| Nuclear power is back in vogue
in Russia, with 26 new reactors scheduled for construction by 2030. German
industrial giant Siemens has grabbed a piece of the pie. But safety and
financial concerns threaten to overshadow the country's atomic ambitions.
Olga Kurochkina can hardly hide her delight
at making her German guests squirm. She has just served them caviar and
pirogies and is now triumphantly waving a document in their faces. "Our
students recently debated whether Germany needs nuclear energy," says
Kurochkina, a teacher at an elite Moscow high school. "The arguments,
of course, favor electricity from nuclear energy."
Kurochkina insists that there are "significant
disadvantages" to all other energy sources. Wind turbines? "They produce
infrasound, which causes depression." Solar cells? "They cause local
cooling of the air." (!)
It is hard to believe, but German energy policy
is up for debate in Russian classrooms. The students at Kuochkina's school
pay rapt attention to a multimedia show in which a virtual professor praises
the electricity generated by nuclear power. At the end of the film, a growing
orange tree appears on the screen, symbolizing the growth of the Russian
nuclear industry. The message is clear: Things are going uphill fast.
Nuclear power is back in vogue in Russia,
as if the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had never happened.
The giant country has plans to build 26 new domestic reactors by 2030,
and 20 more abroadMajor
In India and Bulgaria, Russian nuclear engineers
are currently erecting turbine buildings and reactor shells, and there
are plans to build more reactors in China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia
and North Africa. Russia will even start the series production of floating
nuclear power plants designed to desalinate seawater in remote corners
of the earth.
Russia's nuclear renaissance
The Russians are now confident enough to embark
on major nuclear projects, and are doing so under the aegis of a company
called Rosatom. Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom and briefly a prime
minister under former President Boris Yeltsin, is considered one of the
country's most competent managers. This year alone, he has €3.4 billion
($4.6 billion) at his disposal for new nuclear power plants.
He intends to invest about €35 billion
($47 billion) by 2015, of which the government will contribute 40 percent.
Russia's nuclear energy czar is backed by solid political support. Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin, in particular, is an avowed proponent of nuclear
energy. He has announced that 25 to 30% of Russia's electricity will be
generated by nuclear power within 20 years. Today nuclear power satisfies
16% of the country's electricity needs.
Kiriyenko scored his biggest coup to date
in March, when he and Peter Löscher, the CEO of German electronics
giant Siemens, agreed to enter into a "strategic partnership." The two
companies envision the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Russian
enclave of Kaliningrad as their first joint project.
The duo believes that there will be demand
for about 400 nuclear power plants worldwide by 2030. "We want to be
the global market leader," says Kiriyenko, "and one third of the
market is a respectable target." Löscher anticipates "a market
potential of €1 trillion ($1.35 trillion)" and "close cooperation
for many years."
Both sides have high expectations of the deal.
Rosatom wants to benefit from German know-how in the fields of control
technology, steam turbines and generators, and has high hopes for the "psychological"
effect of the joint venture, as Kiriyenko calls it. In other words, nuclear
power plants with a German seal of quality are more marketable. The Russians
also hope to enter new markets. "Latin America, for example, is a traditional
Siemens market," says Kiriyenko.
Siemens, for its part, which only recently
ended a hapless joint venture with the French nuclear power company Areva,
wants the Russians to help it quickly find its way back into the nuclear
power business, an attractive field once again. Besides, an alliance with
Rosatom would provide Siemens customers with reliable access to fuel rods
for decades. Russia has more than 40% of worldwide uranium enrichment capacity.
But will it really work out for the Germans?
The partnership is already stalling before it has even begun. In March,
Löscher announced that the objective was to sign the final contracts
by the end of May. Now officials at Siemens are saying that the contracts
will most definitely be signed by the end of the fiscal year in September.
The difficult negotiations over parting ways with Areva are said to be
the main reason behind the delay.
On the other hand, the Soviet nuclear legacy
could also get in the way of the partnership. Rosatom is struggling with
various problems, including unresolved disposal issues, staffing shortages
and countless breakdowns and accidents. More than a third of the country's
31 nuclear power plants are more than 30 years old.
The many contradictions in the Russian nuclear
industry are in evidence in Sosnovy Bor, on the Gulf of Finland about 80
kilometers (50 miles) west of St. Petersburg. The road to the city passes
through thin pine and birch forests, past sandy hollows and rustic wooden
dachas, under a bright blue sky, to Koporskaya Bay.
A special permit is required to pass through
a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. Sosnovy Bor, with its 68,000
inhabitants, is one of Russia's tightly controlled nuclear cities.
