DiaNuke.org interviewed the eminent environmentalist Vladimir Slivyak whose group EcoDefense has been facing repression in Russia for exposing the lack of nuclear safety and environmental impacts. His report on the status of nuclear industry in Russia, prepared on the request of an environmental group in Africa which is also an important market that the Russian nuclear giant Atomsroyexport is eyeing, has been published recently.

The Russian President in his recent visit to New Delhi, offered 21 more reactors to India. Why is the Russian nuclear industry is in such hurry when there is a global shift away from nuclear after Fukushima?

Vladimir Slivyak - co-chairman for environmental group Ecodefense, author for the book "From Hiroshima to Fukushima"

Vladimir Slivyak, Co-chairman of the environmental group Ecodefense, author for the book “From Hiroshima to Fukushima”

Unfortunately, Russia hasen’t learnt any lessons from Fukushima. Development of nuclear power industry remains the priority for Russian government. Although this development was slowing down a bit inside Russia, because of corruption and technical obstacles, nuclear industry is well funded and has ambitious targets. One of it is to build few dozens of reactors outside Russia – “Rosatom” claims it has so-called portfolio of new reactor orders in various countries worth of $100 billion. This is not so much about making profit because usually foreign contracts funded partly or in full from Russian state budget. And investment return is planned within two-three decades or even longer. Also, this money is not going anywhere, it stays within Russia to feed governmental companies manufacturing reactor’ components. That helps to keep industry alive.

It is also about making other countries dependent on Russian services and supplies, including nuclear fuel and also so called treatment of high-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel, which is usually taken back to Russia. Making someone dependent in such a sensitive field as nuclear power, where not many producers existing, has global political importance for Russian authorities.

However, statement on 21 reactors include big bit of a bluff, I think. Just look at facts – Russia was able to build very few new reactors at home for last 25 years. Rosatom promised several years ago to achieve the level of commissioning three reactors per year in Russia. It is hardly managing to produce one per year. They claim about orders in dozens of countries, but real construction is proceeding only in Russia itself  (much slower than expected), China and Belarus.

As a matter of fact, Rosatom promises are far bigger than its technical capability to build reactors. The only explanation I can think of is that they don’t believe that all these reactors will be actually ordered. And Rosatom’ $100billion portfolio is not about real orders actually. It looks great on paper and allows Rosatom managers to report about big success to the government and continue to benefit from big governmental subsidies. But let’s see how their promises are interacting with reality. Couple of years ago there was contract signed with Vietnam and it was said publicly construction will start soon. And last year it appeared that this plan is postponed until 2020. Contract with Turkey was signed before Vietnam and reported to be another big breakthrough, but no construction started until now. And the most of so-called “orders” of Rosatom in other countries are, in fact, not real contracts, but just talks and wishful thinking. Rosatom often gives away totally unreliable information on new reactors, and it was many times proven to be false.

It doesn’t mean Rosatom is not capable of building reactors in India at all. Rather it means that if they do, they would have to postpone many other plans for long, they will try to do it as fast as possible which will likely affect safety of new reactors.

We often hear from the Russian Ambassador and the industry leaders from Russia visiting India that the Russian reactors are safest in the world. What is your take?

Rosatom is promoting its new reactor design, the VVER-TOI, to international customers even though this design has never been tested in practical operation in Russia. No assessments of this design have been done by independent experts, either. It remains unclear if safety has been improved in the new design, as Rosatom claims. But even industry experts put Rosatom’s claims of increased safety in doubt and argue over the effectiveness of new safety systems.

Existing Russian reactors, likewise, do not demonstrate a high level of safety. Over a dozen incidents and failures have already occurred at the newly built VVER at Kalinin NPP, including one involving a hydrogen explosion.

The Russian fast breeder reactor – the only commercial unit of this type in the world – has in its over 30 years of operation experienced almost as many various accidents, including fires involving radioactive substances and coolant leaks.

Further development of the breeder technology planned by Rosatom in Russia includes experiments with plutonium fuel. VVER-1200s are also designed to operate with plutonium fuel. Introducing this nuclear material into electricity generation on an industrial scale will likely lead to new accidents that will result in plutonium contamination.

Additionally, eleven old RBMK units – all variations on the Chernobyl design – still remain in operation in Russia.

Rosatom continues to reprocess spent nuclear fuel at the disastrous Mayak facility. Not only is the stockpile of extracted plutonium growing, but there is also a constant significant increase in volumes of radioactive waste resulting from reprocessing. The Mayak nuclear facility in Chelyabinsk Region was a place of a devastating nuclear accident of 1957, which caused widespread radioactive contamination and led to the resettlement of about 20,000 of local residents in the subsequent years.

Unfortuntely, several thousands of local residents still have to  live in contaminated area because Rosatom doesn’t take responsibility for their resettlement and people themselves are too poor to move away. That’s best illustration of what is safety culture and social responsibility in understanding of the Russian nuclear industry.

Russia has no realistic and viable plan for the disposal of radioactive waste. The risk of radioactive leaks from the aging radioactive waste storage facilities is increasing. Rosatom’s attempts to build new disposal sites for radioactive waste in several regions of Russia have been met by harsh opposition from local populations and environmental groups. But even if such sites were ultimately built, their capacity would be enough to take care of only a small fraction of the waste accumulated over many decades.

