FEATURE: Who needs a nuclear power plant in Bashkortostan?

Publish date: August 20, 2013

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW — The former and current Presidents of Bashkortostan (Bashkiria) – a Russian republic located between the Volga and the Ural Mountains – asked the federal government to resume construction of Bashkir Nuclear Power Plant, an old Soviet project launched in 1980 and scrapped in 1990. The idea has local ecologists raising their eyebrows: The arguments for the new plant fail even generous scrutiny, while the region certainly does not lack in non-nuclear options.

What do you do when the government of your region or republic where you live starts bringing up the subject of building a nuclear power plant? What do you do if you don’t find yourself particularly fond of the idea and want to do something about it?

The immediate thought is probably to try to find out first if there are any arguments to support the nuclear scenario – and if there aren’t non-nuclear alternatives for your region’s development instead.

This is exactly what Guzel Latypova did. Latypova lives in the Republic of Bashkortostan and heads the regional branch of the Russian Interregional Ecological Public Organization ECA (in Russian).

When she saw reports in the media that the republican government was pushing to resume construction of Bashkir Nuclear Power Plant (Bashkir NPP), a frozen site in the town of Agidel, in northwestern Bashkortostan, she sent an inquiry to the republican government, asking to explain the rationale behind this sudden burst of enthusiasm over the old project.  

One of the media reports, published late last March on Novosti Energetiki website (in Russian), cited Yevgeny Romanov, General Director of the Russian NPP operator company Rosenergoatom Concern, as saying that Bashkiria’s government is seeking to expedite the construction of Bashkir NPP.

The story linked to a question asked by an Adigel resident on the nuclear blogging website Publicatom.Ru (in Russian). In his reply, Romanov said that the current federal power generating capacities siting plan envisions launching two Bashkir NPP units after 2021, and in accordance with the current reactor construction program, the first unit is expected to be completed in 2025, and the second in 2027. But according to the information available, Romanov said, the government of the Republic of Bashkortostan is “taking measures” to speed up the construction.

“We are very surprised that even despite the recent events at Fukushima [Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan], and the Year of the Environment declared [in 2013] in Russia, there is continued talk in the Republic of Bashkortostan about building the nuclear power plant in Agidel – all the while the world is moving with a gathering momentum toward phasing out nuclear energy and transitioning to renewable energy sources, and toward thoughtful handling of the resources it has,” Latypova told Bellona in an interview.

“We would really like to know the grounds and reasons that compelled the President and the Government of Bashkortostan to ask to resume construction of the NPP,” Latypova said.

Bashkortostan’s Minister of Industry and Innovation Policy Alexei Karpukhin did not just respond to Latypova’s inquiry with a letter but also, as per the ecologists’ request, attached to his response copies of two letters that the former and current presidents of Bashkortostan wrote within just several months to the federal government. In their letters, they championed completion of the old project.

One of the letters, of February 6, 2010, was written by former President of Bashkortostan Murtaza Rakhimov and addressed to Vladimir Putin, at the time Russia’s prime minister. The other, of October 18, 2010, was written by Rakhimov’s successor at the presidential post, Rustem Khamitov, and is addressed to the then President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev.  

Bellona has both letters, as well as Minister Karpukhin’s response to Latypova, at its disposal (downloadable at right, in Russian) – and thus has the unique opportunity to see just how two leaders of a Russian region go about asking the federal government to build them a nuclear power plant.

It would seem upon analysis that their requests lack in solid arguments – while both Agidel and the republic’s energy complex, in fact, have options other than nuclear power for future development.

So let’s take a look at the presidents’ arguments, shall we.

Agidel the ‘monocity’: A port, an industrial park, or a nuclear town?

Agidel is a town in northwestern Bashkiria, on the right bank of the lower reach of the river Belaya. Wikipedia says it grew out of a small settlement founded in 1980 to support the construction of Bashkir NPP, and was granted town status eleven years later. The town’s current population is just over 16,000.

In 1990, the construction of Bashkir NPP was mothballed following public protests prompted by the Chernobyl tragedy of 1986.