A blue sign labeled LNPP-2 points to the left,
to a roughly 100-hectare (247-acre) construction site, where the first
reactor of the Leningrad 2 nuclear power plant is being built. The reactor
will be one of the modern pressurized water reactors, which made a strong
impression on Siemens engineers. Even Western experts concede that the
VVER-1200, the model being built here, is of the highest quality. The planned
double containment shell around the reactor core is supposedly earthquake-proof
and strong enough to withstand an airplane crash. As with French producer
Areva's competing product, the EPR, if a meltdown occurs, the radioactive
material flows into a collecting tank under the reactor pressure vessel
to cool down.
The Russians can even passively cool down
the reactor core if there is a total power blackout. If that happens, water
from pressurized tanks would extinguish the resulting nuclear fire, which
reaches temperatures of up to 1.200°C (2.192°F). "Western safety
standards are met or even exceeded," says Hannes Wimmer, an expert
with the German technical inspection organization TÜV Süd, which
tested the reactor model for Siemens.
Kiriyenko's team is not as eager to discuss
a group of gray structures standing next to the construction site at Sosnovy
Bor, the red-and-white striped chimneys of the Leningrad 1 nuclear power
plant. They include four reactors of the same model used at Chernobyl,
the RBMK, the oldest of which is 36 years old.
Eleven of these nuclear power plants continue
to generate electricity for Russia today. Although their operators insist
that all plants have now been upgraded, no amount of modern technology
can fully correct the model's basic design flaw: As the temperature rises
in the core of the RBMK, so does reactivity. Unless the reactor is cooled,
conditions can escalate to the point of meltdown.
Twenty Tons of Plutonium
"These reactors pose a danger for the entire
Baltic Sea region," says Oleg Bodrov of the environmental organization
Green World. Bodrov, who once worked in the Russia nuclear industry himself,
has documented dozens of leaks in the Soznovy Bor nuclear reactors.
He believes that an overfilled storage facility
for spent fuel rods contains 20 tons of plutonium. The site lies directly
in the approach path to the St. Petersburg airport. "If a plane crashes
here, it will be a disaster," says Bodrov. And St. Petersburg is downwind
from Soznovy Bor.
But Bodrov's warnings always trigger the same
reaction. "The plants are declared a state secret, and that's that,"
says the 57-year-old environmental activist.
This is precisely what could prove to be the
biggest obstacle to the German-Russian nuclear pact. Glasnost has remained
a foreign word in the industry, in which military and civilian elements
remain tightly interwoven. Secrecy and the resulting corruption are widespread.
When Prime Minister Putin met with Kiriyenko
and other nuclear industry executives at the Kalinin nuclear power plant
in mid-April to discuss the situation, his speech included bitter accusations
about "non-purposeful use" of government funds -- a thinly veiled reference
to embezzlement and waste.
The location of the nuclear meeting was well
chosen. Kalinin is perhaps the most state-of-the-art nuclear power plant
in Russia. A tour of the plant's Reactor 3 offers a fascinating look at
modern nuclear technology. The reactor's one-gigawatt steam turbine sits
in the tower-sized machine building, looking like a fat, yellow bug. A
muffled humming sound suggests the forces that are at work here, where
the power of the atom is literally palpable. The nuclear fire blazes less
than 30 meters (98 feet) away, in a pressure vessel with a diameter of
only four meters (13 feet).
In a small chapel on the eighth floor of the
administrative building, a statue of St. Nicholas keeps watch over the
plant -- apparently with success. "We have had only minor incidents
in the last 10 years," says Igor Bogomolov, a senior engineer at the
plant. Nevertheless, he does have his worries. "We lack specialists,"
he says. "The young, qualified people prefer to stay in the cities and
work for private companies."
World Class Cadres
Western experts are critical of the Russian
nuclear industry's aging workforce and its use of too many poorly trained
guest workers. The Russians recognize these problems, and Putin has promised
money for a "national nuclear energy university." The aim of the new elite
university, which would center around the renowned Moscow Engineering Physics
Institute (MEPhI), would be to train "world-class cadres," says Mikhail
Strikhanov, rector of the MEPhI.
Under the plan for a national nuclear
energy university, Strikhanov would join forces with 23 other institutions,
most of them located at nuclear power plant sites. "We must train the
students in proximity to the plants; otherwise they will not work there,"
Strikhanov explains. Salaries are low, he says, and the nuclear sector's
image is poor. Nevertheless, Strikhanov is confident that the new university
will be capable of training about 2,000 students a year. "However,"
he adds, "it will be far more difficult to build such a large number
of power plants." He has a point. Insiders report that the Atommash
plant in southern Russia, once the country's largest producer of equipment
for nuclear power plants, is currently out of commission. The Ishora plant
near St. Petersburg is hardly capable of producing more than one reactor
a year -- far too little to satisfy Russian ambitions.
