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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Power Plant Turned On

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Southern Russia — More than 20 years after its conception, Russia's first new nuclear power plant since the Soviet era has been launched by top officials who called it a breakthrough for the industry following years of opposition.

Operators Friday switched on the first reactor at the Rostov Nuclear Energy Station to minimal output and will gradually bring it to full power over the next several months.

Plant and government officials insist the reactor is Russia's safest and will provide jobs and much-needed electricity to the Rostov province and the surrounding North Caucasus region.

But environmental groups and many residents of the forested region nearby strongly oppose it, saying the plant was built too close to a major reservoir and in an area of high seismic activity.

Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov promised Friday that the plant would observe all necessary precautions. "The main thing is the safe operation of the plant," he said at the opening. Later, he promised electricity discounts and medical benefits to the 250,000 residents living within 30 kilometers of the plant.

The reactor had been almost complete when construction on all nuclear plants was frozen in 1990 on government orders, due to public protests prompted by the Chernobyl blast.

But amid increasing blackouts across Russia, prompted by deterioration at coal-powered electricity plants and chronic funding shortages, the government announced a drive to revive the nuclear energy industry. The Nuclear Power Ministry allocated funds in 1999 for completing the Rostov reactor and several other stalled projects.

"We will no longer allow such pauses," Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko said at Friday's opening.

Opponents say the reactor was not properly maintained while construction was stalled, and also say its designers have ignored lessons of the 1986 explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl plant, the world's worst nuclear accident

With Friday's launch, Russia now has 10 nuclear plants that produce about 12 percent of the country's electricity.