Asking the then Prime Minister Putin to “render assistance” in resuming construction of Bashkir NPP, ex-President Rakhimov starts his February 2010 letter with a mention of the development problems of single-industry towns – problems that, the letter says, have “most acutely” manifested themselves in places such as Agidel:

The town of Agidel emerged in 1980 in connection with the start of construction of Bashkir NPP, as its satellite town; after the construction of Bashkir NPP stopped in 1990, the town found itself without its principal employer. As it has convenient railroad and highway interchanges, Agidel is in a position to enable shipment of cargoes along the rivers Belaya and Kama by river-sea vessels with a displacement of up to 10,000 tons sailing to the Caspian, Black, and Baltic Seas. Building a cargo river port in the town of Agidel will provide infrastructure support to the industrial regions of the Volga and Ural Federal Districts, as well as exchange of goods between the Volga region, the Urals, and Western Siberia, and European countries, [and] will optimize cargo flows [in the Urals] as well as in Russia’s south, including those connected with preparations for the 2014 Olympics in the city of Sochi.      

The text that follows offers no arguments in support of resuming the construction of the nuclear power plant. On the contrary, the letter seems to describe in rather clear and practical terms a non-nuclear development scenario for Agidel. Furthermore, aside from the cargo river port project, there is also the idea of developing production of construction materials in Agidel using the sites and infrastructure left by the frozen Bashkir NPP.

[picture1 {Agidel’s coat of arms: Under the aegis of the peaceful atom.}]

NPP owner on board with industrial park idea

In September 2010 – by then, Rustem Khamitov had succeeded Murtaza Rakhimov as President of Bashkortostan – a three-party agreement was concluded between the government of Bashkortostan, Agidel’s administration, and Rosenergoatom, the owner of the unfinished facilities of Bashkir NPP. And rather than efforts to resume construction of Bashkir NPP, the agreement is centered on the non-nuclear development future for Agidel.

This is what Rosenergoatom’s press release – posted on the website of the concern’s parent company, State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom –   in fact, says about this agreement (in Russian):

“The subject of this Agreement is cooperation of the parties in the process of preparing investment projects [and] drawing up strategic development programs for the northwestern region of Bashkortostan in implementation of the project of creation of the industrial park ‘Bashkortostan Construction Materials’ in the city of Agidel at the property complex owned by [Rosenergoatom’s] branch ‘Directorate of Bashkir Nuclear Power Plant (under construction).’”

Though the press release goes on to say that the agreement “also provides for the possibilities of using the infrastructure being transferred over to the industrial park for construction of Bashkir NPP – should the respective decision be made after 2020,” it praises the many advantages that getting the new project off the ground is expected to bring to the region:

“Creating the Industrial Park ‘Bashkortostan Construction Materials’ in the city of Agidel at the property complex owned by the branch ‘Directorate of Bashkir Nuclear Power Plant (under construction)’ is a priority development area not only for the city of Agidel but for the [northwest] of the Republic of Bashkortostan on the whole. Investments of various levels will be involved in the creation of the Industrial Park. Implementation of the project will help to assure employment, to facilitate personal income growth, shape the conditions for attracting investments, develop the industrial, investment, and innovation potential of the Republic of Bashkortostan, and increase tax revenues received by the city and republican budgets.” 

[picture2 {Access railroad tracks built at the site of the unfinished Bashkir NPP near its satellite town of Agidel, Republic of Bashkortostan. Could this railroad take Agidel away from its never-achieved nuclear past and to a non-nuclear future?}]

A tab called “Industrial park” on the official website of Agidel’s administration (in Russian) says that the Industrial Park includes 72 buildings of the unfinished Bashkir NPP’s construction site in an area of 113,052 square meters (0.044 square miles) and 76 structures located on a plot of land with an area of 2,238,800 square meters (0.864 square miles).

The project, according to the information on the page, is aimed at developing high-tech production and processing industry sites in the sectors of energy, construction, oil refining, consumer products, and lumber, and creating a logistics hub, among other plans. Preparing the facilities already present at Bashkir NPP’s construction site for the beginning of the station’s construction is also, however, mentioned as one of the aims.   

Employment options without endangering the population

With the 16,000 Agidel residents offered job prospects either at the river port or the industrial park, these two development options should arguably ensure long-term solutions for the town’s current employment problems.

