Energy Nuclear 11 March, 2021 11:00 am   
Editorial staff

Chuprov: There’s no guarantee that a disaster like Fukushima cannot happen in Russia


Nobody can guarantee that a disaster like Fukushima couldn’t happen in Russia. It relates to any country. One may ask about the likelihood of such a scenario. The majority of the world’s nuclear reactor fleet, which is about 400, is of the first or second generation having a probability of big accidents one per 10 000 years per one reactor. Chernobyl and Fukushima show that disasters in nuclear power plants occur statistically every 20-30 years proving this probability – says Vladimir Chuprov, leader of Greenpeace Russia’s Energy Program. Could a catastrophe like Fukushima happen in Russia? 

Vladimir Chuprov: Nobody can guarantee that it couldn’t happen. It relates to any country. One may ask about the likelihood of such a scenario. The majority of the world’s nuclear reactor fleet, which is about 400, is of the first or second generation having a probability of big accidents one per 10 000 years per one reactor. Chernobyl and Fukushima show that disasters in nuclear power plants occur statistically every 20-30 years proving this probability. But its important to say that this probability is based on the knowledge we already have; in the meantime, factors may arise that we do not take into account now. Let’s look at the war in Ukraine – no one could have predicted that it would take place near the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant. It is easy to imagine that a catastrophe could happen there. Climate change is another threat: nuclear reactors are sensitive to heat waves that disrupt the operation of cooling systems. Nuclear power plants can also be the target of terrorist attacks. It means that probability of such accidents is growing.

How does the safety system of nuclear power plants in Russia work? How has the Fukushima disaster changed that?

Like every country, the Russian Federation has a system of regulations regarding the safety of nuclear power plants inherited from the Soviet Union, which must be respected by plant operators, it is also the task of local authorities to protect local communities during the accidents like in Chernobyl or Fukushima. The system is based on the issues of technological and military security, or aspects of training and logistics, how to protect civilians relatively. There are a number of security measures to reduce or eliminate the human factor, majority of nuclear power plants have shelters, reactors are covered with a layer of cement to prevent leakage of radionuclides. There is also an alarm system to warn against possible errors inside the reactors, which is a mandatory element in every unit. The military’s task is, among other things, to prevent terrorist attacks. The plant crew is also trained to know how to act in such situations. Logistics of civilians, in turn, is responsible for warning and possible evacuation of the local population. It is the job of local authorities to develop their own evacuation plans and implement safety measures, for example the distribution of iodine tablets. There should be enough buses and roads to evacuate residents from the endangered area. Everyone who lives in the risk zone has to receive appropriate training, which is periodic. Everyone must know where to go and how to act, they must have enough supplies of water and food, and isolate themselves in their homes, or look for a shelter where the basic needs of the population must be met by local authorities.

It is worth noting, however, that these standards function primarily on paper; we talked to the inhabitants of the vicinity of nuclear power plants, and they would not know where to go in case of a disaster. Therefore, whenever something that looks like a power plant breakdown happens – fake news or exercises – people’s reaction is panic. Therefore, if Poland wants to build its own nuclear energy, a map of threats of radionuclides potential fall and contaminated territories should be created – by the way, such information in Russia is difficult to obtain – which will be known to the local community. The mapping of potentially contaminated territories should be based on a worst-case scenario, taking into account winds, moisture and rain that have a major impact on the course of such disasters.

However, Fukushima did affect the safety of nuclear power plants in Russia – all nuclear reactors underwent stress tests where it was checked how they would behave in case of an earthquakes for example, but it was not the subject of public debate. While the media has talked about increasing safety standards, nothing is known of a significant improvement. While this was the subject of discussions in the West for many months, it was not so in Russia. What I know there was also no additional training for the population living close to nuclear power plants.

There are concerns in the European Union about the safety of the Astravets Power Plant in Belarus. Do you think they are justified?

I believe that Ostrowiec Power Plant is neither better nor worse in this respect than other power plants. However, if we look at power plants in Finland, for example, they have the same fatal problem which is a combination of high vapor pressure along with radionuclides. Some reactors are lead or air-cooled, but most are water-cooled. (And even lead or air cooled reactors also have safety problems). Thus, from the technological point of view, the Ostrowiec Power Plant does not differ much from similar Finnish or German units. There could be differences when it comes to work culture and transparency. However, it can be said for sure that the more nuclear reactors in general, the more risks.

How do you assess Poland’s decision to base its energy on nuclear power in the coming years?

I believe that this is a strategic mistake. The experiences of France and Finland show that the construction of nuclear power plants takes many years and may be delayed by further years. From an economic point of view, the price of alternative energy sources, such as photovoltaics and wind, will continue to decline. The example of France, which is presented as a success story of nuclear energy, makes it necessary to take into account the entire life cycle of a power plant, including the dismantling and management of nuclear waste. That being said, France could be in a lot of economic trouble because it would cost huge sums of money. These types of units were a byproduct of building nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but after the Cold War energy markets have been liberalized. After the end of the plant’s life cycle, money will have to be found for dismantling of every single plant, which is comparable to the cost of building them. Russia has postponed this problem and has placed it on the federal budget, which could dramatically impact it.

Waste remains another major problem. Poland would have to consider where to store them – whether to export them for example to the Czech Republic, or find a place to store them in the country. This is a very long-term issue because we are talking about hundreds of years of monitoring these places. There is also the issue of the environment – local communities will have to be prepared for living under constant stress. The dangers of terrorist attacks cannot be forgotten. There is one more issue that is often not mentioned enough – Poland will have to adopt detailed regulations to provide permanent staff to operate such a unit, which is also very expensive. Rosatom has little chance for a contract in Poland, the most likely partner will be the Americans – it is worth asking the question what is the condition of the nuclear sector in the United States and what is the condition of, for example, Westinghouse, because the less you build, the less experience and knowledge you have. It is also worth examining the attitude of young people towards nuclear energy in order to find out whether there will be difficulties in finding personnel to serve this sector.

Interview by Michał Perzyński