Copyright 2000 British Broadcasting Corporation
November 16, 2000, Thursday
Russian nuclear safety chief at loggerheads with atomic energy minister
'Segodnya', Moscow, in Russian 11 Nov 00
The head of Russia's nuclear safety watchdog, the Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, Yuriy Vishnevskiy, has bitterly attacked a plan put forward by Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeniy Adamov to increase output of nuclear power and earn extra revenue by reprocessing imported nuclear waste. Vishnevskiy compared the plan to unrealistic "decisions by the Politburo". Disputing the minister's assertion that nuclear energy is cheap to produce, Vishnevskiy said: "Do not believe a single word Adamov says", adding that new reactor designs being promoted by the ministry are inherently unsafe. He also opposed the reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel on environmental and safety grounds. The following is the text of an interview with Vishnevskiy in the Russian newspaper 'Segodnya' on 11th November. Subheads have been added editorially.
The government has instructed the Ministry of Atomic Energy to increase electricity generation next year. This is connected with the reduction in the volumes of gas supplies to the domestic market and high oil prices. The Ministry of Atomic Energy claims that the sector can plug the energy "gaps" that are developing by its own efforts and without the government's financial assistance. But the ministry is making future prosperity conditional on the right to import spent nuclear fuel for storage, reprocessing and burial into the country from foreign nuclear power stations. Yuriy Vishnevskiy, head of the Russian Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, talked to Segodnya' observer Yekaterina Kats about the nuclear sector's prospects.
Kats Yuriy Georgiyevich, you must have studied the "revolutionary" blueprint for the Ministry of Atomic Energy's development to 2050 approved by the government. Is its implementation realistic?
Vishnevskiy I have seen a host of similar decisions by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Politburo in my lifetime. They were not fulfilled then and they will not be fulfilled now. Do you remember the principle espoused by Khadzhi Nasredin a figure in Central Asian literature ? If you wait long enough either the donkey will be dead or its master will be dead. Yevgeniy Adamov, head of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, is using this principle. The Ministry of Atomic Energy lacks the means to enable it to remain at the level of a superdepartment. Judge for yourself: The nuclear power station system consists mainly of first-generation reactors built in the seventies and eighties. Beginning in 2002, 12 reactors (out of 29 - editor's note) are scheduled to be decommissioned. Both the facilities and the money which has to be invested in development are lacking. But the department cannot admit that it does not have the means.
Q There are indeed no facilities now. But if they start importing spent nuclear fuel into the country -
"Ludicrous" financial projections
A The money will be swallowed up or stolen. And no-one will build anything. The money is ludicrous too. Adamov is planning the receipt of funds over 10 or even 20 years. In other words, 1bn dollars or 2bn dollars, maximum, per year. One reactor costs over 1bn dollars. The Ministry of Atomic Energy currently "swallows" R3bn a year from the budget. This is the volume of commodity turnover of the entire department including the work of enterprises, the sale of uranium, weapons production and the recycling of submarines. Plus the 330-370m dollars that the department receives from high- and low-enriched uranium (supplies of low-enriched fuel to the USA - editor's note). This money also goes into the department's "common pot" and is consumed.
Q The minister claims that the sector can still earn money from power generation: The price per kWh generated by a nuclear power station is 1 cent, in other words, it is lower than by using traditional types of fuel.
A Do not believe a single word Adamov says. Prices for energy sources are always edging towards world prices. Electricity in Europe costs at least 2-3 cents per kWh. We pay 0.57 cents. Adamov dreams of being paid 1 cent. If people start paying that price he will raise the cost price to 2-3 cents. The ministry currently "earns" around 700m dollars a year from the power industry - this is the cost of generated energy. The profit is no more than 15 per cent. Minus arrears. And all on credit.
Q But the department will lose these funds too if it starts decommissioning reactors without building new ones. Is it true that the Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety is opposed to the extension of the operating life of obsolete power units?
Safety issue is paramount
A No. Decisions must be made in regard to each station after the comprehensive study of each specific reactor. This is what people do throughout the world. The nuclear power industry has the right to continue existing only if it is safe. This can be ensured either by developing a new design of safe nuclear power station or by making the existing systems more complex and by adding new ones to them.
