Russia selling 24 reactors to India, but what is the status of its own nuclear industry?

While the Russian President during his visit to New Delhi announced his help of building more than 20 nuclear power plants in India (some reported 10, others 12, some even 24), it would be worthwhile to see what is the status of the nuclear industry in Russia, after Fukushima.

Here is an important report, prepared by an independent agency in Africa where Russia has been trying to find a market, authored by Vladimir Sylvak, an eminent Russian environmentalist associated with EcoDefense. We are posting the main conclusions of the report for the readers of The full report can be seen below.

Rosatom remains one of the largest nuclear energy producers and reactor suppliers in the world. Its willingness – attested to by deals signed with developing countries for dozens of reactor contracts in recent years – to enter unstable markets, and to offer state funding and fuel services.

However, taking into account its limited reactor manufacturing capacity and the current domestic development plans in Russia, it is unlikely that Rosatom will be able to build new reactors in other countries as scheduled. Cost overruns and significant delays must be expected.
So far, active construction is only underway in Russia itself, China and Belarus. Furthermore, with cost overruns only growing with additional reactor projects planned for construction, it is unclear how many deals can actually be funded from the Russian state budget. While Rosatom estimates the cost of its new 1200 MW reactor between $5-billion and €5-billion in various cases, independent assessments suggest it could be as much as €7.7-billion, which is close to the cost of France’s EPR.

Very serious concerns exist with regard to Russia’s aging reactors, which have been given 15- year license extensions when their original operating life expires. Some of the old reactors do not have a secondary containment, which is unacceptable under modern safety requirements. With the current policy of extending the operation of old reactors, the risk of new nuclear accidents is growing. Moreover, Russia still does not have a detailed plan for decommissioning its old reactors, and the experience it can rely on in this field is very limited.

As for its new projects, 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. 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.

Since the late 1980s, the Russian nuclear industry has been under heavy criticism from environmental movements for its lack of safety and poor economic performance. Criticism came not only from the Chernobyl accident and many smaller accidents at other nuclear plants, but also for the industry’s failure to resettle thousands of villagers residing in the areas surrounding the Mayak nuclear facility in the Ural region, areas that suffered severe contamination from the explosion at the plant in 1957. The industry’s response to these accidents clearly demonstrates a lack of responsibility for the damage caused and a poor safety culture in general.

Historically, the Russian environmental movement has been successful in halting reactor construction at several sites and disrupting deals aimed at importing radioactive waste into Russia. Civil society groups have also played an extremely important role in anti-corruption activities related to the nuclear industry. At the same time, citizen groups that level criticisms against the nuclear industry have come under serious pressure during the last decade. There were several arrests of activists even during public hearings on new nuclear reactors, arrests during protests having long been common in Russia. Recent widespread repression undertaken by the Russian government against civil society in the form of the infamous “Foreign Agent” Act has also heavily affected the activities of the anti-nuclear community. Several media reports suggest Rosatom may well be behind using the “Foreign Agent” legislation to drive this repression forward.

With vast resources and solid state support at its disposal, the Russian nuclear industry remains under almost no external control. The lack of transparency, widespread corruption, failure to demonstrate high levels of safety, and the unresolved waste and decommissioning issues must be of high concern to any potential customer of Rosatom’s on the international market.


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