Russian power plan prompts safety fears: A scheme to build more nuclear plants has renewed public disquiet, writes Helen Womack in Moscow

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The Independent Online
ENVIRONMENTALISTS are up in arms over Russia's decision, made behind closed doors before the new year, to build a network of atomic power stations which would nearly double the country's nuclear energy capacity by early next century.

Last week there were two minor fires at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine which ecologists say shows the former Soviet Union has not learnt enough from the 1986 disaster there to be trusted with an ambitious atomic expansion programme. Energy officials counter that they have learnt their lessons, and say that if Russia does not now lift a moratorium on power station development, then the country will soon face an electricity shortfall.

The construction plan was approved by the cabinet on 24 December and signed into law four days later. The public, nervous about atomic power since Chernobyl, which led to the deaths of 8,000 people and contaminated whole republics, was not consulted, and the government ignored the objections of Boris Yeltsin's ecology adviser, Alexei Yablokov, who called the scheme 'unacceptable from the legal, ecological, economic and political points of view'. But last week the Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy, Yevgeny Reshetnikov, did address the press in an attempt to allay fears.

The plan to increase present capacity of 20 million kilowatts to 37 million by the year 2010 would be in three stages, he said. First, three generating units whose construction had been started - at the Balakovo, Kalinin and Kursk nuclear power stations - would be finished and brought into operation by 1995. Then, if local authorities agreed, power stations would be built on the Kola Peninsula above the Arctic Circle, near St Petersburg, near Kostroma in central Russia and near Khabarovsk in the Far East. Finally, for remote areas cut off from fuel supplies, experts would look at the possibility of building, in Mr Reshetnikov's words, 'small nuclear power units which do not require numerous staff or a great deal of servicing. These units would be designed for small villages.'

It was not at all clear how Russia, virtually bankrupt after 70 years of Communist mismanagement, intended to pay for the programme although the plant on the Kola Peninsula would apparently be financed from hard currency revenues from the export of nickel mined in the area.

Mr Reshetnikov argued for the programme by saying that while Russia as a whole got only 11 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear power, some areas such as the north-west and the central 'black earth' region were almost entirely dependent on it because they lacked other fuel sources such as coal, oil and gas. Environmentalists might protest, but the public expected to have light and heat. The West might worry but, despite many promises of aid, 'not a kopeck' had been received to develop safe energy, and Russia must rely on itself, he said.

Ecologists complained that the government had not sufficiently considered potential alternatives to nuclear power. But what really angered them was Mr Reshetnikov's announcement that, until a new generation of reactors created as a result of military conversion was ready, at least one nuclear power station, Kursk, would get an RBMK unit of the type which exploded at Chernobyl.

Greenpeace's Russian chapter was scornful. 'The upgrades don't address the main problem,' said its Moscow representative, Dmitry Litvinov. 'Structurally these reactors are just as dangerous as before.' Greenpeace also stuck to its view that government plans for disposing of nuclear waste were inadequate, despite an assurance from Mr Reshetnikov that a special plant would be built for that purpose in Smolensk.

Confidence was hardly inspired, it added, by the fact that Russia reported 205 'incidents' at its nuclear stations to international authorities last year, compared with 172 in 1991.

(Photograph omitted)