People say to me: But this is costly. According to the Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety's calculations, the modernization of all 12 power units will cost 2bn dollars over 6-7 years, in other words, it is necessary to invest 200-300 dollars per kWh of capacity. The view of the Ministry of Atomic Energy is that it is sufficient to invest 70-90 dollars. This means lower levels of protection. As a result we will get a cosmetic repair instead of a major overhaul. To compare, if you build a new reactor you will have to invest 970 dollars per kWh. It is this difference that is forcing many countries to extend the operating life of their nuclear power stations.
Q Does this mean that we are planning to build new nuclear power stations but do not even have the money to repair the existing ones? How many power units will have to be built to replace the 12 obsolete ones?
A Seven VVER-1000 reactors. It is clear from the Ministry of Atomic Energy's development blueprint that if nothing is done, Russia will be left without a nuclear power industry by 2020. If we extend the operating life of the first-generation reactors by 10 years and the second-generation reactors by 20 years, we will have the same result in 2040. In the immediate years ahead we will consume the gas and oil. The process is already under way. The government has even drawn up a schedule for 2001 in which the Ministry of Atomic Energy, on Russian grid chief Anatoliy Chubays's insistence, is being "required" to produce around 17 MW of installed capacity. The sector has never operated with such indicators. There is also the problem that we are living off old reserves from the viewpoint of technology and nuclear materials.
Q The Ministry of Atomic Energy's leaders claim that the technology exists - there is the new BREST reactor a fast reactor also known as the BN reactor and the plan is to build nearly 30 of them. Admittedly, many scientists do not consider that this is a viable project.
New reactors unsafe
A I agree with them. Adamov says that the BREST reactor is internally safe because the reactor does not use water as a coolant but lead, which does not boil. The molten lead is contained in a pipe at a temperature of 600-700 degrees. What happens if the pipe in which it is housed becomes corroded at a point where it is in contact with the reactor? Such reactors were installed on five submarines 15 years ago. All the boats were stood down when new. This was precisely because the pipes had melted and the entire mass of metal weighing hundreds of tonnes - both the radioactive contents of the reactor and the "glowing" lead - solidified. And no-one knows what to do with it.
Q Let us suppose that a decision to develop the nuclear power industry has been made. Does Russia have sufficient reserves of uranium? Especially given that Adamov intends selling fuel or leasing it to foreign states.
Poor quality of Russian uranium
A The leasing of nuclear fuel is a bit like leasing a sausage. They consume what they want and send the rest back - as for our reserves, they are estimated at 240,000 tonnes. We use some for ourselves and sell some to the CIS and the West. The result: We are consuming around 11,000 tonnes a year. We are living off our "stocks" and furthermore we are getting raw materials at a ludicrous wholesale price but we are selling fuel at world market prices. We use this price differential to cover the cost of extraction given that we extract 2,500 tonnes a year. Extraction is very costly because the ore in Russia is poor quality. According to the Ministry of Atomic Energy's calculations, Russia's uranium reserves will last 80-90 years.
Q Can the situation be rescued by the introduction of the "closed cycle" that the Ministry of Atomic Energy is promoting? The cycle in which we reprocess the waste that has accumulated.
Danger posed by reprocessing of spent fuel
A In the blueprint Adamov claims that this will add an extra 10-20 years. You should not subject an entire country to environmental danger on such a scale. The closed cycle involves the work of radiochemical production units and thus means additional volumes of radioactive substances discharged into running water. The Americans have rejected the radiochemical approach. They calculated that it is cheaper to stockpile the spent nuclear fuel itself than to reprocess the waste products. The total volume of waste from such reprocessing with today's technologies increases a hundredfold compared with the initial volume.
Furthermore, it is not possible to reprocess all spent nuclear fuels. Personnel are irradiated during work with waste from certain reactors. There are around 7,000 tonnes of this kind of spent nuclear fuel (out of an accumulated 14,000 tonnes - editor's note) and no-one is suggesting reprocessing that. I do not believe that anyone will need this spent fuel in 30 years' time. Therefore the benefit of the closed cycle is negligible. The harm is far greater.