COMMENT: Rosatom scraps ancient Chernobyl reactor project at Kursk: Right decision, wrong message


Publish date: March 6, 2012

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – On the eve of the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom finally acknowledged Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors are dangerous and no longer plans to complete a decades-old reactor construction project at Kursk Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). But whenwillthis new, safety-minded Rosatom turn its attention to the eleven aged RBMKs still in operation in Russia?

In a statement issued on Thursday, Rosatom said Reactor 5 of Kursk NPP, a four-reactor station in Kursk Region in Western European Russia, will never be finished and taken online. The Russian daily Vedomosti cites Rosatom’s press release (in Russian) as explaining completion of this reactor “of Fukushima type” would incur reputational risks for the corporation.

The statement quotes Rosatom’s head Sergei Kiriyenko as saying Russia “cannot afford completing and taking online a reactor of such [type]” – not after the tragedy at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which prompted a more rigorous approach to nuclear reactors’ safety standards.

“This [would be] reputationally wrong,” Kiriyenko said, according to Rosatom’s press service as cited by Vedomosti.

Indeed, Rosatom’s reputation here may be something of an issue. To be sure, the Russian RBMK design – the same that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986 – is not exactly of Fukushima type. In operation at Japan’s now destroyed Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant were five boiling water reactors of General Electric’s Mark I design (and one Mark II reactor). RBMKs, also a boiling water variety, are graphite-moderated reactors. Though the two series share certain very basic characteristics – such as that they are both single-circuit and use water for coolant and to generate steam inside the reactor core – they are also quite different, the graphite stacks in RBMKs and fuel assembly design and individual placement being two prominent give-aways. A quick Google search will reveal the two types are quite distinct in design.

These differences aside, one could still detect logic in Kiriyenko’s statement. Rosatom had certainly made the right decision to shut down construction at Kursk. If there is any other common feature between Fukushima’s destroyed reactors and Chernobyl-type RBMKs is that both are morbidly obsolete, inherently flawed nuclear monstrosities with abominable safety records.

Oddly, that does not prevent Rosatom from keeping eleven RBMKs still online at three Russian nuclear power plants – some operating long after their engineered useful life terms expired.

Four such reactors are in operation at Kursk, three at Smolensk NPP, also in Western European Russia, and four more at Leningrad NPP, in Sosnovy Bor near Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg, in the country’s northwest. Millions of people reside within a mere hundred kilometers from these sites.

Continued operation of these aged reactors – the youngest were plugged into the grid at Leningrad NPP in the early 1970s – means simply extending an invitation for another Chernobyl… wait… Fukushima. But surely, should a grave accident occur, those living next to these power plants would care little which type or series a radiation-spewing reactor nearby belonged to.

The unfinished RBMK at Kursk, though it sustained certain modifications, is still the same model that blew up at Chernobyl, leading to one of the most severe radiation disasters in humankind’s history. Construction of Kursk’s fifth reactor started in late 1985; the main reactor equipment is now completed to 95 percent. It would seemingly speak to a corporation’s care to tend to its good name, forfeiting possible profits in the name of safety and swallowing up a loss of millions of roubles already invested in a project that is, furthermore, almost ready for launch. But does it?

Though the move to abandon Kursk’s fifth reactor project was just announced on March 1, it is said to have been a decided issue in Rosatom’s corridors for several years now. Local officials in Kursk NPP’s satellite town of Kurchatov were reportedly dragging the matter out, demanding funds to complete the construction. During his visit to Kursk NPP last February 29 – an event well covered by the press service (in Russian) of Russia’s NPP operator company Rosenergoatom – Kiriyenko apparently put the locals’ minds at ease by promising to start construction of a second line of Kursk NPP, a project that has long been under discussion.

