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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chelyabinsk Wants a New Nuclear Power Plant

Chelyabinsk Governor Pyotr Sumin has warned the prime minister that water levels in some of his region's radioactive waterways are reaching dangerous levels and has proposed a solution — building a nuclear power station that would use the polluted water as a cooling agent.

Environments warned that such a project could spell disaster for the region in the southern Urals that is still fighting to contain the fallout of a nuclear blast in 1957.

The letter to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, obtained by environment watchdog Ecodefense! and confirmed by Sumin's office, proposes building the nuclear power station near the Mayak plutonium plant, which spouts polluted water into the Techa River.

For more than 40 years, Mayak has been dumping water polluted with radionuclides into the Techa River, which has been artificially turned into a cascade of pools divided by dams.

The June 7 letter signed by Sumin, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, said that in three to four years the pools will overflow and contaminate the Iset, Tobol and Ob rivers. The pools now contain 400 million cubic meters of waste, according to the letter.

Using water from one of the pools for cooling at the proposed South Urals Nuclear Power Station would effectively avert this threat, Sumin wrote.

Deputy Chelyabinsk Governor Gennady Podtyosov said that the situation will become even more critical once Russia begins importing spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and storage, as outlined in recently passed legislation.

"Russia is expecting to import nuclear waste, part of which will be processed at Mayak," Podtyosov said by telephone from the city of Chelyabinsk. "Now the plant dumps 10 million cubic meters of polluted water a year. This amount will increase when nuclear waste from abroad arrives."

Podtyosov said building new storage pools, which would require the resettlement of villages and pollute dozens more square kilometers of land, would cost considerably more that the construction of the nuclear power station.

Podtyosov said he discussed the issue with the Nuclear Power Ministry two months ago and was told that no funds could be earmarked for a power station until 2010.

After the governor's appeal, Kasyanov ordered the ministry to start fresh talks with Chelyabinsk officials about the plant, which would cost about $1.5 billion to build, he said.

Nuclear power experts said feeding contaminated water though the nuclear power plant is safe.

"Technically, the idea of evaporating polluted water is a possible solution to the problem," said Alexander Pikayev, an nuclear power expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "The technology of Russian nuclear power plants can handle it."

But the idea of placing a new nuclear enterprise just 65 kilometers from Chelyabinsk is sparking protests from environmentalists.

Natalya Mironova, an environmentalist from Chelyabinsk, said that according to documentation she has seen about the proposed station as a member of an Economy Ministry commission, the station does not have an alternative source of water.

"Imagine what would happen if a pool is exhausted or the old dams burst and all the water floods out," Mironova said. "Without the inflow of cool water we'll have a new Chernobyl at the nuclear station."

Moreover, Mironova said she believes it is dangerous to place two nuclear enterprises close to each other. The nuclear power station — the construction of which was started in 1983 and then suspended in late 1992 — is located only three kilometers from the Mayak plant.

"If one facility goes off, it will cause a catastrophe at the other," Mironova said. "The negative effect of any error will drastically increase for us."

"The motives of the regional administration are clear — the project means hefty transfers from the federal budget," said Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace. "But don't you see something dubious in averting one nuclear threat by creating another?"