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Russian government appoints new head of Rosatom

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Vladimir Slivyak ‒ deputy chair of Ecodefence

After 10 years as head of Rosatom, Sergey Kirienko is now deputy head of Russia's Presidential Administration. What will he bring to the job?

In 2005, when Kirienko was put in charge of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (renamed Rosatom in 2007), he'd never had any experience of the nuclear power sector.

Later to make headlines as Russia's youngest prime minister, Kirienko's political career began in 1997, when he became deputy minister of fuel and energy. In 1998, he served as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin for several months before resigning over the financial crisis that led to the devaluing of the rouble and Russia defaulting on its debts. Now Kirienko is once again at the hub of power, looking after internal political matters.

Kirienko's successor at Rosatom is Alexei Likhachev, Russia's first deputy minister of economic development since 2010. Likhachev would seem to be a natural choice for the job ‒ he was born in Arzamas-16, now Sarov, the Russian centre for nuclear research and still a closed city.

Likhachev has known Kirienko for many years and was probably recommended by him. His work at the ministry of economic development centred on international relations, and he took part in negotiations on Russia's membership of the World Trade Organisation in 2010 ‒ useful experience at a time when building nuclear power plants in other countries is Rosatom's main priority.

Information and secrecy

News of these two appointments came out rather oddly. Prior to September 24, when RBC broke the story of Kirienko's appointment, there had been no rumours at all about Kirienko's move, and another two weeks passed before he was officially given his new job.

During that time speculation mounted about his successor at Rosatom, and it was not a question of specific names, but of where he or she might come from ‒ the FSB, the nuclear industry, the presidential administration. But all these rumours turned out to be groundless.

This fact illustrates the effectiveness of Kirienko's PR team: all of Rosatom's information channels are hermetically sealed, and if any important news appears, it is only by the grace of the residents of the agency's enormous headquarters building on Moscow's Bolshaya Ordynka street. There has been the odd information leak, but usually involving foreign media, which Rosatom has little control over.

The way Kirienko's appointment has developed as a story demonstrates the level of openness, or rather lack of it, which Kirienko's team has created in recent years. If a major accident had occurred at a nuclear power plant in Russia during Kirienko's time at Rosatom, it is unlikely that anyone would have heard about it for some time. Instead, there would have been a scenario reminiscent of 1986, when the Soviet government tried to hush up the scale of the Chernobyl disaster for as long as possible.

This lack of transparency is dangerous precisely because in the case of another nuclear accident, it could be a matter of life and death. And this is not a question of official secrets or nuclear weapons. Rosatom is funded by Russia's taxpayers and has to be accountable to them.

Paper power plants

Kirienko's legacy at Rosatom is a separate issue. Given this recent appointment, he is, it seems, highly regarded by the Kremlin.

There may have been two to three times fewer nuclear power plants built on his watch than were planned. There may have been plenty of corruption scandals involving the arrest of senior staff, including Kirienko's deputies, on embezzlement charges. But the corporation's "portfolio" for power plants to be built abroad is worth an astronomical US$100 billion (€91bn). And for the Kremlin, which periodically uses energy supply threats to put pressure on countries it is displeased with, nuclear power is not just a question of prestige and money.

To assess Kirienko's effectiveness as a manager, however, we need to look inside Rosatom's commission portfolio. These "orders" are not contracts specifying delivery dates, costs and a clear timescale for loan repayments (in most cases the money lent by Russia for power plant construction comes with a repayment date). Eighty to ninety per cent of these reported arrangements are agreements in principle that are vague on details, and in the overwhelming majority of cases the contracts aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Russian media frequently give the impression that Rosatom is building reactors all over the world. It is true that there have been orders from over 20 countries, but they are actually being built in only three places ‒ China, India and Belarus. And in the case of the first two, international cooperation began long before Kirienko joined the nuclear energy sector.

So it is clear that Kirienko's team has been excellent at drawing up and signing non-binding nuclear agreements, and providing an information blockade for the industry. Actually building nuclear plants seems to be beyond them.

The situation in Russia itself is quite different. It has 35 working reactors, which supply around 18% of its energy needs.

Two thirds of these reactors are pretty old and will need to be prepared for decommissioning in the near future. There is as yet no tried and tested technology for doing this, and decommissioning and dismantling will be costly.

This will very probably be a key issue for Likhachev, who faces an unenviable task if he plans to stay at Rosatom for any length of time. He is unlikely to achieve the economic indicators achieved by his predecessor. But Kirienko had unlimited access to public funds, whereas Likhachev may need to start decommissioning reactors, which not only doesn't bring in any money, but involves astronomical costs.

With Russia's "crisis" in full swing, Likhachev can only dream of getting the same generous funding as Kirienko.

Making friends with the environmentalists (for a while)

But this isn't Kirienko's only legacy. His PR team worked not only with Russia's journalists, but environmental organizations, too. For Rosatom, criticism of nuclear energy on environmental grounds is a serious risk factor, especially on the international level. When Rosatom was in the process of being set up, the agency's head would send deputations to us at Ecodefence to ask for our "help", promising they would find a way to "thank us". Our organization refused, but there were those that didn't.

These organizations were paid pretty well for their "loyalty". Rosatom's public council would regularly donate cash to NGOs. The list of groups receiving financial help was initially published on a special website, until the council decided not to give out any information about its beneficiaries. Rosatom's most valuable and loyal partners were even awarded medals.

These organizations are evidently invisible to Russia's ministry of justice, which has been trying to force Russian NGOs to register as "foreign agents" for over two years now. Almost every group that has ever criticised the corporation has been added to the register.

It is symbolic, for instance, that my organisation Ecodefence was the first environmental organization to be registered as a "foreign agent". We were officially accused by the justice ministry of "campaigning against the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant" in Kaliningrad. Work on this new plant began in 2009, but was put on ice in 2013, a month after activists published letters from several European banks refusing to finance the project.

Russian media tell us that Kirienko and his PR team are off to the Kremlin to prepare Putin's next election campaign. Looking at Kirienko's 11 years as head of Russia's nuclear power industry, we can say that in terms of spending and achievements on paper, Rosatom's former head has few equals. Kirienko's team are experts at working with the media, putting pressure on dissenters and forging loyalty.

More information: 'Russia's Ecodefense ignores Russian foreign agent law, refuses to pay fines',