COMMENT: Brainwashing Russia at its own expense: Rosatom’s post-Fukushima PR carpet bombing

ingressimage_P1020949.JPG Photo: Ecodefense

To be sure, the zeal to keep what atrocious facts may sully the rosy picture of the nuclear industry safely hidden from the curious public is not limited exclusively to Rosatom’s own scrambling to control the “peaceful atom” story in the wake of last March’s reactor meltdowns and radiation fumes in Japan.

In a late July entry on his LiveJournal blog (in Russian), the famous social activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who Time Magazine has called Russia’s Erin Brockovich, reported that the government of Chelyabinsk Region – a territory in the Urals which is home to the closed town of Ozyorsk and the nuclear reprocessing facility Mayak, considered to be among the worst radioactively contaminated places on Earth – announced a tender seeking to scrub the Internet of any unsavoury mentions of the ecological devastation wreaked by the enterprise’s operations, including the infamous Kyshtym disaster of 1957.

Now, Navalny is widely popular with the free-thinking Russian public and independent media for his exposés of corrupt practices in both the corporate world and also what is known in Russia as the sphere of “state purchases” – tenders, orders, and contracts initiated by the state, where government ministries and agencies buy services, goods, and works from private sector companies to provide for the state’s needs. Because these purchases are funded with public money, the sector would lend itself to heavy regulation – but, owing to ubiquitous Russian corruption, it has become the prime arena for abuses, mismanagement, and manipulation at the taxpayers’ expense.

What incensed the blogger and his readers in July was that the Chelyabinsk regional government was looking to spend RUR 359,167 (roughly $12,300) in taxpayers’ money to buy “services in altering and maintaining first search responses on particular queries submitted through the search engines Yandex and Google.”

“As a result of the services rendered,” reads the snapshot of the tender announcement, posted by Navalny on his blog, “the materials appearing in the first ten search results generated by the specified search engines on the following 15 queries (keywords): ‘Ozyorsk,’ ‘Karabash,’ ‘[Production Enterprise] Mayak accident,’ ‘Ozyorsk [Production Enterprise] Mayak,’ ‘river Techa,’ ‘Muslyumovo,’ ‘radiation in Chelyabinsk,’ ‘Kyshtym disaster,’ ‘Karabash ecology,’ ‘the dirtiest city in the world,’ ‘the dirtiest city in Russia,’ ‘Karabash ecology,’ ‘ecology Chelyabinsk,’ ‘ecology of Chelyabinsk Region,’ [and] ‘ecology of the Urals’ must contain positive or else neutral assessments of the ecological situation in Chelyabinsk and Chelyabinsk Region. Exception will be made for links to articles on the website http://ru.wikipedia.org/. The content of negative materials must not exceed 20 percent, or 30 lines out of 150 generated by each of the search engines.”

If you don’t yet know what Karabash, Muslyumovo, or the accident at Production Enterprise Mayak are, hurry to Google them now, writes Navalny – before it is too late. Ironically, the very list of queries would seem to suggest the situation in Chelyabinsk Region is indeed badly in need of whitewashing.

But this was in Chelyabinsk and this was the local government’s initiative.

The plot – and the money-stack – thickens

A much heftier – both in the scale of the endeavour and the planned spending – PR campaign seems to be afoot in several Russia’s regions at once, where it is now Rosatom’s own subsidiary, the nuclear power plant (NPP) operator company Rosenergoatom, that is seeking to spend a total of around RUR 240 million (some $8 million) in taxpayer money to improve the crumbling image of the Russian nuclear industry. Here’s the gist of the story.

In the span of six days late last August, eleven tenders were announced on an official Rosatom page dedicated to posting information on the corporation’s purchases.

All eleven are open requests for proposals whose titles begin with “Rendering services in shaping a positive image of…” and end with the name of one of Russia’s eleven nuclear power plants – ten in operation and one, in Kaliningrad Region, under construction. The geography of this PR blitzkrieg is impressive as measures ranging from information support in the mass media to nuclear-themed art exhibitions to meetings with workers’ collectives at schools and hospitals are envisioned in every region where Rosenergoatom has a nuclear power plant, from the westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad near the European border to Bilibino NPP in the outer reaches of the tundra in the Russian Far East.

All eleven list three identical positions for which proposals are sought with a view to enter into contracts, which range in value between RUR 12 million and RUR 28 million per tender.

