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The peaceful atom will lead Russia down a blind alley

The peaceful atom will lead Russia down a blind alley

07.04.2011 — Analysis

The accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant in Japan dealt a massive blow worldwide to atomic energy's reputation. Many countries are ready to close their operating reactors and are eschewing the construction of new ones. Russia stands as a stark exception to this trend. The tragedy in Japan has not shaken the faith of the Russian government in the power of the peaceful atom. As currently envisioned, our nuclear capacity will be increased by 26 new reactors by 2030. "RusBusinessNews" questioned experts about Rosenergoatom's plan and found them to be quite uneasy about this prospect, to put it mildly. These experts believe that this increased nuclear capacity is not only a threat to the country's security, it also runs counter to basic economic logic.

The Fukushima syndrome

The tragedy in Japan has once again raised doubts about peaceful nuclear energy and has rattled the entire planet. Reaction has been strongest in Europe, where about 150 nuclear reactors are operating (more than a third of all the reactors in the world). Immediately after the explosion at Fukushima-1, Europeans took to the streets demanding an end to the use of atomic energy, and their governments heeded their pleas. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the temporary closure of all nuclear power plants built before 1980. Switzerland and France decided to make changes to their nuclear plans. The Fukushima syndrome also affected the US and a number of Asian countries, particularly Thailand. 

But Russia took a different stance. The country's officials said they do not intend to abandon plans to increase the country's nuclear capacity. In addition, some projects will be completed ahead of schedule. Rosenergoatom intends for the percentage of electricity produced through nuclear fission to increase from 16 to 25% in 20 years, by building 26 new reactors. 

The only concession the Russian government made to the Japanese tragedy was to conduct stress tests on nuclear power plants (to check fire and radiation safety and seismic stability). The results of these tests will be known in a few months.

The devastating atom

Rosenergoatom's ambitious plans include the construction of the South Urals nuclear power plant (the Chelyabinsk region) and the erection of the BN-800 fast neutron reactor at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant (the Sverdlovsk region). Once these reactors are operating, the major industrial regions of the Urals will be flush with electricity. In addition, the BN-800, scheduled to launch in five years, will open new horizons for Russia in the nuclear industry. The new unit will use uranium-plutonium fuel (MOX) and will be more reliable than its "slower" counterparts.

Experts are less optimistic than those in the nuclear-energy industry. They point out that every argument made by the proponents of the new nuclear facilities in the Urals and other regions of Russia runs contrary to the facts, scientific logic, and common sense.

According to Aleksei Yablokov, a well-known Russian environmentalist, nuclear power plants are not a panacea for electricity-guzzling industrial sites. A state regional power plant or a thermal power station can accomplish the same things. For example, the Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk regions can borrow megawatts from neighbors in the Tyumen region, Ugra, and Yamal who are willing to donate electricity. Those regions currently produce almost twice as much electricity as they consume. Opening a few gas-production facilities in the northern part of the Urals federal district would allow them to contribute additional capacity to the energy system, and this would completely eliminate the electricity shortage in the Urals. 

Incidentally, the Russian government suggested this very course of action in the late 1990's. The introduction of a second 800-kilowatt unit at the Nizhnevartovsky state regional power plant would guarantee the provision of 20 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to the Urals and would cover the current shortage there. The construction of this unit is estimated to be ten times cheaper than building a similar facility at a nuclear power plant. But the Ministry of Nuclear Energy has ignored this proposal from the Urals. 

This comparison of construction costs for power-generating units refutes the primary assertions made by the nuclear industry about cheap "atomic" kilowatt-hours. And it's true that it is quite difficult to compare the costs of electricity produced in different ways. Any differences in these costs are evened out on the wholesale electricity market, where an average price is created. According to Elizaveta Samyshkina, the head of the economic forecasting department at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, "atomic" kilowatt-hours are cheaper than those produced by coal, according to rough estimates, but are more expensive than electricity generated by hydroelectric plants. But in the contest for the most expensive power, nuclear generators beat thermal power stations and state regional power plants hands down.

Experts believe that the nuclear-energy industry isn't being completely forthcoming. Atomic energy is by definition extremely expensive. "Energy from uranium is very expensive, and in one way or another, it is fully subsidized by taxpayers. The lion's share of the costs come from decommissioning a power plant (50-100% of the cost of construction), and from storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. Only a tiny portion of the real costs are reflected in the fees and the investment component," - Aleksei Toropov, director of the Siberian Environmental Agency, told "RusBusinessNews". 

A ticking time bomb

But the biggest misconception that Rosenergoatom is trying to pass off as truth is the idea that nuclear power plants are safe. The accident at Fukushima-1 is testament to that. Energy from plutonium energy, which is being actively developed in the Urals, poses big threats to the public and the environment. Fast neutron reactors (breeder reactors) work by "reproducing" and reusing plutonium. But, according to Aleksei Toropov, first the newly-created plutonium has to be reprocessed using radiochemical methods, which is considered to be the "dirtiest" part of the nuclear fuel cycle. Liquid radioactive waste is produced during this reprocessing.

The rest of the world backed away from the construction of breeder reactors long ago, although breeder reactor projects were at one time planned in the US, Germany, and Japan. The famous Phénix breeder reactor in France was shut down after ten years because of various malfunctions. Then it was once again put into operation, but finally "disarmed" in 2009. The second Superphénix breeder reactor was intended only for research. By the way, the French reactors were from the very start clothed in reinforced concrete, while the equipment at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant is still "naked".

In addition, although the Urals is not considered to be a seismically active area, scientists cannot rule out the possibility of an earthquake. According to Vladimir Pisetsky, a professor at Ural State Mining University, the Gagarin mine, two kilometers from the Beloyarsk plant, is located in a high-risk zone. "Most experts believe that a man-made earthquake in this area is quite likely. But no one knows exactly when one might occur. And this could affect some auxiliary elements of the nuclear power plant," - claimed the scientist.

It's easy to imagine the potential consequences of a radiation accident in the town of Zarechny, where the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant is located. And Ekaterinburg, with a population of over one million, is only 40 kilometers away. 

Rosenergoatom's intentions...

Thus, opponents of nuclear power plants argue that there are no compelling arguments for the further development of nuclear energy. But they do not believe that Russia will forgo it. Aleksei Yablokov notes that the country has a powerful "atomic" lobby that defends the interests of a nuclear industry that dates back to the Soviet era, as well as the interests of foreign corporations.

"The corporate interests of various organizations, primarily Rosenergoatom, are furthering this desire to develop nuclear energy. The funds to build nuclear power plants have already been pledged and need to be used. Extra money for additional safety inspections of nuclear power plants has now been allocated, but it not known how this money will be spent. But for now, Russia's nuclear lobby is still strong. Rosenergoatom and Mr. Kirienko personally are trying to convince the public of the ‘purity' of their intentions," - claims Igor Yushkov, an expert with the National Foundation for Energy Safety.

Experts see gas energy as an alternative to nuclear power in Russia. These experts are still cautious about advocating for renewable energy - and in any case, it will be many years before the generation of renewable energy can be implemented. By the way, it's a myth that nuclear power will be able to bail the country out when our oil and gas reserves are used up. According to data from independent experts, Russia has enough gas to provide for almost 200 years of robust domestic consumption and export abroad, but only 90 years' worth of uranium. 

Marina Sirina, Vladimir Terletsky

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