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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of Control

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In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet government suspended the development of its nuclear industry. For 10 years no nuclear power plants were brought into operation, and the nuclear research industry suffered severe cutbacks. But over the last few years, Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry has once again begun to expand — and, unfortunately, to expand at the expense of safety.

Originally created to produce plutonium for weapons, the former Soviet Union's nuclear energy program still retains many of its old trappings: secrecy, a dubious safety record and considerable lobbying power with whomever's in power. A 1998 report from Russia's State Atomic Inspection Agency, or GAN — which is not usually very critical of the ministry — highlighted increasing instability and worsening safety conditions at Russian nuclear power plants. Moreover, outdated and unreliable equipment, as well as the widespread lack of proper training for plant technicians, do not bode well for safe nuclear power development in Russia.

As strange as it may seem, money from Western governments donated to Russia for the reconstruction and upgrading of existing nuclear power stations plays an important role in the Nuclear Power Ministry's expansion. Western aid frees large sums of money from state coffers that would otherwise have to be spent making existing plants safe. Western aid, therefore, only hastens the construction of new nuclear power stations.

In terms of the likelihood of a nuclear accident, Russia is more dangerous than ever before. Twenty-nine reactors are currently in operation at nine nuclear power stations in Russia, producing 21,242 megawatts of electricity per year. In 1998 there were 102 incidents at Russian nuclear power stations, 23 more than in 1997. One of these incidents had a third-level classification and two were given a first-level rating. Incidents at nuclear power plants are rated by international energy agencies from zero to seven, the disaster at Chernobyl being a seven.

Not one of Russia's nuclear power plants fully meets modern safety requirements, especially in terms of reactor operations.

Most functioning plants operate according to outdated security rules and norms that were instituted back when the plants were originally constructed. Today not one of Russia's nuclear power plants fully meets modern safety requirements, especially in terms of breaches in reactor operations. Serious violations of regulations and technical requirements occur regularly, occasionally resulting in radiation exposure to plant personnel.

Such violations usually occur because plant workers are either poorly trained or simply incompetent. A 1998 report by GAN noted the increasing number of shutdowns at nuclear power plants. The report concluded that "recent personnel changes in management of the state energy company Rosenergoatom and certain nuclear power stations have led to the worsening management of nuclear energy and reduced stability in the functioning of nuclear power stations." Russia's brain drain is also cause for concern, as highly qualified personnel have left the country for better jobs and are often replaced by underqualified technicians.

This perilous situation is made still worse by wear-and-tear on existing equipment. Financing for replacement equipment is insufficient or even non-existent. Some aging reactors lack proper containment vessels, reliable control technology and emergency core-cooling systems, all normal features of modern plants. Perhaps even more than cash, however, these plants need greater regulation and a timetable for the permanent shutdown of first- and second-generation reactor types (which simply do not meet modern safety requirements). A mechanism for the proper disposal of radioactive waste is also imperative.

Observers have also been alarmed by a 1998 European Union report on the Tacis assistance program. Of the $1 billion that the EU has donated to this program, only one-third was spent as it should have been. Evidence suggests that the bulk of the money was stolen or, at best, misappropriated. Analyzing the results for 1990-97, the report's authors came to the worrying conclusion that no progress in the field of nuclear energy had been made and that the world is not necessarily safe from a second Chernobyl.

Because of Russia's long-term economic slump, power plants are increasingly operating with a deficit. The state-mandated low price of nuclear energy does not cover production costs. Nonpayment by commercial and private consumers is rife, barter payments are still widely used and funds allocated from the state budget are often not disbursed.

In recent years, power station debts to their suppliers have grown faster than debts owed to the plants by their customers. The prices charged by outside companies for such services as the removal and burial of radioactive waste and the decontamination of radiation suits have risen significantly. As of last August, Russian nuclear power plants owed 23.8 billion rubles to suppliers, while they were owed 21.8 billion rubles by their customers.

As the country seeks a way out of its economic malaise, the outlook for nuclear power seems bleak. Even a small nuclear accident would wipe out any progress that has been made over the last decade and could even threaten the stability of the entire political system. Nonetheless, the Nuclear Power Ministry continues to lobby every government that comes to power with new schemes and development plans. But none of them has taken into consideration the needs of the people of Russia or the country's long-term interests.

Vladimir Kuznetsov is the editor of Radiation and Society published by the International Green Cross. He is also a member of the Independent Experts Association, an organization that campaigns for the safe use of nuclear energy. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.