And, last but not least, at least nine out of the eleven – as follows from the tender documents, which are posted on the website and include bid opening records for all but two tenders, still in progress – seem to have attracted exactly one proposal for each of the lots. All submitted by the same three different organisations based in Moscow.

This fascinating math needs some disentangling – so let’s take a closer look at one of the eleven tenders, which appears to be in the closing stages.

Case study of the arithmetic of a nuclear whitewash

The Russian Far Northern Kola Peninsula, where a regiment of charm campaign troops is expected to land soon, is home to a large regional centre of Murmansk and an ancient Kola Nuclear Power Plant, a station running four VVER reactors – of which two are fast approaching the end of their engineered life spans and the other two are already operating beyond the design-basis useful life limits. What’s more, Kola NPP has conceived of an experiment to “boost” one of its aged reactors in order to operate it at 107 percent of nominal capacity, an idea that ecologists find extremely dangerous but which has been ramrodded through for approval nonetheless at a public hearing organised at the plant. The ecological, specifically, non-nuclear movement is quite active in the region, so Rosenergoatom’s desire to fight for the hearts and minds of its consumers up north is understandable.

So what would that fight entail and who will fight it?

Just like the other ten, Kola NPP’s open request for proposals for the right to conclude contracts in “Rendering services in shaping a positive image of Concern Rosenergoatom” has three positions. To quote the documentation, verbatim:

Lot No.1: Preparation and implementation of specialised measures to ensure public and ecological acceptability of projects of development of Concern Rosenergoatom on the territory of location of Kola NPP with the purpose of enhancing the population’s satisfaction with life.

Lot No. 2: Organisation of cooperation with representatives of demographic groups on the territory of location of Concern Rosenergoatom’s branch Kola NPP.

Lot No. 3: Organisation and implementation of events of social nature in the area of location of Concern Rosenergoatom’s branch Kola NPP.

As for companies selected to bring these endeavours into reality, exactly one proposal was submitted to each of the lots – just like in at least eight other tenders across Russia.

“Specialised measures to ensure public and ecological acceptability” of Rosenergoatom’s development projects attracted the attention of a certain closed joint stock company Vinsl Group; a company called DerektInfo has expressed an interest in organising interaction with various demographic groups, while the third entity, known as Damask, wants to take on “events of social nature.”

Is there anything these three have in common? Besides readiness to improve the nuclear industry’s reputation on the Kola Peninsula and other regions, that is? On a closer look, yes.

All three are based in Moscow, with two only having been registered as commercial organisations less than a year ago. None of the three have a website, although some minimal information about the companies – such as their legal addresses, field of activities, taxpayer identification numbers, and numbers in the Russian National Classifier of Businesses and Organisations – can be found in the specialised business directory BIR Analitik (in Russian).

According to that website’s information, Damask got its registration stamp on October 27, 2010, and its core business is wholesale trade in non-food consumer goods. DerektInfo is barely a week older, it came into existence on October 21, 2010, and its core business is – you guessed it – wholesale trade in non-food consumer goods. And Vinsl Group, which submitted its bid for the largest contract on offer, Lot No. 1, was registered on December 26, 2002, and does pretty much the same – wholesale trade, including distribution through agents, in goods other than automotive vehicles and motorcycles.

Indeed, no mention that expertise in selling used Hondas will be expected among the prospective bidders’ qualifications seems to be included in the tender’s language. But one is curious to see what exactly these wholesale traders from Moscow will be doing to increase the population’s satisfaction with life on behalf of Kola NPP and other nuclear power plants.

Again, these three companies are the only ones to figure in bid opening records posted by Balakovo, Bilibino, Kalinin, Baltic, Kursk, Smolensk, Beloyarsk, and Novovoronezh NPPs – with Leningrad and Rostov NPPs having yet to complete their envelope-opening procedure – and theirs are the only bids submitted. The question of where experience in wholesale trading in consumer goods would come in providing PR services for Rosenergoatom will probably for now remain unanswered.

The crying of lot number one

The first lot looks to be the most interesting of the three. It also has the biggest reward attached – over RUR 10 million. To reiterate, these are ten million gathered in state coffers via taxes collected from the Russian public. Although Kola NPP’s tender lists the source of funding allocated for the contracts as “own funds” – and that is also the case for nine other nuclear power plants, with the exception of Beloyarsk NPP, in Sverdlovsk Region, which openly states it will use “federal budget funds” for its PR purposes – one will not forget that at issue here is boosting the image of a state corporation, not a private company. Whichever profits nuclear power plants make selling electricity to their consumers, they earn them for that same state corporation – which does not only provide their budget, but also receives its own budget from the state. Not to mention state subsidies that the nuclear energy industry depends on to survive.

