An ‘ordinary emergency’ reactor shut down causes widespread panic

Publish date: November 10, 2004

Written by: Rashid Alimov

ST. PETERSRSBURG—Reports about a supposedly common reactor shut down at the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant in Russia’s southwestern Saratov region led to wide-spread panic resulting in overdoses of iodine taken by the fearful against possible radiation poisoning, and showing up the lack of coordination within the country’s emergency notification system.

Last Friday’s rush on iodine in Saratov drug stores was triggered by the announcement of an emergency shut down of reactor bloc No. 2 at the Balakovo NPP in the early morning hours of November 4th. Spokesmen for the plant said the situation, though termed “emergency” was normal and that the shut down had occurred when the reactor’s safety system s detected a coolant leak. The malfunction was repaired and the reactor was re-launched.

“Emergency shut-down of a reactor—it’s only a technical term. There is no emergency. On the contrary, it’s very good, that disaster protection has done its job,” a spokesman for the plant told Bellona Web.

But that was cold comfort for residents of Saratov, some 700 kilometres southwest of Moscow, who dashed to drugstores and bought out stocks of iodine, which, if taken during a radiation emergency, prevents the digestion of radioactive iodine isotopes released into the atmosphere. Eventually the panic spread briefly throughout the rest of the country—which maintains vivid memories of the Kursk sinking in 2001 and the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl and the official disinformation campaign downplaying the scale of the disasters—because nuclear industry officials were sluggish and vague in responding to reports about the Balakovo incident.

Many therefore decided to take protective measures into their own hands, and found themselves hospitalized or sitting in emergency rooms to be treated for iodine overdoses.

Bellona demands that it be included in an independent environmental investigation now underway to determine the reasons behind the shut down of Balakovo’s second reactor bloc. Bellona also demands that a complete report on the incident be made available to the public.

The shut down that triggered the panic
The emergency shut down occurred late on the night of November 4th and was caused by a leakage of coolant-water in the reactors secondary circuit, which automatically triggered the reactors disaster protection system, plant officials told Bellona Web.

“Disaster protection has worked normally, in four seconds the reactor was halted,” said the plant spokesman of the emergency shutdown.

According to Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, “emergency shut-down is an extraordinary measure.” It’s permitted to be used only when all the other ways to control the reactor fail, he said.

Rosatom spokesman Nikolai Shingaryov explained what happened to, saying that a tube from a steam generator in the second reactor cracked, causing water to leak onto the clamps of a water pump in the coolant system. The pump then shorted out and water pressure in the steam generator dropped. When this occurred, the disaster protection system immediately shut down the reactor. The pump was changed and the reactor was re-launched.

“It was an ordinary incident—such things happen on average once every two weeks,” Shingaryov said.


According to the Balakovo NPP representatives, “this event is not significant for safety and is categorized according to International Nuclear Events Scale INES at level zero.” The INES scale runs from zero to five, five being the most serious measure.

Information meltdown
News of the event, often contradictory and incomplete, spread quickly through Russian newswires and eventually national television. Morning reports on state-run Channel One from Balakovo, addressing the rumors of an incident at the nuclear power plant, said that the event was a training exercise. This made little sense to those who had already heard wire reports about the emergency shut down of Balakovo’s second reactor bloc, begging the question among the population as to why what was reported as minor fault was now being explained as a training exercise.

In an interview after the shut down, the Balakovo spokesman said that the television station had “broadcast information without a full understanding of the situation. This could cause panic.”

The plant’s chief engineer told Bellona Web that there actually had been an emergency training session on November 3rd. The Emergency Situations Department of Balakovo and the administrations of the nearby villages of Natalino and Matveyevka had been informed about the training executrices, which involved a test of the emergency notification system and drill evacuation of plant personnel. The real training exercise could very well have contributed to the rumors of a more serious accident.

Public information officials at Balakovo managed to cast further suspicions on the credibility of their own statements by being uninformed about a planned visit by Sergei Kireyenko, the Kremlin-appointed presidential emissary to the Privolzhye district, where Saratov is situated.

When asked to confirm whether Kireynko would indeed visit the plant following the incident, Balakovo representatives called the visit “more fantasies.”

But within two hours, the Balakovo NPP released a statement on its website saying Kireyenko had not only “visited the plant and personally made sure it was safe,” but that he had “himself touched the repaired tube, which earlier had a leakage of pure desalinated non-radioactive water.”

