Problems Plague Russia’s Nuclear Power Ambitions

"The Russian Nuclear Industry: Status and Prospects," a February report from a Canadian-based think tank, Centre for International Governance Innovation, examines a revival of Russia’s Soviet-era plans for a massive nuclear expansion within the current state of the country’s nuclear power industry. It concludes that although the industry has been greeted with renewed funding and enthusiasm, achieving its ambitious plans will require the federation to overcome considerable problems and limitations.

"Continuing a tendency from Soviet-era days, the Russian government has shown a predilection for developing grandiose plans for the expansion of the nuclear energy sector that are not fulfilled," writes the report’s author, Miles Pomper. "While the first post-Soviet nuclear plans called for a total of 38 new nuclear reactors to be built, only three have actually been constructed and with capabilities that are not superior or even equal to its Western competitors."

Russia currently has 31 reactors operating at 10 locations. These together produce 23 GW, or about 16% of the country’s power needs. According to Pomper, the federation’s revived interest in nuclear power was inspired less by climate change concerns and more by the country’s increase in energy demand of about 5% a year, including natural gas consumption. With state-operated Gazprom cutting back on the percentage of gas used for domestic consumption (it can make five times as much in exports to Europe) the Kremlin hopes that nuclear energy can fill this gap. The author also notes that Russia’s electrical generating capacity is antiquated, with more than a quarter (50 GW) coming to the end of its design life by 2010, including a substantial proportion of Russian first- and second-generation nuclear reactors.

Immediate plans call for the completion of several plants that have been stalled for decades. Currently, Russia expects Rosenergoatom’s second VVER-1000 reactor at Volgodonsk, in Rostov, to come online by 2010 (Figure 3). Concrete foundation has also been poured for two new reactors at Novovoronezh as well as for a new reactor near St. Petersburg. Work is also under way to complete the long-stalled reactor Kalinin 4, while funds have been pledged for the Belayarsk-4 (or BN-800, a fast breeder reactor), which is to begin construction in 2012. Meanwhile, the federation is working to complete the world’s first floating nuclear power plant by mid-2011.

Figure 3. Atomic aspiration. Russian nuclear generator Rosenergoatom is completing construction of a second VVER-1000 reactor at Volgodonsk, in Rostov, that was started in 1983. In February, the company started testing of the active and passive safety systems.According to an optimistic scenario, the reactor will be online by the end of this year. But by government’s own admission, “since the project has been carried out since 1999 and some equipment has been standing idle at the construction site for a long period, it may need some additional check-up and testing.” Completion is now expected by 2010. Courtesy:Rosenergoatom

The author examines Russia’s plans to recombine the nuclear complex into one entity in order to centralize control, promote investment in profit-generating projects, and attempt to make the industry self-supporting by 2015. He argues that financial resources and technical capabilities will stand in the way of the country meeting its goals of both rapidly developing new reactors and fostering a fully self-sustaining nuclear industry by 2015, especially if Russia will have to decommission many of its aging Soviet-era nuclear reactors and deal with the growing problem of nuclear waste.

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