In Russia, atomic energy is completely state-owned and paid for out of taxpayers’ money. The state corporation “Rosatom” comprises civilian and military nuclear technology companies. It is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power plants (NPPs) and its activities extend more to projects in other countries than in Russia itself. Thanks to large capacities for uranium enrichment, which remained in Russian hands after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rosatom currently controls 17% of world production of nuclear fuels.
This background article is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".
Sharp drop in new builds within Russia
Rosatom (website in Russian only) operates 11 NPPs in Russia with 37 reactor blocks, plus the “Akademik Lomonosov” floating NPP at Chukotka, with two KLT-40-type small reactors. In 2020, nuclear power accounted for 20% of energy production in Russia.
The floating NPP replaces the old Bilibinsk NPP, the first reactor of which was decommissioned in 2019. Three more are to follow between now and 2025. From earlier years, there are documented estimates by nuclear power experts suggesting that floating power plants are very expensive to operate (article in Russian only).
It was originally scheduled for completion as long ago as 2008, but construction was delayed for more than 10 years. Ecologists have dubbed the project a “floating Chernobyl” (article in German only) because of safety concerns and risks relating to nuclear non-proliferation.
In 2020, three reactors were under construction at sites in Kursk and Leningrad (although the city of Leningrad was renamed St Petersburg after the end of the Soviet era, the NPP is still known as the “Leningrad NPP”). New reactors will replace the remaining Chernobyl-type RBMK-1000 ones that have been gradually decommissioned at those sites.
At the Leningrad NPP, the first of four RBMK-1000s was switched off at the end of 2018, the second at the end of 2020. The two remaining old reactors will be taken out of use between now and 2025. Two VVER-1200 reactors will replace them; one of them is already connected to the grid, the other is soon to be completed. It is not yet known whether there will be additional replacements for the third and fourth reactors.
At the Kursk site, there are still four Chernobyl-type reactors in the network. The first of them will be switched off at the end of this year, another at the end of 2024 and the last two in 2028 and 2030. Work to replace them began in 2018 with the construction of two new VVER-TOI-type reactors (a new variant on the VVER-1200-type; article in Russian only). As at the Leningrad site, it is still uncertain whether the other two old reactors will be replaced.
The VVER-1200 and VVER-TOI reactors are relatively new developments. In professional circles, the jury is still out as to the reliability of these types of reactor. Accidents cannot be completely ruled out, even with these new versions. Rosatom has announced that the VER-TOI-type is expected to be far more economical than the predecessor version, but there have been no independent confirmations of this claim. Critics believe that the VVER-1200 reactors are far more expensive than the official five billion US dollar price tag (Russian nuclear industry overview, PDF).
Switching off NPPs in itself constitutes a highly complex technological and financial challenge for Russia. Eight reactors have been decommissioned to date and up to fifteen more are scheduled follow in the next ten years (article in Russian only). The exact costs of decommissioning and dismantling are still unknown. The Russian nuclear industry claims that it can carry out dismantling for a “significant double-digit figure less than in the USA”, where the process costs around 10 billion US dollars per reactor (article in Russian only).
In Russia, more than 500 million tonnes of radioactive waste have accumulated, including one million tonnes of uranium waste, some of which originated in Germany. There is also as much as 25,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from the NPPs in storage facilities. The nuclear industry is planning to process this waste for reuse. Capacities to do so are, however, very small, meaning that the process could take several decades. Additionally, the purpose of the planned processing is unclear, as reuse is possible only in breeder reactors, of which Russia has only two. Furthermore, processing is a highly ecologically damaging process, as it increases the volumes of radioactive waste by a factor of 100.
Attempts to build new storage facilities for radioactive waste have met with strong opposition from the population. Citizens are also protesting against the import of radioactive waste from other countries, including Germany. Participative involvement in official planning processes is particularly difficult in Russia, most of all where nuclear energy is concerned. Environmental activists are under constant pressure and the authorities treat any criticism of nuclear power as opposition to state interests. Consequently, state monitoring of the nuclear industry is extremely hands-off, particularly as regards the state-controlled Rosatom, with links to the President and an important strategic role. The reason for this is obviously not just the military component of Rosatom, but also its “geopolitical” role, as it sells nuclear power plants and fuels worldwide.
Building NPPs other countries
Rosatom has announced that it is building 35 new reactors in various countries of the world, including the EU member states Finland and Hungary. The group is also pitching for a contract to build an NPP in Bulgaria. The total value of Rosatom’s overseas projects is more than 130 billion US dollars. A further contract with Uzbekistan was in the planning stages in 2020, but this was ultimately dropped due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Independent calculations conclude that the figures presented by Rosatom have been greatly inflated. In spring 2020, Rosatom provided evidence of actual contracts for the complete or partial construction of just 25 reactors, with a total value in the region of 100 billion US dollars (article in Russian only). Even these lower figures still make Rosatom the largest player in the global market for new NPP builds. However, part of the reason for this situation is that the state-owned group has practically unlimited access to the Russian state budget and is able to fund its business activities largely at the expense of the taxpayer. Rosatom has had limited success to date in securing new investors. Only Iran is financing the NPP in Bushehr out of its own resources.
This privileged position of Rosatom is related to the fact that the Kremlin sees the export of NPPs as an instrument of geopolitical influence. In the case of poorer countries, Russian credit arrangements are a way of pushing these countries into greater dependence on Russian technology, energy resources and capital. In other cases, it is a means of expanding Russian political influence and nurturing political allegiances, as in the case of Hungary and Belarus. The economic framework data of the NPP projects leave no room for doubt: commercial profits are not the foremost objective of this business.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.