Chernobyl veteran on Balakovo reactor-boosting experiment: There is nothing costlier than stupidity

Павел Владимирович Шестаков, председатель общественной организации «Союз Чернобыль» города Балаково и Балаковского района на слушаниях выступил против эксперимента по эксплуатации АЭС на мощности, превышающей проектную
Photo: Natalia Rudenko

Publish date: July 24, 2013

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

In late June, a public hearing was gathered in Balakovo, home to Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant, to discuss running the station’s oldest unit at increased capacity – a dangerous idea that found support among the plant’s employees and the town’s doctors and teachers, who depend on the enterprise’s financial support, but faced harsh disapproval from ecologists and Chernobyl liquidators, who urged to take caution and let the aged reactor complete its useful life term “as is.” This dissent seems to have earned one of the experiment’s critics a house call from the police.

Presented at the hearing in Balakovo, a town in Saratov Region, some 900 kilometers southeast of Moscow, was a preliminary environmental impact assessment (EIA) report on operating Reactor Unit 1 of Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant (Balakovo NPP) at 104% of nominal capacity.

 Balakovo NPP is a four-unit station running reactors of the VVER-1000 design. The plant’s first reactor started commercial operation in 1986.

The EIA developers claim that this very first and oldest unit can be safely run at a capacity exceeding by 4 percent that specified in the reactor’s design, that the decision has already been made, and, furthermore, that the reactor has already been operating at above-design capacity for over 18 months:

“The availability of reserves in the design and margins to maximum values of the VVER-1000 reactor’s main parameters, such as the fuel rod’s linear [heat generation] rate, margin to critical heat flux on the surface of the [hottest] fuel rod, the coolant flow rate through the reactor provided for by the standard [main circulation pumps], which was demonstrated in the course of operation, served as the basis for making the decision on the possibility of the reactor units of Balakovo NPP, including Unit 1, operating at increased capacity,” the EIA report says on Page 5.

 “Test operation of Unit 1 at a capacity level of 104 percent of nominal [capacity] has been carried out since August 2011,” the report also states, on Page 12.

Increasing capacity, decreasing safety

Meanwhile, opponents of the idea caution against running the reactor in operation modes bordering on marginal values. They say departing from the original design parameters and boosting the thermal capacity of the reactor beyond what was intended in the design is a dangerous experiment – one that serves the financial interest of the operating company, Rosenergoatom Concern, but leaves the burden of carrying all the associated risks with the 200,000 residents of the town of Balakovo, just eight kilometers from the station.

 At the hearing, Natalya Rudenko, chair of the Balakovo branch of the All-Russia Society for Nature Protection (in Russian) – VOOP in its Russian acronym – drew the participants’ attention to the reactor’s looming decommissioning date: Unit 1 is soon to exhaust its useful life term.

 “Why squeeze the maximum out of old equipment?” Rudenko asked at the hearing.

“Boosting capacity leads to increased loads on the reactor vessel, the piping, and other safety-significant components. Additionally, this reduces the margins for strength, pressure, temperature, and other parameters that were provided when the NPP was being developed. Boosting the reactor’s thermal capacity inevitably leads to diminished safety and increased risk of accident,” Rudenko said.

She also said a signature-collecting campaign that VOOP in Balakovo had organized against increasing the NPP’s capacity showed “strong disapproval among the residents of this dangerous experiment of Rosatom.”

Rosatom’s broad experiment…

The debate over whether running commercial nuclear reactors at capacities exceeding those established in project documentation can be considered an acceptable idea has been going on for some time now, with mixed results.

For Balakovo NPP, too, this is not an entirely new development.

Rosatom set out its new plan in 2011, in a document entitled “Program for increasing electric power output at operating NPP reactor units of Rosenergoatom Concern for 2011 to 2015.” According to the program, thermal capacity was to be increased by 4 percent for VVER-1000 reactors and by 7 percent for reactors of the VVER-440/V-213 project at Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 of Balakovo NPP, Units 1 and 2 of Rostov NPP (in Southern European Russia), Units 3 and 4 of Kola NPP (on the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s North), and Units 1 through 4 of Kalinin NPP (in Central European Russia).   

Thus, four out of Russia’s total of ten nuclear power plants are slated to start operating their reactors at increased capacities.

The plan initially also included raising thermal capacity of units running reactors of the RBMK-1000 design, of Chernobyl notoriety. A public hearing was held in January 2011 at Kursk NPP (Western European Russia) – one of the country’s three stations with reactors of this type – to discuss plans to operate the station’s Unit 1 at above-nominal capacity, where it turned out, furthermore, that the thermal capacity increase program was already in progress at the plant. Bellona and other environmental organizations spoke firmly against the increases.

