Russia’s Nuclear Shutdown Pads Reactor Orders, Purges Chernobyl
By Yuriy Humber
Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) — “All zones, fire at the nuclear power plant,” booms a loudspeaker at 9:00 a.m. near the Volgodonsk station deep in southwest Russia.
Within 3 minutes, emergency personnel known as liquidators spill out of fire trucks wearing rubber boots and gloves to guard against electric shock as flames dance inside. At 9:14 a.m. an armored car rolls up, turret slowly twisting, measuring radiation. The command center receives a reading transmission: Abnormal.
The shutdown, staged over two days each September and involving 800 specialists, is a rehearsal for an event the Russians are trying to show will never happen again 22 years after the Chernobyl disaster. At stake this year is an $80 billion global backlog of orders for Russian reactors and nuclear fuel that underpin the industry’s future.
“Moscow, we are in the Ready-for-Emergency mode,” Volgodonsk director Alexander Palamarchuk reports over a satellite camera to his superiors in the Russian capital 1,200 kilometers (740 miles) north.
Officials from 11 countries, including Iran, South Korea and France, observed the simulation on Sept. 24 and 25. At the event, Russia staged a technical flaw, similar to one that occurred at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, the worst nuclear incident in U.S. history. The glitch involved a relief valve failing to close automatically.
“Globally, the issue of nuclear safety is closely tied to Russia,” said Alexander Pikayev, a nuclear non-proliferation specialist at the Institute of World Economics and International Relations in Moscow. “Russia needs to combat this image.”
Russia is seizing on record oil and natural gas prices to market its nuclear reactors abroad and plans to gain as much as 20 percent of the global market. China, India and Iran already are buyers, and Russia is the only bidder for a contract to build Turkey’s first nuclear plant, Istanbul-based utility Tetas said last month.
Bulgaria is paying ZAO Atomstroyexport, Russia’s state-run reactor builder, $5.2 billion for two units; India has an accord for four units; and China is in talks on two more, according to the company’s Web site. In addition, Rosatom Corp., the parent company of Atomstroyexport, has Russian government contracts for 26 reactors by 2020, according to the Web site of Rosatom’s energy division, OAO Atomenergoprom.
“The Russians are very scrupulous in detailing instructions for what to do in every situation,” says Hossein Abbasibilandi, an observer from the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran. “In an emergency, the first thing people do is panic. We need to be ready to deal with a real situation.”
Since 2007, Russian specialists have been training Abbasibilandi to oversee safety at Bushehr, Iran’s first nuclear power plant, which Russia may finish building this year.
The Chernobyl accident of 1986, when a cooling experiment caused a so-called RBMK reactor to explode, remains a stigma.
Last month’s simulated shutdown is designed to keep Russian authorities on alert, says Nikolai Sorokin, chief of the country’s nuclear plant emergency team.
“This is a game, but its point is to raise our reactions,” says Sorokin. “Then, should something happen, we just act.”
The United Nations estimated in 2005 that the Chernobyl explosion, which was equal to 400 Hiroshima bombs, directly killed 56 people. It may have also caused 4,000 cancer deaths and exposed 600,000 to high radiation, the UN said.
After Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the U.S. and Russia worked in the 1990s on safety measures that exist at all reactors today, Pikayev said. Russia’s new VVER reactor can withstand the impact of a 20 metric ton jet and has a hermetic seal to keep steam from escaping should the core leak.
The safety features add 40 percent to reactor costs, says Yury Kormushkin, a nuclear physicist for 45 years who works at Volgodonsk.
Russia’s nuclear safety program may now rank among the best in the world, says Stig Husin, an expert at the Swedish Radiation & Safety Authority who observed the exercise.
“You’re very well equipped here,” says Husin, who observed a similar drill in Russia in 2005.
The use of a video link between the power plant and crisis centers in Moscow and other cities is something other countries could learn from, Husin said. The system helped Volgodonsk stabilize the emergency within three hours.
Wan Joo Kim, senior researcher at Korea’s Institute of Nuclear Safety in Daejeon, is on his first visit to Russia after the two countries signed a nuclear cooperation accord in 2005.
“It’d be great if we had this,” Kim says, pointing to a man-size robot with tractor-tire shoes and a rotating pincer-arm.
As confidence in the Russian nuclear program rises, a group of Korean companies last week agreed to mine uranium in Russia together with state-owned ARMZ Uranium Co.
The chance of another Chernobyl, or even the combination of problems posed in the exercise, “is practically impossible now,” given advances in technology, Sorokin said. “Still, we need something very strong to test the evacuation procedures.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Yuriy Humber in Volgodonsk via the Moscow newsroom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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