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Russia: Nuclear Power Plans Move Forward

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In spite of continued concern over the safety of nuclear power, Russia is planning several new nuclear projects.

The 1999 draft budget earmarks about 2,600 million rubles to be spent by the year 2005 on finishing reactors at the Kyaltin and Kursk nuclear power plants and continuing construction at the Rostov and Yuzhno-Ural nuclear plants. Russia this year also unveiled plans to build a new plant at Sosnovy Bor, near Saint Petersburg.

The plant is expected to be used for more than just the production of electricity. It is also to be used in the decommissioning of old nuclear-submarine reactors now left unused in Russia's part of the Arctic Sea.

To meet energy needs in the remote north, Russia also is proposing to build 15 floating nuclear power plants that would be installed on medium-sized vessels. These would then be towed to about 50 sites around the Arctic where energy is needed.

Russia remains the biggest producer of nuclear power among the four former Soviet republics with operating plants.

Last year, its 29 nuclear reactors generated more than 11 percent of the country's power, according to Minatom, the nuclear energy ministry. Certain regions of the country are heavily dependent on nuclear power. The Leningrad, Kola and Smolensk nuclear power plants supply about half of the electricity to northwest Russia. About a third of central Russia's power is nuclear generated.

But concern over the waste in the Arctic, plus lingering doubt over the safety of nuclear power following the 1986 accident at Chornobyl in Ukraine, has many Russians wary about new nuclear power plant construction.

In December 1996, residents of the Kostroma region 300 kms northeast of Moscow voted against construction of a nuclear plant near the town of Kostroma. The plant was opposed by almost 90 percent of the population.

Since last year's economic collapse, Russia has been further strapped for funds to upgrade plant safety and dispose of waste properly.

To run the industry more efficiently, Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov has proposed uniting all the ministry's enterprises into a new state-owned company to be called Atomprom.

Andrei Zobov, a senior expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, suggests the Atomprom idea has the blessing of First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, in charge of nuclear matters, who favors binding key industrial branches under state control, in a bid to revive the economy.

Zobov spoke with RFE/RL:

"[Maslykov's] vision as I see it was to create very strong companies, or rather corporations in Russia assembling under one roof, under one organization, assembling all enterprises in the critically important industries, one of which is the nuclear industry."

Zobov says the move is both politically and economically motivated:

"Both motives are relevant and valid: state control plus the financial revival [of the nuclear sector]."

Russia has also unveiled a controversial plan to reprocess spent fuel from countries outside the former Communist bloc to raise cash. Under the plan, any profit from reprocessing waste would be used to clean up plants and improve safety. The price for reprocessing would be significantly less than that charged by French and British companies, which handle most of the reprocessing in Western Europe.

Environmentalists are skeptical. They say they suspect Russia will use the reprocessing proceeds to complete the RT-2 reprocessing plant in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.

They are also concerned that accepting foreign waste will only add to the backlog of untreated material that has built up at Russia's reprocessing plants.

Atomic Energy Minister Adamov has vowed to aggressively pursue contracts abroad for the nuclear industry. The government is committed to finishing two reactors in Iran and two reactors in China and has renewed an agreement with India to build two reactors there.

Western governments, in particular the United States, have expressed concerns that Russian assistance, especially to Iran, could aid the countries in developing nuclear arsenals. Some Russian commentators say the statements of concern are part of an effort to shut Moscow out of the nuclear power game.

(This is the second of six features from NCA on the status of the nuclear power industry in several nations, East and West.)