Russia Eyes the Atom The Monologue of Nuclear Power

Russia plans to build up to 40 new nuclear reactors in the near future. But experts warn that may not be possible. The country lacks experts, skilled personnel and a clear idea about what to do with the waste.
Von Carmen Eller

When it comes to Russian nuclear power Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom and former deputy prime minister of Boris Yeltsin, sees major deals on the horizon. "In the past, nuclear energy was merely a bastard of the military program," says Kiriyenko. "The growing demand for electricity has changed this fundamentally."

But as optimistic as Kiriyenko is, nuclear energy in Russia remains a matter for the state, and not a very lucrative proposition at that. When it comes to Russia's future plans for atomic electricity, rhetoric and reality are worlds apart, and not just on the issue of profitability.

Russia, the world's largest country by landmass, has a total of 31 reactors -- including 11 of the model like that which melted down in Chernobyl -- distributed among 10 nuclear power plants. Their locations range from the Twerskay region about 300 kilometers (188 miles) from Moscow, to Chukotka in the country's far northeast. But Moscow has plans to expand its civilian nuclear arsenal by building 40 new reactors within the next 25 years. It also has plans to build up to 60 reactors abroad, says Kiriyenko.

Two of those, says Kiriyenko, are set for construction just 120 kilometers (75 kilometers) from Kaliningrad in that small bit of Russia surrounded by Europe. The reactors, Kiriyenko promises, will be based on the most modern of Soviet designs, the RBMK model. And they will be up to Western standards, "just as though they were being built in a country in the European Union," the Rosatom executive claims. Up to 49 percent of stock in the new venture could be sold to European investors.

Unfulfilled Plans

Experts are more than skeptical about these ambitious projects. "Since the Soviet Union, we have had seven plans to develop nuclear complexes, and not one of them was fully realized," says Vladimir Kuznetsov, program director for nuclear safety with the environmental group Green Cross Russia and a former employee of the government's nuclear regulatory agency, Rostechnadzor. "So far, unfortunately, they have only had the technical capacity to build one reactor every four years."

Many problems have hampered the development of Russia's nuclear industry. According to Kuznetsov, of 120 students who obtained the relevant university degree last year, only 20 remained in the industry. He attributes the personnel shortage to a lengthy, 10-year education and training period, an aging workforce, poor pay and a lack of prestige for the profession.

Other unresolved problems include those of final storage and reprocessing of nuclear waste. "The capacities for nuclear waste terminal storage sites are already exhausted by 75 to 80 percent," Kuznetsov explains. And each year, Russia's collection of nuclear power plants produce tons more radioactive waste.

Safety is also an issue at many nuclear plants. The current maximum life expectancy of a Russian reactor is 30 years, but this is often extended for financial reasons. "The safety standards for RMBK reactors, like the ones at Chernobyl, are significantly worse than in Western nuclear power plants, and modernizing these reactors and bringing them up to Western standards is out of the question," says Vladimir Slivyak, chairman of the citizens' group Ecodefense. Slivyak describes the official desire to extend the shelf life of this type of reactor as "the worst blow since the Chernobyl disaster."

"It's Easier to Fish in the Dark"

There is virtually no public debate in Russian over the pros and cons of electricity from nuclear power. In a climate of political apathy and limited freedom of the press, citizens are either poorly informed or not informed at all about current projects, nor about the risks and opportunities of nuclear energy.

According to a December 2007 poll conducted by Romir, an opinion research institute, only 6 percent of respondents had any interest in environmental problems. Nevertheless, 78 percent said that they would be opposed to the construction of new nuclear power plants in their region.

When it comes to nuclear energy, says Kuznetsov, the relationship between politicians and the people they represent is more than questionable. There is a lack of transparency, he says, likening the public's apathy to the notion that "it's easier to fish in the dark." Kuznetsov, a physicist, grimly sums up the relationship between politicians and citizens: "It is not a dialogue. It is a monologue of power."

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