So, back to Lot No. 1 and “ensuring public and ecological acceptability” of Rosenergoatom’s projects.

It would seem like a great idea, and one could think of no better time to concentrate all efforts on ensuring ecological safety of nuclear power plants than in the months following the catastrophe at Fukushima, which, furthermore, is still in progress. This is the time that European Union nations have decided to use to stress-test their nuclear power plants, to try to rule out such horrible disasters in the future. And Germany and Japan, two of a handful of countries most heavily dependent on nuclear energy, are using this time to devise a strategy of total nuclear phase-out.

Incidentally, this has also turned out to be the time when the Russian nuclear industry seems to have decided to launch its national ad blitz – because a search of Rosatom’s state purchases website produces no other tenders looking to “shape a positive image” of Concern Rosenergoatom prior to August 2011.

The activities sought by Kola NPP under Lot No. 1 – as specified in tender documents – are described as “information, consulting, and managerial and technical services rendered to the management of Concern Rosenergoatom in order to minimise public and ecological risks while implementing development projects on the territory of Murmansk Region, [and] preparation of recommendations as required while carrying out work with local communities.”

One question here is why the nuclear industry would need to involve outside organisations – which are listed by BIR Analitik as private-owned – in hedging its risks in new development projects.

Could that possibly depend on the particular projects at hand? In the case of Kola NPP, one need look no further than the government’s 2008 Master Plan for Siting Electricity Generating Capacities. According to this energy strategy document, the government plans to launch four new reactors at Kola NPP in the period between 2016 and 2020. In other words, the deadline to start construction there is, as they say, as soon as yesterday.

The “acceptability” of this project will apparently be achieved through a host of specific tasks the mere list of which takes several pages. The goal is to provide, via numerous sociological surveys and expert assessments, recommendations about how to shape a favourable public and political climate for Rosenergoatom’s projects in 2011 – and put these recommendations to use through writing, publishing, and distributing brochures on ecological and social aspects of Rosenergoatom’s operations, holding a series of seminars with representatives of professional communities in the region, etc.

Recruits wanted for the puppet show

To be sure, Rosenergoatom may indeed have to resort to outside help recruiting sociologists, graphic designers, copy writers, and other professionals to counteract the less than favourable attitude holding toward nuclear energy in both Murmansk and other regions as well. That would certainly be the case with the NPP under construction in Kaliningrad Region, where in the course of a 2007 poll, when asked “What is your attitude to the construction of the NPP?”, 67 percent of residents said they were against it.

In fact, a separate 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 around 78 of Russian citizens think negatively of new NPP projects on offer for the regions where they reside. In Murmansk Region, in particular, 87 percent of Murmansk Region residents said they “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.

What with dispiriting developments such as at the second line of Leningrad NPP, where mismanagement and incompetence at the construction site was deplored even by nuclear industry veterans (in Russian) and a local court had to halt works on new reactors owing to outrageous safety and sanitary violations – followed, shortly after that, by a collapse of building steel structures – or operational violations and accidents reported at nuclear power plants year in, year out by the Russian industrial oversight agency Rostekhnadzor, or regular statements about scrams and unscheduled reactor repairs posted by Rosenergoatom on its own website – the corporation must be feeling like it’s up against a mounting tide of public mistrust. Add Fukushima – and some serious damage control is on order.

Key to the goal of minimising ecological risks for Concern Rosenergoatom’s development projects, as follows from the tender’s documentation, are: Teachers, doctors, World War II veterans, and what is referred to as the “youth asset.” But that’s not all.

What favourable political climate could there be without the mass media? Before the end of this year, something called “echeloned information support” – involving federal, regional, and specialised media – is planned for deployment for Rosenergoatom’s projects on the territory of Murmansk Region (and, because a cursory look across the descriptions of services sought through other NPPs’ tenders reveals the language to be highly similar, if not identical, this is probably the case for other regions as well).

In order that this “echeloned information support” be deployed successfully, the wholesale non-food consumer goods traders from Vinsl Group will pour themselves into “preparing materials for publication in the media” and “ensuring publication [of these materials] according to agreed parameters.”

And one last, though certainly not in significance, item among the tasks that Rosenergoatom’s subcontractors will be entrusted with to ensure public and ecological acceptability of nuclear power plants: “Expert evaluation of possibilities to attract budget funds of various levels of the budget system of the Russian Federation for the support of [daughter companies and affiliates] created on the basis of associated, auxiliary, and non-core operations of Concern Rosenergoatom.”

