By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Four days after the Sosnovy Bor nuclear power plant near St Petersburg released a cloud of radioactive steam on March 24, Yegor Gaidar, first vice-premier in the Yeltsin government, signed plans for a massive expansion of Russia's nuclear power capacity.
Under these plans, work will resume on new nuclear plants near Kostroma and Chelyabinsk. Additional reactors will be completed at Balakovo, Kalinin and Kursk, and old reactors will be replaced in the Bilibino, Kola Peninsula and Novy Voronezh plants.
The decision puts an end to a six-year period, following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, during which nuclear power development in the USSR and its successor states came to a near-standstill.
Now, supporters of nuclear power have again been able to push their product as a quick fix for Russia's energy problems.
Susceptible to simple technocratic "solutions" to complex dilemmas, Yeltsin and Gaidar responded with enthusiasm. The total nuclear generating capacity foreseen under the government's new plans is more than twice that projected in the early 1980s.
The irresponsibility of the decision is breathtaking. The dangers of the RBMK reactors installed at Chernobyl, Sosnovy Bor and other sites have led western experts to demand their rapid shutdown. Huge and primitive, the RBMK reactors use fire-prone graphite as a moderator. Unlike most western reactors, their basic features include a positive coefficient of reaction — in effect, an in-built tendency to run out of control.
Nevertheless, an additional RBMK reactor is to be brought into operation at the Kursk plant in 1994.
Other Soviet reactor designs have been condemned as well. In November 1991 the International Atomic Energy Agency published a study of one of the energy blocs at the Kola Peninsula plant. On the basis of this study, Greenpeace concluded that for 10 reactors of the Soviet VVER type, the probability of an accident over a five-year period was 27%.
When the old energy blocs at the Bilibino, Novy Voronezh and Kola Peninsula plants are shut down, the replacements will include new VVER-1000 reactors.
As well as suffering from grave design faults, nuclear plants in the former USSR are poorly maintained. In its May 10 issue, Moscow News reported that after the "irregularity" at Sosnovy Bor, hurried checks were performed at other installations. Practically all the RBMK reactors checked had the same flaw which led to the release of radiation at Sosnovy Bor, Moscow News stated. "Seventeen out of 20 isolating-control valves in the first reactor at the Kursk nuclear plant are in a disastrous condition", the paper continued. "There is a similar situation at the other plants."
With parts and materials in short supply, and ill-paid technicians leaving for jobs in the new private sector, the standard of maintenance is unlikely to improve in the next few years.
German experts maintain that if coal, oil and gas were used as efficiently in Russia as in the west, there would be no losses from ending the use of nuclear power.