 Notably, after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the capacity of many reactors was in fact reduced specifically to enhance safety and prevent the risk of another accident.

 Ecologists pointed out that boosting the reactors’ capacity was fraught with risks reaching beyond the old RMBKs’ own vulnerabilities, such as growing levels of combined discharges of inert radioactive gases and iodine-131, a nuclide associated with thyroid cancer. 

 Rosatom eventually dropped the aged RBMK reactors from its capacity-boosting plans – a change of heart likely prompted by the March 2011 catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. But the VVER reactors still remain in the program.

 The “boosting” experiment now covers all of Russia’s more modern VVER reactors, with exceptions made for the oldest and most unreliable VVER-440/V-230 reactors still in operation at Kola NPP (Units 1 and 2) and the five units of Novovoronezh NPP (Central European Russia), which runs old models considered to be essentially prototypes for later VVER designs.

 …and little patience for dialogue

The risks associated with these experiments are no less tangible, however, for the VVERs than those for the RBMK reactors.

 Apart from the increased loads on the reactor equipment, including safety-significant components, boosting a reactor’s thermal capacity involves altering or upgrading various parts, which is both risky and requires considerable spending. 

 In June 2011, environmentalists spoke about the experiment’s dangers to the audience of a public hearing convened in Polyarniye Zori, the satellite town of Kola NPP – a discussion where Rosatom still managed to secure support on the part of the local residents, who depend on the station for their livelihood.

 In Volgodonsk, hometown of Rostov NPP, a public hearing in March 2011 (in Russian) revealed the EIA report for the station’s capacity-boosting project was incomplete or contained contradictory information, and it was sent back for revisions to comply with requirements set out in the law. A third of those gathered at the hearing supported the project nonetheless, another third spoke against it, and the rest had no opinion either way. A year later, a revised EIA report was presented again – but at a round table, rather than at a public hearing, which meant a closed gathering with a limited number of participants. Most of these were representatives of the nuclear industry. Several members of public organizations stormed out of the meeting minutes after it started, one of them calling the gathering a “farce.” Others boycotted it altogether, staging a picket outside the building and protesting what they said was an “imitation of a public discussion.”

Balakovo residents, too, have had their share of procedural hurdles, struggling to have a meaningful dialogue about their concerns and misgivings. In June 2012, most of those who spoke at the public hearing on boosting the capacity of Unit 3 at the Balakovo plant opposed the experiment. But the hearing, which lasted for over four hours, took place in a room that was half filled by a table and seated a mere 30 people, and some 100 people participated anyway, crowding the corridors outside the door. With the format hardly allowing for an in-depth discussion, the most pressing points – dealing with possible accidents, radioactive waste, and spent nuclear fuel build-up, the effects of the NPP’s discharges on human health, or the reason for even conducting the experiment, and economic questions – were left unaddressed, a  Rosenergoatom representative’s quote thus summing up the gathering: “This is a public hearing, not a discussion.” An official press release issued later made no mention of the two thirds of the participants who said they opposed the experiment.

And when in November 2012 a round table discussion was organized in Balakovo (in Russian) on the same issue, despite the overwhelming opposition expressed to the project just a few months before, the forum – where just three ecologists were allowed to have the floor against some seventy Balakovo NPP workers, whose presence was ensured to speak uniformly in favor of the plant and the industry in general – was hardly a level playing field.

Siding with the helping hand

A similar tactic seems to have been used at the latest hearing, on Unit 1: Former and current NPP staffers, joined by public sector workers and representatives of the town’s municipal organizations, all expressed their backing for the idea of boosting the aged reactor’s output. These were clearly in the majority.

Irina Kirsanova, of the Feniks 21 youth organization, said she believed the nuclear power plant to be an enterprise with the most promise for the future, though she admitted all at the same time that her NGO was receiving support from the station.

Olga Ozhegina, a representative of the town’s biology and ecology teachers association, called on those gathered to trust the power plant.

Another participant asked not to criticize Balakovo NPP as the plant was “helping veterans.”

Tatiana Mironova, a physics teacher at School No. 2, also mentioned the support her school was receiving from the enterprise.

A sympathetic observer would find it understandable that World War Two veterans, pensioners, local youth, or school teachers – arguably, less than the most affluent members of the community – would be prepared to agree to any proposal suggested by their sponsor, and any experiment the station wanted to run.

