Fighting the nuclear threat in central Europe

Issue 

Earlier this year, JOHN HALLAM was involved with Polski Klub Ecologiczny (the largest environmental organisation in Poland, and a member group of Friends of the Earth International) in a campaign to stop the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) from financing the completion of two Soviet-designed nuclear plants in Slovakia. Here he reports on the effort.

My involvement started when Mishka, who is Polish, and I toured Poland and Czechoslovakia together. In our travels, we spoke to activists from the Green Federation and the Green Foundation, the Council for All beings, and Tomasz Terlecki at Polski Klub Ecologiczny, in Cracow.

Tomasz gave me a fat file of material about a nuclear reactor in Slovakia called "Mochovce". We then spent a week with Hnuti Duha in the Czech Republic. Hnuti Duha, also part of FOE International, is a radical grassroots group in the city of Brno. It had extensive files on the safety of Russian-designed nuclear plants, especially VVER-440/213 and VVER 1000 plants. Mochovce was a VVER 440-213.

Hnuti Duha is strongly involved in opposition to the Temelin nuclear plant, a VVER-1000 plant. Temelin, like Mochovce, had its construction halted in 1990, and like Mochovce, a Western consortium including Westinghouse has now stepped in to complete the plant to "Western" standards.

While we were there, they took us to see the uranium mine that supplies the Dukovany nuclear plant, another VVER440/213. The mining is done by a local Czech firm called "Diamo", which operates a small, costly and very messy operation at Rojna, not far from Brno.

The locals showed us a monster tailings dam containing 1.1 million tonnes of tailings and 17 million tonnes of sludge. They showed us a smaller tailings dam in what used to be a pretty valley consisting of sludge and piles of waste (including, we were told, cyanide waste) that reflected the setting sun in interesting shades of toxic green.

Rojna was a smaller, yet a much dirtier, operation than anything I had come across in Australia. These people lived within 200-300 metres of it. The dust from dried tailings sludge dusted their crops, their animals, their children and them. Radon measurements were not even taken by the company because it was said that measurements done at another completely different location were "enough"!

Cattle deaths had increased fourfold in the 1990s, and illnesses amongst schoolchildren had risen by 100% in one year.

International banks

Multilateral development banks such as the EBRD, Eximbank and the World Bank and aid programs as such as PHARE and TACIS funnel vast amounts of money to eastern European and CIS nuclear plants under the guise of technical improvement and upgrading.

These agencies are heavily involved in promoting projects which impose the worst aspects of Western development while retaining the worst aspects of the old Communist structures. Those things that the Communist regimes actually got right, such as the emphasis on rail transport and public transport in general, are dismantled and downgraded. For example, the current Czech government now considers the excellent train and tram systems it inherited to be "superfluous", and explicitly intends to run the system down in favour of massive investments in roads.

The Temelin nuclear power plant, consisting of two 100Mw VVER-1000/320 reactors, which was being built with Russian help up to 1990, is to be completed with money from Eximbank, and with the help of Westinghouse.

In 1990, Western governments were saying that Russian-designed nuclear plants in Eastern Europe are accidents waiting to happen, and that the only sensible thing to do was to close them down. Austria, whose capital Vienna is not so far over the border, and which sensibly abandoned nuclear power in 1978, is strongly opposed to the completion of Temelin.

The local population are utterly opposed to it, and civil disobedience actions (coordinated by Hnuti Duha) have already taken place. The previous prime minister of the Czech Republic has declared his opposition to it.

A similar situation holds in Slovakia, whose Mochovce plant has become a major European issue. The Austrian government and a network of environment groups in Austria, Germany, the US, the UK, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland oppose the project.

Mochovce is an earlier (and hence, a more dangerous) VVER440/213 plant. Construction, started in 1984, came to a halt in 1990-91, with two of four 440 Mw units 85% and 90% complete. In 1992, Slovak electrical utility SEP came to an agreement with Electricite de France (EDF), Siemens, Bayernwerke, Euratom and the EBRD to finance the completion and reconstruction of the first two units.

Safety problems

The VVER power plant is a variant of the pressurised water reactor (PWR) familiar in the West, with a few unique design features.

VVERs come in three basic models: the earliest model the VVER440/230, the VVER440/213, and the VVER1000/320. Each has its own peculiarities, but it is quite misleading to assume, as the Western nuclear industry led us to do immediately after Chernobyl and up to 1990-91, that these arise from some uniquely bad Soviet design.

Many VVER safety problems are actually duplicated or parallelled in one way or another in Western nuclear plants, and criticisms directed at the VVER design ultimately reflect on Western plants also.

For example, a problem endemic to VVER plants is possible neutron embrittlement of the reactor pressure vessel. This is a potential problem also with older US plants.

Similarly, VVER 440/230 and 440/213 plants are often criticised for lacking containments. While this is indeed an unacceptable lack, the confinement system fitted to VVER440/213 reactors (but not VVER 440/230s) is superior to that of AGR and Magnox plants in the UK (most of which don't have a confinement system of any kind), and is roughly equivalent to confinement systems on US, Japanese and Swedish BWRs (boiling water reactors), including even the most recent designs.

There are doubts about the adequacy of VVERT440/213 and VVER440/230 emergency shutdown systems. Similar doubts have been aired over years concerning the adequacy and reliability of such systems in US PWRs and BWRs.

To backfit VVER440/230 plants to current "Western" safety standards is generally considered impossible. VVER440/230 plants in former east Germany have now been closed down, and the VVER440/213 plants on the verge of operation there have been abandoned.