How strong is the nuclear safety regulation in Russia? What have been post-Fukushima changes?

Unfortunately, it’s far from strong. In 1990s we had special safety regulator, Gosatomnadzor (or GAN). It was reporting directly to the president of country and was able to confront Rosatom on the most important safety issues. I mean there is certain difference in mandates  of operator and regulator, and they must be in confrontation to improve the safety. When regulator becomes a friend to operator we are getting into Japanese situation which in the end bring us to another Fukushima sort of disaster. But that’s not the way it went in Russia. Rosatom successfully lobbied for dissolving of independent GAN. And finally it became just the department inside of another bigger structure, without any ability to control. After Fukushima, regulator proposed to close several old reactors down but that was easily ignored by Rosatom who said Russian reactors are best in the world and Fukushima would never happen in Russia. Something like that was said by Western industry after Chernobyl and all wanted to believe in it until Western-designed Fukushima exploded several times.

The Russian nuclear giant, Atomsroyeport, has been clearly unwilling to abide by the Indian liability law which has a clause on supliers liability in case of an accident. What does it say on their claims of safety?

It just confirms old fact that there is no 100% safe reactors. Which means, sooner or later, new Chernobyl or new Fukushima (or both) will happen again somewhere in the world. Russian industry knows very well that their reactors have vulnerabilities. And they don’t want to pay in case of another Chernobyl which they know is possible. Just like the owner of Fukushima is not paying to Japanese people.

You were termed anti-national and had to face govt repression for raising voice on nuclear safety and environmental impacts in Russia. What is the status now? Why do the industry and govt go so hand-in-glove?

Russia approved the “Foreign agent” Act in November 2012 which was an instrument to punish civil society criticizing the government. By Summer 2014, Ministry of justice started to forcibly include human rights and environmental groups to official list of “foreign agents” published on the ministry’ web-site. My organization – Ecodefense – was one of the first 10 non-governmental groups included to this list. And first environmental organization on this list.

It is probably symbolic that anti-nuclear group became the first environmental organization on the list of “foreign agents”. Sort of main enemy of the state among environmental movement. We never had any foreign influence on our decisions, and never had foreign people in our organization. Ironically, our work was to big extend focused on stopping the import of foreign radioactive waste to Russia, and also on stopping foreign money for new reactors in Russia. We also did campaigns on education, on climate issues, on coal. But according to official statement by the Ministry of justice, Ecodefense was put on the list of “foreign agents” for specific campaign against construction of nuclear plant near the city of Kaliningrad, my hometown.

We responded to governmental action by declaring that we will not accept the status of “foreign agent” and we will not follow legal requirements for “agents”. For one simple reason – Ecodefense is not anyone’s agent. Our work aims to stop nuclear danger, and not to benefit any government, Russian or foreign. We were openly criticizing Kudankulam project and many other projects of Rosatom, and we were criticizing European company Urenco (and its shareholders RWE and E.On) for sending radioactive waste to Russia.
It’s 6 month already since government declared us a “foreign agent”. We were fined for quite big amount of money for resisting to register as “foreign agent”. We have another lawsuit filed by the Ministry of justice for not following legal requirements for “agents”, this one is in court now. We got 4 other fines, both personal and organizational. We had three branches of Ecodefense legally registered in Russia. Two are closed down by the court in December. And we are struggling in court for our third organization in court. Unfortunately, we spend now a lot of time in courts. Expectations are not good, our last organization may be closed down this year, likely.

The Koodankulam reactor no 1, despite its commissioning with much fanfare last year, is not really functioning and has seen repeated shut-downs. The people’s movement in Koodankulam says its because of the sub-standard equipments from Russia and it is unsafe. What do you think?

Koodankulam boat rallyBad quality of equipment and reactor components coming from Russia is not a secret anymore. It was noticed in China as well. Under current management, Rosatom became deeply corrupted which resulted in regular public scandals and arrests. In last 3 years several deputy directors of Rosatom were arrested on corruption charges, and in total about 300 people were fired from Rosatom’ organizations for the same reason. Very huge scandal happened with Zio-Podolsk producing steam-generators for nuclear plants – people there used cheap metal for manufacturing, instead of expensive one required by technology. Difference in price of cheap and expensive metals was going into pockets of top-management. Another scandal was about stealing money for radioactive waste treatment, and another one about bribes and procurement, etc.

Bad quality of reactor components, you are likely dealing with in case of Kudankulam, is a direct consequence of corruption. You can read more on corruption issue in the special report on Russian nuclear industry published in December (can be downloaded here)

How do you think the Indian and Russian citizens can come together for a better, nuclear-free future?

I believe people in both countries must be doing more to put industry under control. There is huge problem called Rosatom, but that’s not the only problem. There are officials in your country which allowed Rosatom in, let it to avoid liability issue and to export its poor safety standards to India. That may lead to new nuclear accidents, that’s why we have to care. In Russia we know it is not easy to stop this ugly machine with vast financial resources and governmental support on all levels. But when people come together and really want to achieve something, they usually get a chance. I think we need to stimulate more cooperation on civil level, between citizen groups opposing nuclear threat. Our nuclear industries co-operate a lot, but that’s not the case with enironmental groups. We need to do more of information exchange, more interaction between activists, more cooperation between Russian and Indian groups in order to exchange expiriences. We need to build the capacity to resist to the monster which threatens our future.