Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 28 Nov 97 16:27:06 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Russian Nuclear Power Crisis Threatens New Chernobyl
Article: 22939

/** headlines: 170.0 **/
** Topic: Russian Nuclear Power Crisis—Threatens New Chernobyl **
** Written 7:34 PM Nov 27, 1997 by econet in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 7:34 PM Nov 24, 1997 by austgreen@glas.UUCP in env.cis */
/* ————— “Russian nuclear power” ————— */

From: ( )

Russian nuclear power crisis ‘threatens new Chernobyl’

By Renfrey Clarke, ausgreen@glas.UUCP, 27 November 1997

MOSCOW—In the first decade of the next century, a series of reactor blocs at Russian nuclear power plants will reach the end of their designed service life. Government officials will then have to choose between two grim options.

Should the nuclear facilities be decommissioned, condemning big sections of Russian industry to crippling power shortages? Or should the leaky, metal-fatigued reactors be patched up and kept going, while the number of accidents rises exponentially?

This choice looks like being the no-win outcome of the continued backing which Russian energy officials have given the nuclear variant. The country's energy plans for the period to 2010 rest heavily on new nuclear plants. But with state budget outlays for capital works now close to zero, few of the targets for the development of nuclear power in Russia are being met.

“Out of some 10 trillion rubles [about US$1.7 billion] needed for this work, the sector has received only one trillion,” journalist Aleksey Chadaev reported in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on November 20.

Meanwhile, the expiry dates on the existing reactors are looming steadily closer. “At the Bilibino nuclear power plant the term of operation of all the now functioning reactors will run out by 2006,” Chadaev's article explained. “A dangerous situation is also developing at the Kursk, Leningrad and Novovoronezhsk plants. “In eight to ten years we will be faced with a choice: either an energy crisis because we have not managed to bring new reactors into operation, or keeping old, worn-out reactors functioning. “Then the crisis will be far more terrifying, involving the threat of a new Chernobyl.”

With its nine plants, the Russian nuclear power industry provides about 17 per cent of the country's electricity. As well as seeing its state allocations shrivel, it has also been among the main victims of the Russian economy's general crisis of inter-enterprise payments.

Electricity bills are usually among the last to be paid by Russian factories, and the payments are rarely in the form of “living money”. Chadaev states that almost all payments are now in the form of promissory notes. To obtain cash, these must be sold on the “grey” market, where they trade for 30-50 per cent of their face value.

One of the results is that wages in nuclear plants have often been paid months late. In July several hundred workers from the Smolensk plant south-west of Moscow staged a march on the Russian capital, forcing the government to pay their arrears.

Since the protest actions of last summer, the government has pledged to keep the wages of nuclear power employees up to date. But wage arrears have been only one of the complaints of nuclear workers.

“Because of the difficult financial position at Russian nuclear power plants, preventive repairs to reactors are being delayed,” Russian nuclear inspectorate chief Yury Vishnevsky observed in July.

In these circumstances, Russians should perhaps be grateful for another consequence of the drying-up of funds for nuclear power plants. On a number of occasions in recent months, plants have been forced to run at reduced capacity due to their inability to buy nuclear fuel.

Described by Greenpeace Russia spokesperson Eduard Gismatullin as “a beast struggling against its own extinction,” Russia's nuclear power industry has sought to survive by throwing many of its depleted resources into finishing a number of projects that were close to completion when the flow of state funds began to be cut. “Several reactors at the Kursk, Rostov, Smolensk and Tver plants, which are to be put into operation in the near future, are almost 80 per cent complete,” the newspaper Finansovye Izvestiya reported in September. This work has gone ahead even while safety levels at existing plants have been allowed to slip.

However, a nuclear answer to the “energy gap” predicted by Chadaev will be impossible unless foreign capital pours in to pay for much greater volumes of construction.

The European Union is currently helping finance new safety provisions at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, where there are four Chernobyl-type RBMK-1000 reactors. Major western power- engineering corporations have also shown interest in upgrading other Russian nuclear plants.

But financing massive new construction of nuclear power facilities in Russia is a gamble unlikely to have much appeal for Western investors. And this is just as well, since the logical way round Russia's looming energy crisis has nothing to do with nuclear power.

Following a two-year study, the Berlin-based Oko Institute of Applied Ecology last June released a detailed report on energy usage in north-west Russia. This study included the first cost- benefit analysis of the region's nuclear industry to be conducted by a major European institution.

The Oko Institute concluded that upgrades of existing hydroelectric and gas or oil-fired plants would produce 25 per cent more electricity for about one-fifth of the cost of continued use of the region's nuclear reactors.

It is unlikely that broader studies of Russia's energy industry would yield markedly different results. The lessons seem ironclad: if Russian leaders want to avoid a grave escalation of the nuclear peril, they will start winding down the nuclear power industry immediately, and will redirect investment toward energy- saving and toward upgrades of hydro and thermal generating capacity.

Supporters of such a strategy, however, are confronted by powerful corporate and institutional interests with top-level allies in the provincial and federal ruling elites. The difficulties of battling the pro-nuclear complex are shown by the experience of the radical environmental group, the Rainbow Keepers.

For several years the Rainbow Keepers have joined with local activists to fight plans to complete the Rostov nuclear power plant in southern Russia. Throughout much of last summer, the Rainbow Keepers mounted a protest camp outside the construction site, near the city of Volgodonsk. On at least one occasion, protesters were savagely beaten by thugs who emerged from the plant premises.

The struggle has now shifted to the provincial capital, Rostov- on-Don, and to efforts to force a province-wide referendum on whether the plant should go into operation. The target date for such a referendum is April or May next year, following elections to the provincial legislature in March.

“We are now making all efforts to force the candidates to commit themselves on the subject of the nuclear plant,” a Rainbow Keepers press release stated early in November, “and they are being forced to come out against it.”

A recent federal law states that a referendum must be held if 2 per cent of electors sign a petition demanding it. The electoral legislation in Rostov Province, however, sets a daunting figure of 10 per cent. To remove this obstacle, anti-nuclear campaigners are considering mounting a court challenge.