Nuclear Renewal Siemens Seeks to Cash In on Russia's Atomic Adventure


Part 2

When Prime Minister Putin met with Kiriyenko and other nuclear industry executives at the Kalinin nuclear power plant in mid-April to discuss the situation, his speech included bitter accusations about "non-purposeful use" of government funds -- a thinly veiled reference to embezzlement and waste.

The location of the nuclear meeting was well chosen. Kalinin is perhaps the most state-of-the-art nuclear power plant in Russia. A tour of the plant's Reactor 3 offers a fascinating look at modern nuclear technology. The reactor's one-gigawatt steam turbine sits in the tower-sized machine building, looking like a fat, yellow bug. A muffled humming sound suggests the forces that are at work here, where the power of the atom is literally palpable. The nuclear fire blazes less than 30 meters (98 feet) away, in a pressure vessel with a diameter of only four meters (13 feet).

In a small chapel on the eighth floor of the administrative building, a statue of St. Nicholas keeps watch over the plant -- apparently with success. "We have had only minor incidents in the last 10 years," says Igor Bogomolov, a senior engineer at the plant. Nevertheless, he does have his worries. "We lack specialists," he says. "The young, qualified people prefer to stay in the cities and work for private companies."

World Class Cadres

Western experts are critical of the Russian nuclear industry's aging workforce and its use of too many poorly trained guest workers. The Russians recognize these problems, and Putin has promised money for a "national nuclear energy university." The aim of the new elite university, which would center around the renowned Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), would be to train "world-class cadres," says Mikhail Strikhanov, rector of the MEPhI.

Russia's nuclear renaissance.

Russia's nuclear renaissance.

Under the plan for a national nuclear energy university, Strikhanov would join forces with 23 other institutions, most of them located at nuclear power plant sites. "We must train the students in proximity to the plants; otherwise they will not work there," Strikhanov explains. Salaries are low, he says, and the nuclear sector's image is poor. Nevertheless, Strikhanov is confident that the new university will be capable of training about 2,000 students a year. "However," he adds, "it will be far more difficult to build such a large number of power plants."

He has a point. Insiders report that the Atommash plant in southern Russia, once the country's largest producer of equipment for nuclear power plants, is currently out of commission. The Ishora plant near St. Petersburg is hardly capable of producing more than one reactor a year -- far too little to satisfy Russian ambitions.

Critics also question whether the country can even afford a nuclear renaissance. "A nuclear reactor costs €5 billion ($6.75 billion) today, but Rosatom is calculating with a sum equal to less than half that amount," says Alexander Nikitin of Bellona, a Norwegian environmental organization. "And now the financial crisis has been added to the mix."

Even Vladimir Generalov, director of the government's nuclear power plant development office, Atomenergoprojekt, concedes, "whether entirely new projects will be pushed depends on the worldwide economic situation." According to Generalov, the demand for electricity will decline. "It is hard to say how many reactors will end up going into operation." However, Generalov believes that at least 10 nuclear power plants will be built.

No Permanent Storage Sites

Rosatom has even more worries. For one, the cost of storing about 20,000 tons of spent fuel rods weighs heavily on the budget. There are no permanent storage sites. Instead, Rostatom has a stunning concept on hand for the waste. "Waste? But it isn't waste," says Rostatom spokesman Sergei Novikov. "We leave the material where it is, until it becomes usable in a few decades."

The Russians still dream of a plutonium economy. They are among the last countries worldwide that still operate fast breeder reactors, which produce, at least in theory, more nuclear fuel than they consume. In principle, they could recycle spent fuel rods from conventional reactors.

The world's biggest commercial plant of this type operates in Beloyarsk in the Ural Mountains region, where a second, larger breeder reactor is under construction. But no one is about to win accolades for the plants. Despite decades of research, all attempts to operate breeder reactors at a profit have failed. Besides, the technology is considered to be especially risky.

Another project that has critics up in arms is the construction of floating nuclear power plants. As recently as late April, nuclear energy czar Kiriyenko was strolling cheerfully through the production buildings at the Baltiiski Shipyard in St. Petersburg. At a ceremony there, he pressed a button to launch the construction of a 144 meter (472 foot) long model plant slated for completion in 2011.

Critics also fear that the floating power plants, each equipped with two 35-megawatt reactors, constitute a significant proliferation risk. The specialty reactors burn particularly highly-enriched uranium. "How you do want to prevent terrorists from boarding the ships and simply weighing anchor?" asks Vladimir Kuznezov, a former nuclear inspector and current critic of Rosatom. "We can't even stop Somali pirates."

More Embarrassed than Amused

Given these obstacles, how then can Kiriyenko's team build confidence in Russian nuclear technology among nuclear power plant customers?

Bizarre image campaigns, such as last year's "Miss Atom" contest, are more humorous than effective. In the campaign, attractive female employees at nuclear power plants, the nuclear symbol dangling in front of their beautiful bodies, entered a beauty competition. And when Kiriyenko candidly reported in Kalinin that he taken a dip in the lake into which the plant's cooling water is fed, his audience was more embarrassed than amused.

Only transparency and reliability can make Russia a full-fledged partner of Siemens. In the past, too many plans never made it off the drawing board. In 1992, for example, the Russians planned to build 26 domestic reactors. A grand total of three have been completed since then.

The Russians also have some catching up to do when it comes to technology. Kiriyenko's nuclear power plant salesmen are proud to take new customers on tours of a Russian-built nuclear power plant in the Chinese city of Tianwan. However, the plant's operators complain that it can only be run at full capacity just over 80 percent of the time. This complaint was probably one of the reasons a contract to build another nuclear power plant in the coastal Zhejiang Province was awarded to a competitor, US nuclear power plant producer Westinghouse.

Nevertheless, optimism still prevails at Siemens headquarters. The Russian government plans to subsidize the nuclear industry with about €15 billion ($20 billion) by 2015. In the event of a joint venture, the money would also benefit the Germans. Besides, public criticism is hardly to be expected in Russia, where there is no anti-nuclear movement. And the press has been more or less forced to toe the pro-nuclear line.

The Siemens executives even choose to ignore an image problem of Russian technology. "I have no doubt that Russia will satisfy our quality standards," says Wolfgang Dehen, the head of the energy sector at Siemens. "Chernobyl, after all, is more than 20 years in the past."

By Philip Bethge, Dinah Deckstein, Wladimir Pyljow and Matthias Schepp

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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