Besides these two potential employers, Agidel has 864 small and medium-sized businesses, the Agidel administration’s website informs in the section on the town’s economy (in Russian).

“The business sector employs 4,400 people, which corresponds to 30 percent of the total number of population of working age and 45 percent of the economically active population of the town,” the page says. “These currently produce around 50 percent of the total volume of goods and services.”

But let’s get back to Bashkortostan’s ex-President Rakhimov’s letter. Having extolled the potential and the glowing prospects of developing the town’s transport and infrastructure opportunities, offered in the cargo port project, Rakhimov asks for Putin’s help… in completing Bashkir NPP: 

“In aid of fostering propitious conditions for the steady development of the city of Agidel, I respectfully ask you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, to render your assistance in resuming construction of Bashkir NPP […].”

Seen written in what appears to be Putin’s hand, across the first page of the letter, is the former prime minister’s resolution addressed to First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin: “To Shuvalov, Sechin: Please review and report re: NPP.”

There is no information on what results came from Shuvalov and Sechin’s examination of the issue.

So, one of the officially stated reasons for resuming construction of the nuclear power plant in Agidel is solving this single-industry town’s employment problems. Both or either of the river port or industrial park projects would suggest convincingly that there are non-nuclear solutions on offer. More importantly, either of these projects can be developed much faster and at a much lower cost than a nuclear power plant.

“Of course, the issue of financial self-reliance for the city of Agidel is one I consider urgent and important, and I agree that development and investments into the city are necessary, but it could be done without putting at risk the lives and health of [people] not just in our blooming region, but the neighboring regions as well,” ECA’s Latypova told Bellona.

The cost question

Bashkortostan’s current President Khamitov’s letter, of October 18, 2010, is focused on the region’s energy options and the three generating sites planned for construction in Bashkortostan.

These are: the Russian hydropower giant RusHydro’s Nizhne-Suyanskaya Hydropower Plant on the Ufa River (capacity: 210 megawatts, cost estimate in 2006 prices: RUR 17.4 billion, or $528.14 million); the regional energy company Bashkirenergo’s combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) unit at the combined heat and power plant CHPP-5 under construction in Bashkortostan’s capital city Ufa (capacity: 440 megawatts in power output; 290 gigacalories per hour in heat; cost estimate: RUR 12.8 billion, or $388.5 million); and Bashkir NPP. The letter does not specify the nuclear plant’s capacity or capital cost.

Bashkortostan’s industry and innovation policy minister Karpukhin, in his response to the ecologist Latypova, informs her that the “[c]urrent capital cost of a two-unit nuclear power plant is estimated at RUR 270 billion” ($8.225 billion, in exchange rates current as of mid-August 2013).

Though Karpukhin does not specify the reactor type, this would likely refer to Rosatom’s AES-2006 (NPP-2006) design, which is based on the VVER-1200 reactor, as this is the design Rosatom is using for most of its current construction projects both in Russia and abroad. The unfinished project at Agidel envisioned four VVER-1000 units.

Bashkir NPP’s capital cost will, then, be nine times as high as both the Nizhne-Suyanskaya Hydropower Plant and the CCGT unit of the Ufa CHPP-5 plant combined. At the same time, the rated power capacity of two VVER-1200 units does not exceed 2,400 megawatts. This is 3.7 times as much as the capacities of the other two projects taken together. In other words, investing into the hydropower plant or the new CCGT unit would be some 2.4 times more efficient than investing into a nuclear power plant.

Taking the AES-2006 as a reference point, and Karpukhin’s estimate as its capital cost, one megawatt of installed capacity of the Agidel plant would come to RUR 112.5 million ($3.43 million). For the hydropower plant project, that value is RUR 82.6 million (2.52 million) per one megawatt; and for the CCGT unit to be built at the Ufa cogeneration plant, RUR 29.1 million ($886,519). And the CCGT unit will not just provide the power but also the heat for the city’s district heating system.

The cost comparisons speak clearly against the nuclear power plant. But if the economic untenability of completing the Bashkir NPP project is so evident, then why would it, all the excessive costs considered, still remain an issue? 

Resuming – or building from scratch?

