Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How safe are the Russian civilian nuclear reactors?

How safe are the Russian civilian nuclear reactors?

The Russian state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom has an all-in-one bargain package for third-world countries seeking to build nuclear power plants. It is known as BOO—“build, own, [and] operate” power plants for 60 years or BOOT—the T being for “transfer.” Under one of these models, Rosatom will build a two-unit power plant with VVER-1000 model reactors at Rooppur. These water-cooled, water-moderated, pressurized water reactors were first introduced in the 1980s and are now operating mostly in Russia and former Soviet Republics.
Several articles have been published expressing deep concern and raising questions about the wisdom of building a power plant in a densely populated deltaic country prone to severe flooding and natural disasters. While reactors are designed to be safe both during operation and in the event of any malfunction or accident, no industrial activity can be certified as 100 percent risk-free. Examples are the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), at Chernobyl (1986), and at Fukushima (2011).
In January of this year, power plants at Beloyarsk, Kola, Kursk, Rostov, and Kalinin had emergency shutdowns (scrams), emergency repairs, and power reductions. The cause of the incidents has been documented by Rosatom and Rosenergoatom Concern, a Russian company that deals with the construction, operation, and decommissioning of reactors. They are summarized below:
Beloyarsk: In order to remedy a number of abnormal findings regarding the functioning of the equipment, the plant operated at 76 percent output for three months.
Kola: There was a scram of Unit 1 (VVER-440) following a transformer failure.
Kursk: An increase in moisture was detected in the RBMK-1000 reactor in Unit 3. It was shut down for unplanned repairs.
Rostov: After just 2 years in operation, a VVER-1000 reactor at Unit 2 “experienced glitches of one sort or another.” The generator underwent a power cut “with subsequent power shedding at the Unit.”
Kalinin: There was trouble with the turbogenerator that led to a reactor scram. “Activation of the automatic protection system occurred due to a disconnection of the generator from the grid.”
These incidents involving VVER and RBMK model reactors do not speak well for Russian-built reactors. They clearly demonstrate that unscheduled shutdowns and/or repairs are common occurrences. Fortunately, none resulted in any significant release of radiation. But they do serve as a precursor to more serious accidents that could happen in the future.
The question to ask now is: Are Russian reactors really safe? The answer is an emphatic NO. Russian reactors are beset with numerous safety related issues.
According to a 2011 report written by Rosatom, the agency that will build the reactors at Rooppur, inspections of plants near Finland have revealed numerous serious shortcomings concerning the safety of the Russian reactors. The shockingly candid report was prepared for then-President Dimitry Medvedev as part of the safety study of Russian reactors done after the nuclear accident at Fukushima in March of 2011. It was acquired by the Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO based in Oslo, Norway and leaked to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
The Rosatom report notes that the Russian plants are woefully under-prepared for both natural and man-made disasters. It also warns of the plants’ inadequate reserve cooling systems. In addition, the report expressed serious reservations about the reactors’ capability of remaining safe for extended periods of time if cooling systems fail. Should this happen, there is no guarantee that the power backup systems will be effective.
These reports are a damning indictment of the Russian reactor industry, contrary to Russia’s rosy assessment that its reactors are safe.
The Fukushima nuclear accidents in 2011 have completely changed the nuclear landscape. In the aftermath of the accidents, many nuclear nations decided to phase out their power plants in the next 10 to 20 years. United States cancelled most of the power plants planned for the future after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979; the rest were scrapped following the Fukushima events. Research in American and European laboratories is now underway to determine if nuclear reactors based on the fusion process that powers the Sun can be developed for generation of energy to power our future.
Why then, would Bangladesh want to build nuclear power plants when many industrialized nations are shying away? Is the government aware that with a population density of about 3000 per square mile, a nuclear power plant is going to put the citizens in grievous harm’s way?
As per the Bellona Foundation’s paper, “The Economics of the Russian Nuclear Power Industry,” the Russian nuclear industry operates in an environment fraught with corruption. Could it, therefore, be a case of Russia exporting unsafe reactors to Bangladesh to make questionable profit under the pretext of BOO or BOOT?
The Russians have the technology, resources, know-how, and experience to handle nuclear accidents in their own backyard. Bangladesh doesn’t. Apart from the immediate damage that will be caused, the effects of nuclear accidents in Bangladesh resulting from technical failure, human error, or malevolence, no matter how small, would be vast and beyond the imagination of most of us. The radiation released would continue to affect the citizens all over the country and particularly those living around Rooppur for tens of thousands of years. Only those who cherish delusions about the nuclear future will deny the risks of nuclear fission’s destructive power.
There can be no greater or more frightening burden for the people to bear than a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head. Not only must they live in continual fear that nuclear reactors may get out of control in their lifetime, but also with the shadow of radiation poisoning looming over their long-term future.

The writer is Professor in the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, Fordham University, New York.

  • subterraneo

    While the risks are enormous, there are rigorous safety precautions available too. This article points out the automatic safety features used during the specified shutdowns. Of course, nothing guarantees perfect safety, so we need to look at statistics for assessment. Before the recent Japanese disaster brought about by the impact of a large earthquake, the last nuclear radiation release occurred in 1986. There has not been any other accident between 1986 and 2011, indicating safety improvements (within the scope of statistics). The overbearing threat posed by a nuclear plant is a meltdown or radiation leak. The problems with Russian reactors described in the article do not actually correspond to radiation leaks, although some could potentially have produced them in the absence of safety features.

    That being said, we need to exercise vigilance in constructing the power plants, making sure that the terrain is relatively stable (resistant to earthquake tremors), that the construction materials are not compromised (heavy lead shielding is used) and that the system is carefully planned (taking into account safety features and disposal of radioactive waste). Does anybody know if we have local experts (from Atomic Energy Commission?) involved in the implementation, or are we entirely dependent on foreign experts? It would be judicious to have the facilities examined by a third-party before commencing operation.

    Nuclear fusion is still some distance away from civilian energy production. Fusion bombs (which are actually triggered by initial fission reactions) were developed at least 50 years ago. Yet, power plants are still unable to function on fusion reactions.

    Bangladesh is at a critical juncture economically, set to ascend out of poverty in a decade. Undoubtedly, electricity is required adequately. Natural gas reserves are declining and oil import is not going to get cheaper in the near future. In this regard, a nuclear plant with a capacity of 1000 MW (about 10% of demand in 2017) is economically feasible for sustained operation, since it only requires kilograms of uranium as fuel (compared to mega tons of oil or coal for equivalent energy production). Not only do we get to save foreign currency on oil imports (which will keep inflation low, provided that the agricultural outputs remain high), we also get to keep our living standard tolerable by cutting down load-shedding using a source that is relatively unaffected by global economic conditions (price of uranium does not change with economic conditions of the world, unlike price of oil). Furthermore, the stable supply of electricity might convince multinational companies to setup manufacturing plants in the country, allowing another significant revenue generator besides the garment industry.

    In summary, we need a lot of electricity to make such rosy dreams come true. That is why we are willing to take the risk of establishing a nuclear power plant in our small, densely populated country.

    • Sam Jahan

      Dear Reader,

      Please try to keep your comment(s) concise.


  • abu hanif

    So, how will we solve our electricity problem?