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Russia and its nuclear industry in 2016

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Vladimir Slivyak ‒ Co-chair of Ecodefense

Although many important events related to the Russian industry and anti-nuclear movement happened in 2016, there was not much publicity. Probably the main reason was state pressure on both the media and public movements – pressure that has escalated for three years in a row. Back in 2014, the Russian government introduced a new version of the so-called "law on foreign agents", the main instrument to put heavy pressure on human rights and environmental movements.

The first environmental group labeled as a foreign agent was Ecodefense for the campaign "to stop construction of the Baltic nuclear power plant near Kaliningrad", according to the Ministry of Justice. This campaign was going on since 2009 until the Russian government halted construction of the plant in 2013. Although the Russian nuclear industry was talking about possible restart of this project in three years' time, it remained frozen in 2016. Ecodefense faced several new court cases based on the "foreign agent law". However, the organization managed to survived in 2016, thanks to the Public Verdict Foundation, a human rights group that sent lawyers to defend Ecodefense in court.

During 2016, dozens of non-governmental groups found themselves on the list of a foreign agents, including several organizations criticizing the nuclear power industry. Some of the groups, including "Green World" in Sankt-Petersburg region, declared they are closing down. Another group – Foundation for Nature, in the city of Chelyabinsk – asked the local court to close it down, which happened in late 2016. In the region of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia (where Rosatom is planning to build a geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel), local activist and journalist Fyodor Maryasov faced a criminal case against him for criticizing nuclear plans.

2017 was declared a "year of environment" by the Russian government, which may be a signal for further repression against environmental groups. There is a general belief among environmentalists that pressure on anti-nuclear activists is good for Rosatom, which is trying to sell as many nuclear reactors as possible worldwide. Criticism of nuclear technology at home may negatively affect Rosatom's export plans.

2016 wasn't very good in this regard with the decisions approved in Vietnam and South Africa. The Vietnamese government said it will not build two Russian reactors in the near future as was agreed earlier with Rosatom. The main reason was the availability of cheaper alternatives to nuclear power. South Africa said it will postpone its nuclear program to the late 2030s. The Russian and South African governments agreed to a large-scale nuclear program in 2014 which included 9.6 GW of new nuclear capacity to be built over a decade. Additionally, a uranium enrichment plant, a research reactor and production of some reactor components were under discussion.

Rosatom's so-called "portfolio" of new reactor orders, worth of around US$120 billion, has been a matter of pride for the state utility for a long time. However critics question how many binding vs. non-binding agreements were included under this number. There is no official estimate in this regard. According to an Ecodefense estimate, binding contracts in this portfolio account for up to 20%.

Radioactive wastes

Management of radioactive wastes was another important direction of activity for Rosatom in 2016. There is up to 500 million tons of wastes stored at various sites across Russia requiring the attention of the corporation. Several public hearings were conducted during the year, including in closed towns such as Ozyorsk and Novouralsk. Ozyorsk is infamous for its nuclear reprocessing facility "Mayak", the site of the largest pre-Chernobyl nuclear accident with the explosion of a tank of high-level radwaste in 1957. Novouralsk is home to a uranium enrichment facility where the European company Urenco was exporting its toxic uranium tails in the 1990s and 2000s.

Closed towns are the legacy of the Soviet nuclear program, places behind barbed wire with military facilities inside. Organizing dumping sites for radioactive wastes in such places, Rosatom excludes the citizens of nearby towns and villages from the process of decision making. People from outside usually can't get inside those closed towns without special permission, which is almost impossible to obtain. By refusing the right to participate in public hearings for people from outside areas, Rosatom creates the ground for future social conflicts as local citizens are usually not willing to live next to a nuclear dump site.

Other important things that deserve to be mentioned include:

  • The accidental dropping of a reactor vessel during transportation to the construction site of a nuclear plant in Ostrovets, Belarus. It's rumored that the vessel will be replaced, and the current one will be used somewhere else.
  • An accident at a VVER-1200 reactor shortly after start-up. This is first unit of that type in operation, and Rosatom is keen to sell them worldwide.
  • At the same Novovoronezh nuclear plant, 500 km south of Moscow, an old VVER-400 reactor was disconnected from the grid forever. Rosatom announced it will make it the example of good decommissioning and then go with this experience for the world market. There are two VVER reactors at this plant shut down and disconnected from the grid in 1984 and 1990. None of them have been decommissioned so far.

Concluding on 2016 events, propaganda by the nuclear industry in Russian media was similar to previous years ‒ great worldwide expansion, radwaste management progressing, "constructive dialogue" with communities going well. The reality is however different. Old reactors are still not decommissioned, radwaste not isolated, safety of new reactors under question, worldwide expansion slowing down. And there is widespread repression against activists, almost allowing the nuclear industry to control criticism. There are even a few environmental groups helping Rosatom with "constructive dialogue" and earning various benefits for that help. No criticism – no problem.

But every house of cards will fall apart, sooner or later. With Russia descending into a deeper and deeper financial crisis, sooner more likely than later.