A spoon full of sugar would have helped the iodine go down
The conflicting news reports causes panic from Balakovo to Nizhny Novgorod, some 700 kilometres north of the plant. Residents of surrounding cities like Penza, Volgograd, Voronezh and Tambov regarded the official information with disbelief and waited, according to several local accounts, for radioactive fallout to come drifting over their cities. Emergency authorities, meanwhile, were uncoordinated, uniformed and sloppy in their reaction to the panic, offering few precautions that residents should be taking, or even if they should be taking precautions at all.

According to the anti-nuclear Ecodefence! Group, inhabitants of several small villages surrounding the Balakovo, like Matveyevka, located 5 kilometres from the plant, were instructed to take iodine tablets—though without dosage information—and were told not to come outdoors, and not to tend cattle.

In nearby Saratov, a rush of panicked and confused residents bought out most of the cities supply of iodine in an onslaught on local drug stores.

According to the Kommersant newspaper, all students Nayanova University in Samara, 150 km from Balakovo, were given glasses of milk with iodine. Kindergartens in the Samara Regions were ordered not to let children outdoors and to give each child an iodine-soaked gauze strip to be worn around their throats. At several regional plants, employees were instructed not to open windows. Drug stores in Samara saw the same winding lines of frightened customers queuing up to buy iodine.

Soon seven people came to Samara hospitals with iodine poisoning. A 52-year-old woman bought iodine salvation for external use and drank it dissolved in water. She got minor larynx burns, vomiting and increase of temperature.

Balakovo also reported two iodine over-dosages, said local Emergency Situations Department deputy head Valery Sarayev, according to the RIA Novosti Russian newswire.

There was also panic in Penza region. Local news agencies there reported on patients crowding hospitals with symptoms of iodine poisoning. Residents of the closed nuclear city of Penza-19 also gave way to panic. By 11 am on November 5th, all local drugstores sold out all the iodine.

Local phone stations and mobile works could not cope with the increased loads. Emergency Situation Department phone lines were consistently busy. According to local journalists, it was impossible to get any information by phones from local officials.

Was radiation released?
Whether any radiation was released into the atmosphere remains unclear.
“To answer this question, one needs special research, but we cannot affirm, in principle, that no release occurred,” an Ecodefence! representative told Bellona Web.

“When an emergency shut-down happens, overheated radioactive steam has to be released from the steam generators. Its tubes always have micro cracks, which is why radiation may get into the steam, and then into the atmosphere.”

Losses caused by the panic, as well as stress loads on the Privolzhye are difficult to measure. But the emergency shut-down, which itself is an extraordinary event, evidently led to a loss of energy production. But plant representatives of the plant told Bellona Web that such shut downs for repairs are foreseen expenses and have little impact on projected energy profits.

Last Friday, November 5th, Saratov Regional Governor Dmitry Ayatskov issued a statement saying that the Balakovo NPP’s director, Pavel Ipatov, had said the reactor would be up and running by 10 pm that evening. Vladimir Ingatov, the plant’s chief engineer, said the same at a press conference that day. It was not until the following evening, however, that the reactor was restarted.

On Monday the Saratov regional prosecutors office declared it would begin a search for people who had disseminated rumors about a supposed catastrophe at the Balakovo NPP, though such a seemingly fruitless pursuit could well have been avoided had authorities been forthright about the incident from the beginning.

Balakovo NPP on the international scene
The Balakovo plant, which currently operates four VVER-1000 pressure water reactors, has been slated as a possible site for the burning of mixed uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, or MOX, fuel as part of the US-Russia Plutonium Disposition agreement of 2000. Under this agreement, both the United States and Russia have agreed to destroy 34 tonnes each of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in parallel progress.

But Russian progress is lagging because of funding problems, and the US State Department has further hindered matters by insisting that Russia assume full liability for any accidents that may occur during the building of MOX fabricating and burning facilities. Russia has stated on several occasions that it will not agree to such onerous liability terms, thus grinding the MOX plutonium disposition plan to a halt.

At Balakovo, the reactors would have to be retrofitted at a cost of several million dollars to make them fit to burn the volatile MOX fuel. The plant had planned to build two more VVER-1000 reactor blocs, but this was halted by a local referendum in 1993. Authorities, however, later nixed the referendum, saying that the two extra reactors would push the MOX programme forward. Even though it is highly uncertain as to whether the MOX programme will ever come to fruition, nuclear officials say they still intend to proceed with the two new reactors at Balakovo.

Rashid Alimov reported from St. Petersburg, and Charles Digges reported from Oslo.