That, if this dense language were to be deciphered, would possibly indicate the nuclear industry’s desire to embed its enterprises even deeper in the otherwise non-nuclear lives of NPP satellite towns, as local budgets, social and economic problems, federal and municipal initiatives, and the NPP’ own position within the community would all come under the increased scrutiny of the charm offensive troops from Moscow. Their ranks, in turn, will swell following the “recruiting of qualified specialists in the spheres of inter-budget relations, municipal finances, [and] public-private partnership.”

Rosatom’s new cultural extravaganza: coming soon to theatres near you

Do you still have the patience to learn what services the other two companies were vying for?

As per the contracts in Murmansk Region, over RUR 7 million of the second lot (“organisation of cooperation with representatives of demographic groups”) is to be spent on a variety of competitions, lectures, and conferences for school students and employees of healthcare facilities, cultural and educational organisations, and municipal administrations. Curiously, Rosenergoatom also expects its subcontractor, DerektInfo, to arrange participation of regional officials in a federal-level event referred to as a “conference of representatives of the municipal government of the nuclear industry.”

There you go – apparently, the nuclear industry has its own bodies of government. We rather thought municipal governments were there to serve the people – not an industry. Seriously, how deeply embedded is the nuclear corporation – and how much deeper does it need to go?

And finally, the third lot – undertakings in the lofty spheres.

That third company, Damask, has signed itself up for putting together art exhibitions, guest performances by invited entertainers, creative master classes, and financial support of local initiatives in the field of culture. In Murmansk, Damask’s contract comes to RUR 5,670,000.

Expect local theatres to explode with a triumphant run of Romeo and Juliet finding love at the construction site of Kola NPP-2 and school halls fill with winning projects from “My Happy Nuclear Future” contests.

And it’s not like Rosenergoatom was previously neglecting its duty to give back to the community, or seemed to lack the funds or creative resources to encourage nuclear-themed arts: The company’s website is updated regularly with news of, say, Smolensk NPP summing up, in 2008, the results of My Smolensk NPPMy Familycontest (“the best works were exhibited at Neutrino Cultural House” and “some of the poems presented at the contest contained a sentence: ‘I will also be a nuclear power engineer’”). But maybe an additional RUR 5,670,000 to that end would really make a difference, handled by the able hands of wholesale traders from Moscow.

No better way to burn 240 million?

In sum total, RUR 23,450,000 in taxpayer money will be spent in the less than four months of the Murmansk Region contract alone. There is little doubt that not one cent out of this money will be spent on anything that could by any stretch of imagination be called “minimisation of ecological risks.”

But don’t you worry, this spending will be duly represented in the “Ecological Safety” portion of Rosatom’s annual report to pound pulpits with as proof that the nuclear energy industry is the safest and most environmentally friendly there could be.

The July outrage caused by the Chelyabinsk government’s nonchalant move to try to purge the Internet – possibly, among the last public domains still safe from censorship in Russia – of any mentions of ecological woes, aplenty in the region, fades in comparison to the publicly funded PR assault to be deployed by nearly the entirety of Russia’s commercial nuclear power sector. 

“When a body of state government, using budget money, gets engaged in such shenanigans and wants people searching for ‘Accident at Mayak’ to get 80 percent of ‘positive references’ in the hits returned, it’s just disgusting and amoral,” Navalny wrote in his blog about the RUR 359,167 Chelyabinsk contract.

Try on RUR 240 million in budget funds for size. Meanwhile, the nuclear corporation can’t even be bothered to put up a fence along the banks of the radioactively contaminated river Techa near Mayak to deter children from taking a dip in the glowing filth that the river has become. How’s that for “minimising ecological risks”?

With most of the eleven tenders now concluded and contracts apparently granted to the same three incognito companies to put smoke and mirrors in front of Rosatom’s workings, will the nuclear corporation find the time and money to give as much attention to the ecological problems and safety concerns the industry is grappling with? Will it possibly consider, next time, making an effort to deserve a positive image before burning public money on painting one?

Russia could surely have benefited from seeing this PR cash put to better use.

The above comment was written for Bellona by Vladimir Slivyak and Alisa Nikulina of the Moscow-based ecological group Ecodefense!. Maria Kaminskaya contributed from St. Petersburg.

Vladimir Slivyak

ecodefense@gmail.com