This is what Bashkortostan’s current President Khamitov says about the Bashkir NPP project in his letter to former Russian President Medvedev:

“Another promising power generating site is the construction site of Bashkir NPP in the town of Agidel, where construction was halted in 1990. The site’s current technical condition [and] the level of availability of industrial facilities and utility lines make it possible to reduce by 15-20 percent the investment needed to complete the NPP construction. The site’s reliability meets the tectonic, seismic, geotechnical, hydrogeological, and other requirements. Launching this site will help cover the shortage of electric power in the Urals.”

In order to “ensure energy security of the Russian Federation” and “satisfy the electric power needs of the economy and population of the Republic of Bashkortostan,” Bashkortostan’s President Khamitov asks former Russian President Medvedev – in addition to the items relating to the hydropower plant and the new CCGT unit – “to make a decision on a date to resume Bashkir NPP’s construction.” 

One of the problems with Khamitov’s case for resuming construction in Agidel is the very term “resuming”: Since no one would likely seriously consider “resuming” work on a nuclear power plant which was started in 1980 – on a project that was developed in the 1970s – the choice of word does not seem entirely appropriate. If the station is built at all, it will be built to a completely new project. This means that the constant repetition of the words “resume the construction” is likely intended to create among the public and the relevant decision-makers the impression that all the necessary and important decisions have already been made and the construction can be resumed at any time – tomorrow, if one so desires.

In reality, resuscitating the old site will need a new design project, then getting it cleared through various stages a nuclear power plant project has to pass before construction starts. This is neither fast nor cheap.

In fact, even before this work even begins, the project – this being a new power-generating capacity – will require a new statement of need and arguments will have to be newly made proving that this construction is possible. This is where the nuclear scenario’s proponents may find they have holes in their case.

At the very least, arguing that the plant needs to be built because they started to build it 33 years ago does not appear to be adequate substantiation.

Unsuitable for reactors and unneeded by the power grid

Moreover, Khamitov’s argument that between 15 and 20 percent in investment funds could be saved by resuming construction at the unfinished site – where all work stopped in 1990 – does not hold water, either.

In his letter to ECA’s Latypova, Minister of Industry and Innovation Policy Karpukhin says:

“Should the decision be made to resume construction of Bashkir NPP, the construction of the reactor units and other engineering structures of the NPP will be carried out at a new site. The mothballed building structures of the foundations of Bashkir NPP’s reactor units are unsuitable for new construction owing to the accumulated fatigue in the concrete and steelwork.”

Karpukhin adds that Rosenergoatom management is considering a comprehensive examination of the territory in order to site the project in a new location.

And if the project indeed goes ahead, it will apparently have to be started from scratch. The old abandoned foundations will, then, do little to help save on the costs.

Another problem is with Khamitov’s assertion that the old site satisfies the tectonic, seismic, geotechnical, and hydrogeological requirements. Agidel is within the impact area of intensive oil production, which is done using salt water injection to maintain reservoir pressure. This is stated in a paragraph about the town’s ecological situation in the section with Agidel’s social and economic information on the town administration’s official website.

The paragraph refers to the drilling as a risk factor for the town and its natural environment. Another ecological risk factor mentioned is the abundance of underground infrastructure – high-pressure oil and gas product pipelines – in Agidel’s outskirts. At the very least, the geological changes that may have taken place in the forty-odd years since Bashkir NPP’s location was chosen in the 1970s warrant special examination. The claim that the old site of the unfinished nuclear power plant meets all geotechnical and hydrogeological standards needs to be verified with additional studies.

As for the statement regarding the site’s seismic stability, this, too, requires confirmation. The risk of seismic activity in the area was one of the reasons construction was ceased at the site in 1990.  

Meanwhile, launching the 440-megawatt CCGT unit at the Ufa CHPP-5 plant – Bashkirenergo reported in a 2011 press release (in Russian) it was resuming the plant’s construction, with the launch date scheduled for 2013, according to information on the 2011 investment program (in Russian) – and the 210-megawatt Nizhne-Suyanskaya Hydropower Plant, if this project is implemented, can be expected to help cover Bashkortostan’s energy needs, and at a cost nine times as low as a nuclear power plant would incur.

