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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Opens New Nuclear Plant

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia - Russia on Friday officially opened its first new nuclear power plant since the Soviet era, with top officials heralding it as a breakthrough for the industry after years of financial troubles and public opposition.

More than 20 years after construction began, the first reactor at the Rostov Atomic Energy Station in southern Russia has been turned on to minimal output, and it will gradually be cranked up to full power over the next several months, said plant spokesman Yegor Obukhov. It will provide electricity to the Rostov province and elsewhere in the North Caucasus region.

The reactor had been almost complete when construction was frozen in 1990 on government orders, because of public protests prompted by the 1986 explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl plant.

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

Environmentalists and many residents of the forested region continue to oppose the plant, saying it was built too close to a major reservoir and in an area of high seismic activity. They also say the reactor was not properly maintained while construction was stalled for nine years.

"This is the last thing the Rostov province needs. We've seen what those monsters can do, and should never forget it," said Alexander Filipenko, chairman of the Rostov Chernobyl Union.

Filipenko's group unites 20,000 people in the province who helped clean up after the Chernobyl accident, most of whom suffer medical problems that doctors attribute to radiation exposure. Millions of people from around the Soviet Union were sent to clean up Chernobyl, which is in neighboring Ukraine.

But proponents of nuclear energy maintain that it produces electricity more cheaply than Russia's other plants, and insist that its benefits outweigh its risks.

The director of the new plant, Vladimir Pogorely, promised that it would create thousands of new jobs for the depressed town of Volgodonsk, adjacent to the station, and claimed its reactor would be the safest in Russia. The country has nine nuclear plants and 29 operating reactors that produce about 12 percent of electricity.

The Soviet-designed VVER-1000 reactor at Rostov is considered structurally more sound than the RBMK reactor that blew up at Chernobyl. The main difference is that the VVER-1000 has a concrete containment structure designed to hold in damage from an explosion. It can also withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake and the crash of a 20-ton aircraft, plant officials say.