Even in the midst of the Japanese crisis, Moscow clinched new reactor deals asserting that nuclear power is safe if reactors are built in the right place and are designed and managed properly.

Even as the world reels in awe at the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, Russia has reiterated plans for a dramatic expansion in nuclear power and has firmed up deals to build half a dozen atomic reactors abroad.

The reactor crisis in Japan has led many countries to re-examine the role of nuclear power. Germany vowed to close down seven old reactors and froze plans to modernise others; Italy and Switzerland put on hold plans for new reactors; and Venezuela cancelled plans to go nuclear. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flagged her concern about “the costs and the risks associated with nuclear power,” and China, Britain, Bulgaria and Finland called for a nuclear safety review.

Russia went against the tide, reaffirming its faith in nuclear energy.

President Dmitry Medvedev said nuclear power was safe if reactors were built in the right place and were designed and managed properly.

“Everyone is asking a simple question: can atomic energy be safe? The answer is obvious: it can be and is safe, provided correct decisions are taken about the location of the plant, about the design and the operator,” Mr. Medvedev stated.

“It is impossible to speak about a global energy balance without the nuclear power industry,” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, pointing out that nuclear power accounts for 16 per cent of Russia's power generation and more than 80 per cent in France.

Despite the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, Mr. Putin said, Russia would “not change plans” to build dozens of nuclear power stations in coming decades.

Russia's emphasis on nuclear power seems illogical at first glance. The country sits on the world's largest hydrocarbons reserves, accounting for 13 per cent of proven oil finds, 34 per cent of natural gas and a quarter of all coals. However, the Russian government decided it would be more profitable to set aside more coal, oil and gas for export and for processing into petrochemical products, and scale down their use in electricity production. The expected surge in demand for oil and gas in the post-Fukushima world has only strengthened Moscow's resolve to expand nuclear power.

“Russia will stick to its policy of fast-track development of the nuclear energy sector,” said Russia's Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko.

Presently Russia has 31 nuclear reactors, which generate about 147 billion kilowatt-hours per year, or 16 per cent of the country's overall electricity production. Government plans call for building up to 26 reactors till 2025 and increasing the nuclear power share to 25 per cent.

Russian leaders feel confident that a Fukushima type of accident can never happen in their country.

“Modern systems, modern nuclear energy units are equipped with safety features that prevent the possible development of events along the lines of the current Japanese scenario,” Mr. Putin said.

None of Russia's nuclear power plants are situated in regions threatened by strong earthquakes or tsunamis. Paradoxical as it may seem, technologically advanced Japan has some of the world's oldest nuclear reactors (the stricken Fukushima-1 plant is 40 years old), whereas Russia has the world's youngest reactors, with an average age of 19 years. This compares with 26 years in Europe and 30 years in the United States.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, caused by gross human errors, pushed Russia to invest heavily in designing safer reactors and foolproof safety systems that do not require manual intervention and guarantee safe shutdown even in a total power blackout. This is something that was lacking in Fukushima, Russian officials say.

“The Fukushima accident is the result of unlearnt lessons of Chernobyl,” said Sergei Novikov, official spokesman for Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear energy corporation. “We have been learning our lessons for the past 25 years.”

The official cited the Kudankulam power plant with two VVER-1000 units as an example of high safety standards of Russian reactors.

“The Kudankulam reactors have the most advanced passive safety features, such as the heat removal system. It allows the heat from the reactor to escape via air chutes to the top of the containment dome where it is cooled by outside air, gets condensed back to water and returns to the cooling system,” Mr. Novikov said. “This helps cap temperature inside the sealed reactor containment at 600 degrees Centigrade and prevent uranium meltdown in case of an accident.”

If a meltdown still happens, molten fuel will be trapped in a core-catcher beneath the reactor and will not leak into the ground and the atmosphere. Had such systems been installed at Fukushima, there would have been no containment explosions, no fuel meltdown or massive radiation leakage. The Kudankulam plant has also been built to withstand strong earthquakes and high tsunami waves.

“During the 2004 tsunami local residents took refuge on the high grounds of the Kudankulam plant, which suffered no damage,” Mr. Novikov said.

However, critics, while conceding that Russia-designed third-generation reactors comply with high safety standards, point out that more than a third of Russia's operating reactors are of the ill-fated Chernobyl design. Moreover, many of them are past their original 30-year working life and had their licenses extended after modernisation and safety enhancement.

Responding to concerns prompted by the Fukushima disaster Russia has promised to subject all its reactors to rigorous top-to-bottom safety checks and close down those that fail the scrutiny. Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko last month reached an agreement with the U.S. to cooperate in conducting joint stress-tests at nuclear plants in both countries.

Mr. Medvedev has called for adopting stiffer international safety standards for reactor building based on Russian safeguards. This would, among other things, involve a ban on nuclear construction in areas prone to magnitude eight earthquakes. The Russian leader also urged a shift in policy away from extending the life of old reactors towards building new safer ones. Rosatom has already decided to speed up work on the fourth-generation reactors, the so-called fast breeders. When Mr. Medvedev visited India last December he offered a partnership in developing commercial fast neutron reactors where Russia has a global lead.

Nuclear energy is one area where Russian industry is highly competitive. Russia currently holds a 50-per-cent share of the global market in nuclear reactor exports and before the Fukushima disaster Rosatom hoped to triple worldwide sales by 2030 to $50 billion annually. The goal may look doubtful now, but in the midst of the Japanese crisis Moscow clinched new reactor deals.

Russia and Belarus last month signed a framework agreement to build a 2,400 MW nuclear power plant in Grodno, close to the border with Lithuania.

Also last month, Mr. Medvedev and visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed plans to build Turkey's first nuclear power station. Under a deal signed last year Russia will build and own four 1,200 MW reactors in Akkuyu. The town sits in a quake-prone zone some 25 km from an active fault, but the Russian and Turkish leaders brushed away concerns for the safety of the proposed nuclear plant.

In fact, Russia is so confident of the safety of its nuclear technologies that it has offered life-long guarantees on its reactors for Turkey. Under a new scheme devised for the project, Russia and Turkey will jointly own and manage the project through a JV.

“Our nuclear industry is prepared to take responsibility for the [nuclear] plants they build, not only in Russia, but also in other countries,” Mr. Medvedev said.

During her visit to Moscow last week, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni confirmed plans to sign an agreement with Russia later this year for the construction of two nuclear reactors at Rooppur in Pabna.

Russia's biggest hopes for reactor exports are India and China. Under a 2008 agreement, Russia will set up four VVER-1000 reactors at Kudankalam in addition to the two units that are going online this year. India has also allocated a new site for Russia in Haripur, West Bengal, where four to six reactors would be built. Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko said Russia hoped to construct up to 16 new nuclear reactors in India.

Moscow never fails to point out that in addition to safe designs Russian reactors come with attractive financial terms. Announcing a $6-billion line of credit for the planned nuclear plant in Belarus, Mr. Putin recalled that Russia has offered $2.5 billion in credit to China and $2.6 billion to India, and was in discussions to extend $4 billion in credit to India for the construction of the four additional reactors at Kudankulam.

With the global market of nuclear plant construction likely to shrink in the wake of the Japanese disaster Russia is demonstrating resolve to fight for its share of the pie.


Cases against mid-sea protesters at KudankulamNovember 22, 2011

More In: Lead | Opinion