Ecologists are getting more uncomfortable with the fact that Russia is tinkering around with the science of extending the usual 30-year operational life span of nuclear reactors. The concern was raised during a joint conference in Oslo on December 10 of the Bellona Foundation and Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom on 'Russia's Atomic Energy: Conditions, Tendencies and Safety'. The discussion focused on the safety of Russian reactors, especially those in Northwest Russia, closest to Norway; nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel handling; and safety upgrades to nuclear installations.
Rosatom wishes by 2020 to build nine nuclear power stations, but the plans are dubious. The construction of the so-called Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad by 2018 provoked a hail of questions. These are issues tied to Rosatom's official roadmap1 for nuclear power plant construction.
Currently, Russia operates 10 nuclear power stations with a total of 33 reactors, which supply 16% of the country's electricity. Yet, 19 of these reactors are operating on state granted engineering life span extensions, and another four are operating beyond their engineered power parameters, or at more than 100%.
"This isn't Russian 'know how' – many countries do this," said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg. "But Bellona is concerned by the fact that Russian atomic stations operate on excessive power output and extended reactors."
One nuclear power plant experimenting with running reactors beyond capacity is the Kola station, which is such a source of worry to Scandinavia.2 In October, the Kola station was given the go-ahead to continue running its 30-year-old No 4 reactor for an astonishing 25 more years – an unprecedented license extension in the industry.3 The extensions means all of the plant's reactors are operating longer than their engineered design limit.
"Extending the resources of the Kola plant, as well as running its reactors beyond their power capacity, is associated with regional power demands, not just because the industry wants to do it," said Sergei Zhavoronkin, secretary of Rosatom's Public Chamber on Safe Nuclear Energy Usage in the Murmansk Region.
But, as Bellona Murmansk has noted many times, the region holds an energy surplus, to which the Kola nuclear plant contributed 60% of the energy, with the remaining 40% coming from hydroelectric stations.
Nuclear power stations are yours, the waste is ours
As of December 1, 2014, Rosatom's portfolio included 27 inter-government agreements for reactor construction abroad.
"It's clear that international agreements are still not contracts, but they already contain certain prescribed requirements for the countries in question," said Alexander Nikitin.
The countries holding agreements with Rosatom for reactor construction include Turkey, Finland, Jordan, India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Armenia and Iran.
"All of these agreements stipulate that Russia takes back the spent nuclear fuel [generated by these prospective] plants, which are built abroad," said Nikitin. "No other country behaves this way aside from Russia."
And all this on top of the spent nuclear fuel being returned via the Port of Murmansk from international research reactors built by the Soviet Union.
According to Zhavoronkin, 70 containers of spent nuclear fuel from Russian-built foreign sources were safely offloaded and transported through Murmansk between 2008 and 2014.
Zhavoronkin called "rhetorical" the question of how safely these loads are actually delivered. In 2010, the vessel Puma, having offloaded spent nuclear fuel, nearly sank. And the vessels bringing these nuclear loads are not always rated to carry them.
Regarding the Puma, Zhavoronkin said it was "good that the accident happened after and not before" the offloading of spent fuel.
"And that the Puma is an old ship is a rhetorical issue," Zhavoronkin said.
What should become of spent nuclear fuel?
According to 2013 figures, Russia has amassed 24,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. Eleven of its reactors are of the fatally-flawed RBMK-1000 Chernobyl design and produce 550 tons of spent nuclear fuel a year. Onsite storage of spent nuclear fuel at stations running RMBKs has reached 13,000 tons nationwide. Stations running VVER-1000 reactors produce 230 tons of spent fuel annually, and they've piled up a combined 6,800 tons of it.
Russia's six VVER-440 reactors have pumped out 87 tons of spent nuclear fuel, which will continue to be reprocessed at the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Southern Urals. Finally, Russia's fast neutron BN-600 reactor has produced 3.7 tons of spent nuclear fuel.
"Spent nuclear fuel is a big problem for all nuclear countries," said Nikitin. "No one knows in the world knows what to do with it, including Russia."
- Abridged and reprinted from Bellona, http://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/2014-12-russian-reactor-power-exp...