Russia is often said to be one of four countries driving the global nuclear renaissance, along with China, India and South Korea. The World Nuclear Association's reactor database paints a rosy picture: 34 'operable' reactors, 9 under construction, 31 'on order or planned', and 18 'proposed'. Nuclear capacity is 25.3 gigawatts, with 57.2 GW in the pipeline.1
Those numbers mask a very different reality. If there is any nuclear growth in Russia, it will be slow and modest. The rapid, sustained growth implied in the term 'renaissance' is out of the question. Just four reactors have begun operation since the year 2000, and new reactors will be required just to maintain the status quo given the ageing of the Russian reactor fleet − already 19 reactors have been operating beyond their engineered life spans of 30 years.2
On May 26, Russia's ministry of economic development announced significant delays to the completion and start-up of new nuclear power plants.3 Deputy Russian Economic Development Minister Nikolai Podguzov said: "In agreement with all executive bodies together with Rosatom, our prognosis is there will be a very significant delay in commissioning the reactors. ... These units are simply not needed at the moment thanks to a current energy surplus."4
Reactors affected by the latest decision include the two reactors of Leningrad Phase II, the second reactor of Novovoronezh Phase II, and the planned four-reactor Smolensk Phase II project.
While the government cites an energy surplus for the nuclear slow-down, other factors are at work − Russia's economic problems, and Rosatom's inability to fund the many reactors projects it has planned in Russia and overseas. Nils Bøhmer, a nuclear physicist and executive director of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, said: "I think this is the first signal from the Russian nuclear industry that they will reduce their building of new nuclear reactors, both domestic, but also on the international arena."4
A January 2015 report by the Russian Duma's independent Audit Chamber revealed that delayed payments for construction costs at numerous new nuclear plants are leading to cost overruns and delays. Overall, funding constraints have put seven of nine new Russian nuclear power plant builds behind schedule, according the report.5
The Audit Chamber report also questioned the adequacy of reviews of nuclear projects by the Directorate-General for State Environmental Reviews. One problem occurred at Leningrad-2 plant's No. 1 reactor − technical violations in construction resulted in a collapse of the unit's reinforcement cages, which brought down the reactor's outer protective shell in July 2011. The construction of the No 1 and 2 reactors was delayed by a year as a result, with substantial cost overruns.5
According to the Russian nuclear regulator Rostekhnadzor, 39 incidents occurred at Russian nuclear power plants in 2013. The main reasons cited by the regulator were "mismanagement, defects in equipment and design errors."2
In January, the international ratings agency Fitch downgraded 13 of the largest Russian companies, including Rosatom subsidiary Atomenergoprom. Government funding for Rosatom's reactor projects is expected to amount to 88 billion roubles (about US$1.57b; 1.41b) this year but will fall to less than half that amount in subsequent years.6
Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the Russian ecological group Ecodefense, noted in a recent article:
"Despite a portfolio of orders estimated at over $100 billion Rosatom claimed it had at the end of 2014, actual construction work on the company's new reactor projects is effectively only proceeding in China and Belarus (and the Indian Kudankulam-2 was just recently finished, according to the Russian media). Domestically, the state corporation last year promised to launch three new reactors, but only one saw the light of day: a new unit at Rostov NPP, in the south of European Russia. Overall, all Rosatom projects where any work at all is being done are affected by serious delays, which increases costs significantly."6
It is unlikely that Rosatom is capable of building dozens of new reactors across the world. The Russian National Wealth Fund − which is meant to complement and support Russia's pension system − is being plundered to part-fund Rosatom's planned new reactor in Finland.6
Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted in October 2014 that it is "highly unlikely that Russia will succeed in carrying out even half of the projects in which it claims to be closely involved".7
There are also serious doubts about the ability of a number of the countries interested in buying Russian reactors to finance them − even though Rosatom is offering huge loans to get projects off the ground. Countries reported to be considering purchasing Russian reactors include Iran, Turkey, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Jordan, Hungary, Finland, Egypt, India and South Africa.
Floating reactors, fast reactors
The cost of building Russia's floating nuclear power plant has increased four-fold to 37 billion rubles (US$660m; €590m), and it is seven years behind schedule. The plant, which is two years from completion, comprises a barge and two 35-megawatt reactors. There are concerns that it will be a sitting duck for terror attacks, nuclear theft, and unreachable accidents.8
Rosatom subsidiary Rosenergoatom has "indefinitely" postponed construction of the BN-1200 sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor, citing the need to improve fuel for the reactor and amid speculation about the cost-effectiveness of the project. The decision to indefinitely postpone the project might be reviewed in 2020. The reactor had been scheduled to start commercial operation in 2025, depending on experience operating a pilot BN-800 fast-neutron reactor which achieved first criticality in June 2014 but has not yet started commercial operation.9
As recently as July 2014, Rosenergoatom's director general said that Russia planned to begin construction of three BN-1200 reactors before 2030.9 OKBM − the Rosatom subsidiary that designed the BN-1200 reactor − previously anticipated that the first BN-1200 reactor would be commissioned in 2020, followed by eight more by 2030.10
Rosenergoatom spokesperson Andrey Timonov the BN-800 reactor "must answer questions about the economic viability of potential fast reactors because at the moment 'fast' technology essentially loses this indicator [when compared with] commercial VVER units."9
Another fast-neutron reactor project − the BREST-OD-300 − is stretching Rosatom's funds. Bellona's Alexander Nikitin said that Rosatom's "Breakthrough" program to develop the BREST-OD-300 reactor was only breaking Rosatom's piggy-bank.4,11
2. Vladimir Slivyak, December 2014, 'Russian Nuclear Industry Overview', http://earthlife.org.za/2014/12/pay-more-with-nuclear-report-4/
3. WNN, 27 May 2015, 'Russian ministry agrees to postponement of new reactors', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Russian-ministry-agrees-to-postponement-of...
4. Charles Digges, 8 June 2015, 'Is Russia postponing reactor builds over power surpluses or financial deficits?', http://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/2015-06-russia-postponing-reactor...
5. Charles Digges, 27 Jan 2015, 'Russian Audit Chamber cites ballooning budgets in domestic nuke projects', http://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/nuclear-russia/2015-01-russian-au...
6. Vladimir Slivyak, 18 May 2015, 'Survival of the fittest? World’s major nuclear builders are in for a long stretch in the red', http://bellona.org/news/uncategorized/2015-05-survival-fittest-worlds-ma...
7. Steve Kidd, 6 Oct 2014, "The world nuclear industry – is it in terminal decline?", www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionthe-world-nuclear-industry-is-it-in-t...
8. Charles Digges, 25 May 2015, 'New documents show cost of Russian floating nuclear power plant skyrockets', http://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/2015-05-new-documents-show-cost-r...
9. World Nuclear News, 16 April 2015, 'Russia postpones BN-1200 in order to improve fuel design', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Russia-postpones-BN-1200-in-order-to-impro...
11. Alexander Nikitin, 5 May 2015, 'In a perpetual search for perpetuum mobile', http://bellona.org/news/uncategorized/2015-05-perpetual-search-perpetuum...
- Greenpeace, October 2014, 'Rosatom Risks: Exposing the Troubled History of Russia's State Nuclear Corporation', www.greenpeace.org/hungary/PageFiles/636986/rosatom_risks.pdf
- Vladimir Slivyak, December 2014, 'Russian Nuclear Industry Overview', http://earthlife.org.za/2014/12/pay-more-with-nuclear-report-4/