Russia Plans Nuclear Power Expansion

Russia says it will double its nuclear energy capabilities in the next 25 years. The Kremlin promises the country's nuclear industry is safe. But experts argue that it is alarmingly dangerous and on the verge of collapse.

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The global energy supply is also a hot topic in Azerbaijan's giant neighbor to the north, Russia. In Moscow, the talk is about freeing up the country's vast oil and gas reserves for profitable export, by using nuclear power to meet domestic needs.

Russia plans to double its atomic energy capability, even as experts say safety standards have improved little since the Chernobyl disaster which happened 20 years ago this week.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Chernobyl is a dirty word at the Kulinarski Nuclear Power station. It's sprawling complex rising out of snow covered fields 200 miles northwest of Moscow is among Russia's most modern.

(Soundbite of nuclear power station)

FEIFER: Inside a hulking nine story structure, one of the stations three reactors powers a massive steam turbine. It churns out 1000 kilowatts of electricity an hour, carried by huge power lines to the surrounding sphere(ph) region. The Kulinarski plant is a newer design than that of Chernobyl, where a reactor exploded in 1986. The government says Russia's economic future depends on nuclear power plants like this. The collapse of Communism dealt Moscow's nuclear energy industry a big blow. But now the Federal Atomic Energy Agency is planning a highly ambitious project, to build 40 new reactors by the year 2030.

Speaking at a news conference in February, President Vladimir Putin said the new program would boost the country's nuclear power capacity to provide 30 percent of the country's energy needs, up from its current 16 percent.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) This has to be done, of course, at a moderate and safe level. There are so-called fast reactors, which pose almost no safety risk, as I've said more than once. Our specialists know how to work in this sphere.

FEIFER: The choice of nuclear energy may seem odd for a country sitting on huge oil resources and the world's biggest reserves of natural gas. But Russia would much rather sell those resources at a huge profit on international markets than use them domestically. But some experts say that Kremlin's nuclear plant is completely unrealistic. Vladimir Kuznitsof(ph) is former head of the government's nuclear energy watchdog. He says Russia lacks the reactor designs, qualified manpower and the money needed to put the plant in action.

Mr. VLADIMIR KUZNITSOF (Former Government Nuclear Energy Watchdog): (Through translator) Since 1992, Russia has drawn up seven programs to develop the nuclear energy industry. And not one of them was carried out, even to the most minimal degree.

FEIFER: Nuclear expert Alexa Yaakov(ph) is head of the Green Russia party. He says the real motive behind the government's plan is futile desire to keep a dying industry from collapsing and Russia's nostalgia for its lost superpower status.

Mr. ALEXA YAAKOV (Green Russia Party): (Through translator) I think it's all empty talk. It reflects the attempt by those in nuclear energy to resurrect the industry as an atomic empire.

FEIFER: Western countries have given Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to improve security at nuclear energy plants, but industry observer Kuznitsof, who was also a member of the Atomic Energy Agency's safety committee, says the West isn't putting nearly enough pressure on Putin to address the industry's massive safety problems.

Mr. KUZNITSOF: (Through translator) Everyone in the West has dug his head into the sand like ostriches. No one wants to admit these problems exist.

FEIFER: Kuznitsof says the Atomic Energy Agency is courting danger by extending the lifetimes of existing nuclear power stations long beyond their expiration dates. The country still has 11 Chernobyl-era reactors. One of the most dangerous is the Leningrad reactor, which sits by the border of Finland's and Estonia. It was built in 1973, according to a 1950s design. Kuznitsof says it doesn't meet a single international safety requirement.

Mr. KUZNITSOF: (Through translator) The plant is old. It doesn't have a proper containment structure. The storage facilities are full and leaking radioactive waste material. We've conducted tens of news conferences about this, urging the station to be shut down immediately.

FEIFER: What's more, Kuznitsof says, the country's nuclear waste storage facilities are already filled almost to capacity. In February, prosecutors accused the director of Mayak, Russia's main waste processing plant in the Ural Mountains, of allowing tons of radioactive nuclear waste to flow into a nearby river.

But despite the Mayak prosecution, experts say the industry is continuing the Soviet practice of covering up huge damage to the environment. Exactly 20 years after the Chernobyl disaster, experts are finding little comfort in the government's promises that things have change. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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