Furthermore, the shortage of power supply in the Urals that Khamitov mentions in his letter should certainly be helped with the launch of the BN-800 reactor at Beloyarsk NPP, near Russia’s fourth largest city of Yekaterinburg. The BN-800 unit has been under on-and-off construction since 1984, but the nuclear corporation Rosatom promises it will soon come online. If it does, it should well balance the regional system as well.

In fact, it is the 2.4 gigawatts in Bashkir NPP’s hypothetical capacity that the region may have problems with incorporating into the grid. Accommodating the station’s output, if Rosatom goes ahead with building the plant, will also require building the costly high-power transmission lines – an additional expenditure likely in the billions of roubles. It’s not clear whether the region is prepared to bear such expenses.  

Final decision to be made after public consultations

In his response to Latypova, Minister Karpukhin writes:

“[…] Materials for the statement of [need to build the NPP] were prepared under the instruction of the Government of the Russian Federation by relevant federal and republican agencies and comprise several volumes of technical and financial and economic documentation. […] The final decision on resuming construction of Bashkir NPP will be made taking into account the capacity balance in the energy system [and] on the basis of public approval of the project, as per provisions of the legislation, as the result of parliamentary hearings and public hearings preceding those.”

The minister also extended an invitation for the environmentalists to meet with ministry specialists to discuss any issues they may need clarified. Latypova told Bellona in a conversation that she asked to see the “several volumes” of documentation mentioned by the minister to prepare for an effective dialogue at such a meeting.

“We would like to participate as much as we can in discussing both the need for a new [generating capacity] and the possible non-nuclear options,” Latypova said.

For now, even a preliminary analysis indicates the NPP proponents are failing to present solid arguments for the construction of the plant. A closer consideration of all the options on the table and exhaustive consultations with the public would, too, seem to be a reasonable path for decision-makers to take before pushing forward with another dangerous and expensive nuclear initiative.

Khamitov: Construction is far from certain

In fact, Bashkortostan’s President Khamitov does not exactly look like an ardent advocate of the nuclear option. Speaking live on BST (Bashkir Satellite Television) channel on April 11 (in Russian) during the “Talk with the President,” a Q&A session with Bashkortostan’s residents, Khamitov said the following in response to a caller’s question about bringing a large industrial employer and “real jobs” to Agidel:

“I think the town has prospects. But we need to be clear on this question: Will there be the nuclear power plant or not? According to the projects of the Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation, according to the energy strategy of the Russian Federation, the construction is expected, but beyond 2025. And it’s a long time yet, there’s life to live before we’re there. And it’s not even certain that they will be building the station, because the attitude to nuclear energy, it’s rather complicated. There are positive opinions, there are negative ones. That’s understood.”

[picture3 {Bashkortostan’s President Rustem Khamitov.}]

He went on to say that because there is no construction yet, and no reliable information that it will start in the near future, his proposal will be to “transfer to the republic all the construction facilities that were created there during preparation for the construction of the nuclear power plant” and continue with the creation of the industrial park.

He also spoke about the project of a large river port in Agidel: “This is a big, interesting, good project. This port could become a landmark place not just in Agidel, but in our economy as well.”

So it’s not ruled out that Bashkiria and Agidel will opt for a safer and less costly, non-nuclear scenario for the town’s future development. However, Rosatom’s lobbying sway is quite substantial, and should it choose to push for building Bashkir NPP at a new location, it might well apply what effort will be required to land the construction order.

Earlier this year, Rosatom acknowledged it was getting nowhere with its Baltic NPP project in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Region – a primarily export-oriented venture that after years of negotiations in Europe failed to deliver a co-investor, any loan agreements with European banks, or even contracts for the plant’s future energy. If the old two-unit VVER-1200 project there is abandoned, it stands to reason that the nuclear corporation, rather than simply cut its losses, will be searching for other ways to put to use the equipment it has already ordered for the station.

One hopes, though, that Rosatom’s corporate interest does not prevail over the interests of Bashkortostan’s residents and that an exhaustive analysis is done, with the public’s full and open participation, of the economic, social, technological, and ecological options to secure the best path of future development for both the republic and the town of Agidel