SEP operates two of these VVER440/230 plants (the Bohunice- V1 plants) as well as the Bohunice-V2 plants, which are VVER440/213s. Austria has exerted strong pressure on Slovakia to close them down. It has been suggested that the two Bohunice-V1 plants will be shut down if and when Mochovce 1 and 2 are completed with EBRD money, but it is by no means certain that this is what will really happen.

US$150 million has already been spent on getting Siemens to upgrade safety systems at the Bohunice plants, and a substantial sum is scheduled to be spent every year until and including 1999, when Bohunice-V1 should be closed down. But who will spend that sort of money on a plant only to shut it down?

When I looked at the safety documentation for the Mochovce project, I found that safety topics are not adequately dealt with (and are in some cases not dealt with at all) in the 1100 pages of safety documentation released by SEP and EDF under the public participation procedures of the EBRD.

VVER reactors have been recognised as susceptible to RPV (reactor pressure vessel) embrittlement from neutron exposure. VVER RPVs have in the past included in their metal (like older US plants) trace quantities of copper and phosphorous that have made the material more susceptible to embrittlement.

In order to properly assess whether a reactor pressure vessel will be subject to unacceptable embrittlement, we need to know:(a) what the RPV is made of; (b) the precise design of the RPV, especially the position of welds; (c) the nature of the RPV's exposure to neutrons.

No diagram of the RPV or the reactor core is available in the project documentation, and the RPV material is not detailed in the documentation, nor is it mentioned who actually manufactured the RPV, though it seems almost certain that it was made by Czech firm Skoda.

The same lack of critically important safety information is evident in the case of the emergency shutdown (scram) system. VVER440/230 plants had a "gravity drop" scram system. This was found to be unreliable, but the modification proposed to deal with the problem seems to have made it worse. During an emergency the control rod, instead of dropping into the core under its own weight, must turn the motor that would otherwise power it. If current is applied to the motor due to a short circuit or a malfunction of the instrumentation, the rod will actually be withdrawn from the core during an emergency shutdown, when it should be being inserted into the core as fast as possible. The results of this could be catastrophic.

The Mochovce project documentation said that the scram system had been replaced by an "improved" Russian-designed system. No details were given.

Instead of a containment, the Mochovce plant has a "confinement" consisting of concrete chambers surrounding the RPV and the primary system. A tunnel leads from these chambers to a structure known as the "bubbler-condenser-tower". The tower is supposed to condense steam and prevent the excessive build-up of pressure.

However, calculations done by Polish engineers for a VVER that was to be built in Poland revealed that the bubbler-condenser-tower on that plant would collapse under the stresses of a "design-basis accident" — that is, an accident less severe than the most severe that could happen, which would be considered to be "beyond design basis". Analyses done in Kiev by Energoproekt and by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as those done by Riskaudit for the Mochovce project came essentially to the same conclusion.

The project documentation makes no mention of these analyses.

Other major safety concerns revolve around the possibility of leakage of primary system water into the secondary system, and around the vulnerability of a number of systems to fire and other accidents.

Second thoughts

Mochovce has been the target of an campaign by a network of environment groups in Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, the UK, Germany and the US. It has been taken up as an international campaign by FOE-International.

Polski Klub Ecologiczny chose to critique the project on safety grounds. The Austrian government did a 600-page critique of the project on safety as well as least-cost grounds.

The bulk of the criticism of the project has centred on the project's economics. In particular, the least-cost-analysis supplied to the EBRD by consultancy firm Putnam Hayes and Bartlett has come in for severe criticism on the grounds that it (a) overestimated future electricity demand in Slovakia; (b) overestimated the cost of alternatives to Mochovce's completion; (c) underestimated the cost of completing Mochovce.

Putnam Hayes and Bartlett staff have complained to the press of undue pressure from the staff of the EBRD to make their analysis favourable to the completion of Mochovce.

The EBRD's board of directors, in February-March, was evenly divided about Mochovce.

On March 4, the world's longest banner, containing over a million signatures, was stretched from Bratislava to Vienna to symbolise European and global opposition to the project.

On March 9, the Norwegian government decided to join those officially opposed to the project on the board of the EBRD. It was followed by Turkey.

Discussion in the European Parliament resulted in a compromise resolution asking that there be no "funding to this project as long as there remain doubts about the fulfilment of the safety conditions".

On March 12, Slovak television reported that Japan had offered $160 million in loans to build combined heat and power plants in the east of the country as alternatives to Mochovce.

On March 21, the EBRD's palatial London building was wrapped in an antinuclear banner. On March 22, the EBRD directors, at the request of both Austria and Slovakia, agreed to postpone the decision on funding indefinitely — a decision that was greeted with cheers by antinuclear activists.

Slovakia was having difficulties coming to an agreement with the EBRD on increases in electricity prices needed for paying back the loan, and may have been having doubts of its own about the economics of the project. Meanwhile, the consortium with EDF and EBRD was starting to fall apart.

By April24, Mochovce seemed to have gone completely into limbo. The Slovak government still vowed to complete it, and appointed a commission to determine ways of doing so, but seemed to have abandoned the idea of going along with the EBRD.

Opponents of Mochovce held a large party in Vienna on May 18.

In subsequent developments, Slovakia seems to have decided not to pursue the EBRD-EDF-Siemens option further. Instead, however, Slovakia seems to want to proceed with a consortium consisting of Skoda, the Russians, plus EDF, but without the EBRD.

Such a completion would mean that the "complete" plant would be as unsafe as possible, without even the most minimal design improvements insisted on by the IAEA, Riskaudit and EDF. Would Slovakia be politically able to complete Mochovce to these grossly inadequate specifications?