Still, not everyone was ready to accept the risks.

A small lie breeds great distrust

Those who opposed the continued experiment were, too, given a chance to speak. One of the most memorable addresses to the audience was made by Pavel Shestakov, a decorated Chernobyl liquidator – he was among the many thousands called upon to clean up the site of the dreadful catastrophe in 1986 – and chairman of the NGO Soyuz Chernobyl (Union Chernobyl) in Balakovo and Balakovo Region.

He said that in April 1986 – the same month and year that Chernobyl’s fourth reactor blew up – an accident occurred at Balakovo’s Unit 1, the same reactor that the station now wants to run in test increased-capacity operation. That accident was accompanied with a radiation release exceeding acceptable levels by 200 times, with the radioactive cloud reaching as far as the satellite town of Balakovo.  

“They say here that there haven’t been any accidents at Balakovo NPP. But a small lie breeds great distrust,” Shestakov told the audience at the hearing.

“We, liquidators of the consequences of the accident at Chernobyl NPP, we know the dangers of nuclear energy,” Shestakov said. “If the NPP is so safe then why wouldn’t Rosenergoatom Concern provide Balakovo residents with emergency and population evacuation insurance? Why wouldn’t the state do it – if only for 100 million [roubles], if it’s so ‘safe.’ No one wants to do it, so apparently it means you think there is a probability of an accident. And it is there. Fukushima proved it. Three Mile Island proved it. There have been accidents. And there was one at Chernobyl. The Chernobyl mess, they’re still dealing with it.”

Shestakov asked if anyone has even thought to imagine evacuating a town of 250,000. He recalled the evacuation of Pripyat, the now abandoned town that was closest to Chernobyl NPP. In 1986, Shestakov said, in one single move, 47,000 residents were taken out of Pripyat and neighboring towns in 1,200 buses and 1,800 military trucks.

“Can you even imagine such an operation today? Chernobyl has taught you nothing,” Shestakov said emphatically.

“You can’t go on tempting fate indefinitely,” he added. “Stupidity is the costliest thing. One pays dearly for it.”

The trouble with the police

Shestakov’s participation at the hearing may not have taken place at all. In an odd coincidence, when the hearing was in progress, a uniformed police officer paid a visit to Shestakov’s apartment, demanding to verify the occupant’s presence at the place of registration as part of a “planned check of compliance with passport regulations.” 

 The officer asked Shestakov’s wife to call her husband and ask him to come home to have his papers checked. Shestakov, who was awaiting his turn to speak, said he would return home when he was finished speaking and suggested, via his wife, that the officer wait for his return or come back at a later time. The policeman did not insist.

 “I don’t believe in such coincidences,” Shestakov said in a conversation with Bellona.

 “Of course, I’m not asserting that this was done on purpose, because I have no direct proof of that. But I can’t but notice the following ‘coincidences’: First, it’s obvious that my appearance [at the hearing] was not difficult to predict: I always speak out against such experiments at [nuclear power plants], I myself have been to hell and back, dealing with consequences of radiation,” Shestakov continued. “Secondly, somehow, after I spoke there, no one from the police came to my home anymore to see my passport. So I became of no interest after that. And thirdly, this is not the first time something like that has happened to me. I am a communist, I speak a lot at public meetings, a noticeable figure, in other words.”

 How do you experiment at a nuclear power plant?

“Balakovo’s Chernobyl liquidators consider it unacceptable to boost capacity at a [nuclear power plant], because you don’t experiment with such things,” Shestakov told Bellona. “An NPP is an industrial site. So set up a test facility, use it to work out all the details. How do you experiment at a nuclear power plant?!”

But for now, the warnings from Shestakov and others find little understanding at the plant, where the reactors are still operated at increased capacities and are, furthermore, planned to remain in operation beyond the expiration of the useful life terms established in the design.

This nonchalant attitude seems to have prevailed even a year ago, when it was confirmed during the hearing on increasing the thermal capacity of Balakovo’s Unit 3, by the plant’s chief engineer, Valery Bessonov, that the Balakovo plant has a severe, possibly fatal design flaw: serious sinkage in the foundations of the buildings housing Reactors 1, 2 and 4 that reaches up to half a meter. Reactor 3’s building is built on a foundation that is skewed by 540 millimeters.

Balakovo NPP claimed the subsidence had occurred during the initial construction stage, and that they had corrected the tilt by installing the reactors in such a way that the list was righted.