarising myself with it. Iodine is always under control!.. We buy mobile iodine monitoring equipment to monitor it in case of an emergency.”

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In other words, the state federal oversight agency, Rostekhnadzor, establishes for a fact a violation on the part of Kola NPP of the legislation in force where it pertains to radiation control over discharges of inert radioactive gases and iodine-131. And what’s more is that the violation in question is not a simple misdemeanour but outright falsification of reportable operational information. Can’t measure it? So put it down the way it is: “Our apologies, everyone, we haven’t been taking measurements, our bad.” But painting non-existent zeros in an official report is misleading both the public and the officials responsible for critical decision-making.

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Keeping up-to-date with Rostekhnadzor’s reports is a must for both Smelov and other Kola employees, so a statement that he “has not had the honour of familiarising himself” sounds like an admission of one’s professional ineptitude. To be sure, legal illiteracy – or more precisely, hubris – is quite characteristic of the Russian nuclear domain. Nuclear officials are not shy about calling the industry the State of Rosatom – even in official propaganda materials – as if to emphasise, in a defiant show of scorn for the rest of the country, that the corporation need not consider itself subject either to the power of the state nor to its laws. The problem is that all too often Rosatom’s own corporate interests go against those of the country.

Kola asserts its compliance with regulations – just as it admits its inability to follow them

At the hearing, however, Kola NPP management said repeatedly that the station was being compliant with the law.

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“We in our country consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens,” Kola NPP director Vasily Omelchuk said at the hearing. Could he be meaning not the Russian Federation, but the “State of Rosatom” instead?

But Kola NPP’s chief engineer Alexander Ionov, responding to a question about compliance with safety norms – the question was asked by Andrei Ponomarenko, who heads the ecological organisation Ecodialogue – admitted that the station was simply unable to meet all the current standards and requirements set to the operation of NPPs in Russia, including those that deal with safety.

“There are so many federal rules and norms that it is practically impossible to bring an operating reactor unit into compliance with them,” he concluded.

Ionov’s admission prompted Vitaly Servetnik, from the regional ecological organisation Nature and Youth, to insist that “in this case, not just all experiments at Kola NPP, but the very operation of Kola NPP must be ceased in order to ensure safety of Murmansk Region, Russia, and the Northern Hemisphere.”

Among the many violations of the existing norms that the plant, as acknowledged by chief engineer Ionov, has been apparently forced to commit, one stands out as a most serious lapse – namely, obtaining illegal extensions on the operational licenses of the station’s old reactors without either public hearings on the subject or a state environmental impact assessment study, both required by the law. That violation was actually confirmed and pursued, though unsuccessfully, by Murmansk prosecutors.

Lies, deception, and radioactive smokescreens

Both the issues of potential increases in cancer incidence and “sanctioned” discharges of radiation were artfully made to “dissolve” in the general din of discussion – or simply ignored – at the hearing. Polyarniye Zori’s chief sanitary health inspector, Vadim Korolyov, told the audience:

“There will be no worsening whatsoever of the radiation environment as a result of [Kola] NPP’s operation at increased capacity. There will be no increases in discharges or releases.”

A participant, named Andrei Chertkov, said immediately that he trusted the representative of the federal industrial health oversight agency: “It is simply wrongful, I think, to say that discharges rise along with capacity increases. I can’t see any problems here.”

The problem, however, is that the very environmental impact assessment report, written officially on the prospect of increasing power output of Reactor 4 of Kola NPP and presented at the hearing, says on Page 111 that as an expected consequence of “boosting” the reactor, regular non-accidental discharges of radionuclides will not only rise accordingly, but will in fact exceed maximum values recorded in the previous years. Where, for inert radioactive gases, the maximum recorded level was 3.3*1013 becquerels per year, the level expected with a seven-percent increase in reactor power load could be 2.5 times as high, or 8.3*1013 becquerels per year. The respective values for iodine-131 are a maximum of 5.6*108 becquerels per year prior to the experiment and 1.0*109 becquerels per year, or an 1.8-fold rise, in forecasted levels.

Incidentally, this part of the official environmental impact assessment report says absolutely nothing about the “zero levels” claimed elsewhere with respect to the current “sanctioned” radioactivity discharges, be it inert radioactive gases or radioactive iodine.

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But hearing participants believe what their management tells them; they have not read the official environmental impact assessment report, but they fully approve every word of it. Which is why hearings like this take place in nuclear satellite towns to begin with.

It is probably little surprise that if the nuclear officials flatly denied any run-of-the-mill releases of inert radioactive gases or iodine-131, which are normally monitored by Rostekhnadzor as being part of NPPs’ regular operation, then there was no talk at all at the hearing about tritium, radioactive carbon-14, or other dangerous radionuclides. Even though it is exactly tritium that a number of European researchers believe is responsible for the rise in the number of leukaemia cases among the populations residing around nuclear power plants…

Environmentalists have spoken. What next?

Closing the discussion, Vladimir Masloboyev, who heads the Institute of North Industrial Ecology Problems and presided over the June 9 hearing, said that “the opinions expressed at the public hearing serve as recommendations for the project owner.”

It is good, of course, that some 500 employees of Kola Nuclear Power Plant were able to see and hear anti-nuclear activists in person, observe living and breathing ecologists, who, as they had the chance to ascertain for themselves, were normal people – rather than “little green men from outer space” or “agents of foreign intelligence,” as both the official propaganda and some among the more eager conspiracy theorists often have it. It is good that information about the problems of Kola NPP per se, and also, more importantly, about the far-reaching crisis in the nuclear industry was both listened to and, hopefully, heard by the audience. Yet, this alone will not stop the dangerous experiment planned at this northern site.

So part of the work still ahead will be conducting a public environmental impact assessment of the project, where all those problems that the official version keeps mum about will be compiled and examined and brought to the attention of the public at large.

An encouraging sign that things might eventually change for the better is that participants at the hearing made more than one mention of reports and articles published on Bellona’s website. This does not mean at all that the speakers shared Bellona’s opinions or ways to approach an issue – but at least this resource was an additional source of information for them, an alternative to the always so upbeat whitewash disseminated by Rosatom.

As Igor Chernyshenko, a federal parliament member, said at the hearing: “I have read with attention the objections to the project posted on Bellona’s website. On the whole, I believe there are issues, but they must be solved in the interest of both Russia and the Kola [Peninsula].”

Indeed, he could not have said it better. Decisions must be made with a view to serve the interests of all – and not just for the benefit of the current-day agenda of one single nuclear corporation.