Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luzhkov Dreams of Nuclear-Free City

Motivated by a mixture of environmental concern and real estate, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is trying to move Moscow's nuclear reactors off city limits.

Luzhkov earlier this year ordered officials to investigate the relocation of the huge Kurchatov Institute and its seven nuclear reactors from its 100-hectare site in north-western Moscow.

Gennady Akulkin, chief of radiation safety at the Moscow city environment committee, said the city wanted to move the institute to free up a huge area only 15 kilometers from the Kremlin and currently locked away behind high security fences.

"My understanding is that there is interest in development of this territory," he said.

The city's more immediate concern is environmental. "The reactors represent a potential threat in such a densely populated city," said Akulkin.

But the difficulty of moving a huge research facility and seven nuclear reactors, albeit small research models, to an alternative site may prove to be too much, even for the industrious Luzhkov.

"Everybody agrees that we have to relocate it," Akulkin said. "But no one could come up with such a huge amount of money right away."

Akulkin said the move would cost at least 700 million rubles ($115 million). The technical studies alone would cost as much as 12 million rubles, he said.

But first, the Kurchatov Institute itself has no intention of moving. "The idea to relocate the Kurchatov Institute is bizarre," said Alexei Borokhovich, the institute's deputy director for environmental issues.

"It would take at least 60 or 70 years and an enormous amount of money. At least $100 billion. These are just rough estimates," he said. Only six of the institute's seven nuclear reactors are operating. The largest was closed several years ago because of a funding shortage. Any move would also have to relocate about 500 cyclotrons -- experimental devices that accelerate particles in high magnetic fields.

The institute, named after Igor Kurchatov, the father of Soviet nuclear physics, played a crucial role during the early phase of the Cold War in the development of the Soviet nuclear and hydrogen bombs. By the late 1980s, the institute employed 9,900 researchers and support personnel.

But hard times have hit the institute, and staff has shrunk to 6,100. Workers are paid on time, but Kurchatov officials said that average salaries are only about 600 rubles a month.

Until last year, the city relied on the institute's data to monitor safety. But in 1997, the Moscow City Environment Committee took its own measurements and found radiation levels higher than the norm in parts of the institute.

The city's inspectors say all the immediate problems have been fixed but in the long-term the institute is having trouble paying for the disposal of its nuclear waste.

The Kurchatov Institute used to send its waste for storage to the Mayak Complex in the Ural Mountains. But since Mayak started charging $300 for storing and reprocessing a kilogram of nuclear waste, radioactive garbage has been accumulating at Kurchatov, said Akulkin.

Temporary storage facilities are still not full but city officials are concerned. "They have about 12 tons of spent fuel that is waiting to be disposed," said Akulkin.

Luzhkov had also expressed concern about the danger that terrorists could attack the Kurchatov Institute, especially during the war in Chechnya.

The idea of moving the Kurchatov was first floated in 1995 when a federal government policy document pledged to shift nuclear facilities away from densely populated areas. The shift was supposed to be financed by the federal budget, the reactors' "commercial activities" and regional governments. But no money was forthcoming. Last fall, Yevgeny Velikhov, the president of the institute, wrote to Luzhkov seeking his support for the financially strapped nuclear center.

In February, Luzhkov ordered city officials to design projects to "stop the use of nuclear research reactors and clean up areas used for storage of nuclear waste."

Luzhkov is scheduled to review the issue June 23. But Moscow officials have not even thought of an alternative site for the Kurchatov. For now, they are still trying to work out if it would be physically possible to move the institute's reactors.