Planned for construction at Kursk NPP-II is a more modern – though as yet untested in practical operation – VVER-1200 model. Rosenergoatom’s press release said the main issue that Kurchatov and Kursk Region residents have been anxiously waiting to hear about – construction of replacement capacities at Kursk NPP-II – is now settled:

“Today we discussed that the construction of [Kursk] NPP-II needs to be started sooner,” Kiriyenko said, according to Rosenergoatom’s report. “These will be most up-to-date reactor units with post-Fukushima safety standards.”

Kiriyenko was also quoted as saying the investment programs that have been envisioned for the new station’s development total over RUR 500 billion ($16.9 billion) within the next fifteen years.On behalf of Kursk Region’s residents, First Deputy Governor Alexander Dyomin expressed “words of immense gratitude” to the corporation:

“A long-awaited event took place today in the life of Kursk Region – the problem of many years [that concerns] the destiny of our nuclear power plant is now resolved. [The plant] will continue to live and to grow.”

But as with Rosatom’s other reactor projects of late, Kursk NPP-II prospects may not be as rosy as Kiriyenko would like to paint them. The nuclear corporation has a couple dozen reactor projects in various stages of development, but even those currently under construction have been lagging two to three years behind schedule. This might indicate a less than encouraging pace of development for residents of Kurchatov, where even a first brick is yet to be laid at the new site.

Curiously, Rosenergoatom’s extensive report on Kiriyenko’s visit, though it listed diligently a whole roster of social and community development programs funded with Rosatom’s corporate support – ranging from healthcare to youth sports to the construction of a new Orthodox temple – never mentions the mothballing of the unfinished RBMK reactor. The timing of Kiriyenko’s revelation regarding Kursk’s fifth reactor, as reported by Vedomosti, may look conspicuous to some.

But other considerations may also have played a role.

The first anniversary of the Fukushima tragedy – which is bound to conjure back images of the multiple core meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and the resulting extensive damage to the reactor buildings, exposed spent nuclear fuel in cooling ponds, massive releases of radiation, and tens of thousands evacuated from the area never to return to their homes again – rolls around this week, ringing its warning bell to remind us of the terrible dangers of nuclear energy. What began with a deadly earthquake and an equally devastating tsunami wave on March 11 last year led to a catastrophe that was soon assigned the highest level of severity on the International Nuclear Event Scale – the same as Chernobyl.

When that happened, in mid-April, Kiriyenko took issue with the implied comparison with Chernobyl, alleging that the upgraded rating was the result of the Japanese authorities’ playing up the crisis, possibly for financial reasons. And a month earlier, as news stations worldwide showed footage of smoke billowing over Fukushima as a result of hydrogen explosions, Kiriyenko had been reporting to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Russia had nothing to worry about: “These are so-called boiling water reactors. Mr Putin, Russia has no such reactors, operating in a single mode: instead of two circuits, like at our stations, [the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi] have one circuit. It is essential to ensure water supply to cool the core.”

Segments from this meeting were aired time and again during news broadcasts on the country’s national TV channels. Just a small part of a massive propaganda campaign deployed by Rosatom as its experts rushed to rescue the nuclear industry’s fast-deteriorating image and dismiss all concerns about the seriousness of the disaster.

The truth is, Kiriyenko couldn’t care less about the real risks – regardless of reactor type or model. Nor is he overly worried about the safety of millions of Russian citizens living next to the eleven reactors he now seems to concede are a liability to Rosatom’s reputation. Last spring, the game called for denying Russia had Fukushima-type reactors; this spring, the spin is spun in the opposite direction.

As long as it is PR and not safety concerns that guides the nuclear industry’s top officials, we will only hear them say what best suits the purpose of the day. And hope that the old reactors, including those long overdue for decommissioning, live out their life terms and extensions without incident until Rosatom follows up on its own rhetoric and shuts them down. Too bad that for Kiriyenko, the truth or safety only seem to matter when the corporate agenda says they do.

Vladimir Slivyak, a frequent contributor to Bellona, is the co-chair of Russia’s Ecodefense.

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