Critics also question whether the country
can even afford a nuclear renaissance. "A nuclear reactor costs €5
billion ($6.75 billion) today, but Rosatom is calculating with a sum equal
to less than half that amount," says Alexander Nikitin of Bellona,
a Norwegian environmental organization. "And now the financial crisis
has been added to the mix."
Even Vladimir Generalov, director of the government's
nuclear power plant development office, Atomenergoprojekt, concedes, "whether
entirely new projects will be pushed depends on the worldwide economic
situation." According to Generalov, the demand for electricity will
decline. "It is hard to say how many reactors will end up going into
operation." However, Generalov believes that at least 10 nuclear power
plants will be built.
No Permanent Storage Sites
Rosatom has even more worries. For one, the
cost of storing about 20,000 tons of spent fuel rods weighs heavily on
the budget. There are no permanent storage sites. Instead, Rostatom has
a stunning concept on hand for the waste. "Waste? But it isn't waste,"
says Rostatom spokesman Sergei Novikov. "We leave the material where
it is, until it becomes usable in a few decades."
The Russians still dream of a plutonium economy.
They are among the last countries worldwide that still operate fast breeder
reactors, which produce, at least in theory, more nuclear fuel than they
consume. In principle, they could recycle spent fuel rods from conventional
The world's biggest commercial plant of this
type operates in Beloyarsk in the Ural Mountains region, where a second,
larger breeder reactor is under construction. But no one is about to win
accolades for the plants. Despite decades of research, all attempts to
operate breeder reactors at a profit have failed. Besides, the technology
is considered to be especially risky.
Another project that has critics up in arms
is the construction of floating nuclear power plants. As recently as late
April, nuclear energy czar Kiriyenko was strolling cheerfully through the
production buildings at the Baltiiski Shipyard in St. Petersburg. At a
ceremony there, he pressed a button to launch the construction of a 144
meter (472 foot) long model plant slated for completion in 2011.
Critics also fear that the floating power
plants, each equipped with two 35-megawatt reactors, constitute a significant
proliferation risk. The specialty reactors burn particularly highly-enriched
uranium. "How you do want to prevent terrorists from boarding the ships
and simply weighing anchor?" asks Vladimir Kuznezov, a former nuclear
inspector and current critic of Rosatom. "We can't even stop Somali
More Embarrassed than Amused
Given these obstacles, how then can Kiriyenko's
team build confidence in Russian nuclear technology among nuclear power
Bizarre image campaigns, such as last year's
"Miss Atom" contest, are more humorous than effective. In the campaign,
attractive female employees at nuclear power plants, the nuclear symbol
dangling in front of their beautiful bodies, entered a beauty competition.
And when Kiriyenko candidly reported in Kalinin that he taken a dip in
the lake into which the plant's cooling water is fed, his audience was
more embarrassed than amused.
Only transparency and reliability can make
Russia a full-fledged partner of Siemens. In the past, too many plans never
made it off the drawing board. In 1992, for example, the Russians planned
to build 26 domestic reactors. A grand total of three have been completed
The Russians also have some catching up to
do when it comes to technology. Kiriyenko's nuclear power plant salesmen
are proud to take new customers on tours of a Russian-built nuclear power
plant in the Chinese city of Tianwan. However, the plant's operators complain
that it can only be run at full capacity just over 80 percent of the time.
This complaint was probably one of the reasons a contract to build another
nuclear power plant in the coastal Zhejiang Province was awarded to a competitor,
US nuclear power plant producer Westinghouse.
Nevertheless, optimism still prevails at Siemens
headquarters. The Russian government plans to subsidize the nuclear industry
with about €15 billion ($20 billion) by 2015. In the event of a joint
venture, the money would also benefit the Germans. Besides, public criticism
is hardly to be expected in Russia, where there is no anti-nuclear movement.
And the press has been more or less forced to toe the pro-nuclear line.
The Siemens executives even choose to ignore
an image problem of Russian technology. "I have no doubt that Russia
will satisfy our quality standards," says Wolfgang Dehen, the head
of the energy sector at Siemens. "Chernobyl,
after all, is more than 20 years in the past."
By Philip Bethge, Dinah Deckstein, Wladimir Pyljow and Matthias Schepp
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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