TOL Special Report: In Russia’s northwest, a scrappy bunch of young environmentalists faces off against a powerful nuclear lobby.by Alexander Tretyakov 24 May 2012
This is the fourth in a series of articles on the state of the environment in Russia.
MOSCOW | Murmansk Oblast in northern Russia has one of the highest concentrations of nuclear energy on earth. Nuclear submarines and icebreakers of the Russian Northern Fleet sail the White and Barents seas, and the Kola nuclear power plant is still going strong nearly 40 years after its first reactor hummed into life.
Russia’s nuclear industry is due for a massive expansion under a government plan to increase nuclear’s share in national power production. Russia has shown no sign of wavering on nuclear power in the wake of last year’s Fukushima disaster, unlike Germany, which decided to phase out nuclear power completely, or Bulgaria, where the government recently scotched a planned second nuclear plant.
On Murmansk Oblast’s Kola peninsula, however, nuclear backers face one of the strongest environmental organizations in Russia. For more than 10 years, Vitaly Servetnik and other activists at Priroda i molodezh (Nature and Youth) have battled attempts to build new reactors and extend the life of existing ones at the Kola nuclear plant, carrying out more than 100 protest campaigns, with more success than some of their fellow campaigners elsewhere in Russia. Campaigners took heart when several years ago local government seemed to be warming to their enthusiasm for wind power and other forms of renewable energy.
"The Kola nuclear plant is in a critical state,” said Andrei Ozharovsky, a nuclear physicist and expert with the Bellona Foundation. The Norwegian-based environmental group has long been critical of Russia’s heavy reliance on nuclear power in the far north. “Although the plant has some of the oldest reactors, there are plans to increase the output of Unit 4 by 7 percent.”
The two oldest reactors at Kola have been in operation since the 1970s. Unit 4 went online in 1984. All four units are pressurized-water reactors, similar to those used in many countries, but Russia is the only country that still uses graphite-moderated RBMK reactors such as the one that exploded at Chernobyl. Eleven RBMK units are still in operation at the Kursk, Leningrad, and Smolensk power plants. Anti-nuclear campaigners can boast of one victory in the post-Fukushima era: Russia’s state nuclear energy conglomerate Rosatom said in March it was stopping work on a fifth RBMK reactor at the Kursk plant which had been under construction since 1985, a year before the Chernobyl disaster.
Ukraine, where Chernobyl is located, is going ahead with its own nuclear expansion plans, relying on more modern designs.
Servetnik accuses the authorities of using the Interior Ministry’s anti-terror police, known as Center E, to spy on his small group based in Murmansk.
“The most active members of our organization are under surveillance by Center E,” he said in a recent interview.
“The pressure increased after 4 March,” he said, in a reference to the day Vladimir Putin was elected to a third term as president. “This may be connected with the participation of members of the group, as well as my own, in activities of the regional Golos [election monitoring group].”
Despite the pressure, over the years activists from Nature and Youth and the allied Kola Environmental Center have thrown a number of wrenches into the plans of the nuclear lobby. In 2006, Servetnik and colleagues from Nature and Youth challenged Rosatom’s bid to expand the nuclear plant, partly to service a power-hungry aluminum smelter. They managed to persuade Rosatom head Sergei Kirienko to meet with them. It turned out to be the last time Kirienko met members of the group, but the expansion plan was shelved.
The Murmansk region may be unusual only in that anti-nuclear campaigners have had marginally more success here. With hardly a blip after last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan, Russia is pressing ahead with plans to extend the lives of old reactors and build new ones. Just weeks after the earthquake and tsunami struck Fukushima, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin set a goal of increasing nuclear’s share of national electricity generation from 16 percent to 25 percent. Such a step would have been hard to imagine when Putin came to power in the late 1990s. Nuclear energy had gone into a deep slump as the combined blows of Chernobyl and the collapsing economy put most expansion plans on hold. Since 2000 the state-controlled industry has been on the rebound, but even so, 23 of the country’s 33 active reactors predate Chernobyl, according to the World Nuclear Association, which promotes the use of nuclear power.
In 2010, nuclear power generated 170 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, or 16.6 percent of the nationwide total. Ten reactors are under construction now, 17 more are planned – including two at a new facility in Kola – and Rosatom is working on proposals for up to two dozen more by around 2030, by when nuclear power should contribute 25 percent to 30 percent of Russia’s electricity, the association says.
Figures like that underline why the environmentalists’ demand to completely close down the Kola plant faces heavy opposition. The plant supplies up to 60 percent of the 800,000-population Murmansk region’s electricity, and the entire town of Polyarnye Zori and its 15,000 residents are dependent on the plant for jobs, not to mention the company town’s cultural and sports facilities.
“It is impossible to get support for anti-nuclear projects on the regional level, because they are not considered to be socially-oriented activities,” Servetnik said. “Picking up garbage and planting trees are always welcome, but discussing energy policies is not. It is also difficult to get into the local media. Coverage of our activities has been reduced in the past few years.”
Fortunately for local environmentalists, Scandinavia with its comparatively powerful anti-nuclear groups lies just across the border. Opposition to expansion of the Kola plant has been spearheaded by Nature and Youth’s parent group and by Bellona, both based in Norway. Anti-nuclear groups elsewhere in Russia are more isolated and their protests are generally more muted. Nevertheless, ecologists persuaded authorities in Volgodonsk, southern Russia, to hold round table talks on the planned power increase of one reactor at the Rostov nuclear plant. In the Kaliningrad exclave, opposition is mounting to the planned 2016 launch of a new reactor at the Baltic plant.
Although the latest national targets envisage nuclear’s share of Russian electricity generation jumping to 50 percent at midcentury and 70 percent to 80 percent by 2100, according to the World Nuclear Association, only a few years ago the Kremlin was waxing enthusiastic for alternative energy, drafting a multi-trillion-ruble scheme to subsidize solar, wind, and other renewable sources. That was before the worldwide recession. The plan – never popular with the Finance Ministry, which continues to see oil and gas as the mainstays of not only Russia’s energy supply but of its federal budget as well, an Energy Ministry source told TOL last year – was brutally scaled down in a belt-tightening move.
Before the recession and the arrival of a new, nuclear-friendly governor, Nature and Youth had a plan for weaning the region away from nuclear power: wind farms and other forms of renewable energy. The regional government set up a working group on alternative energy following a successful 2006 meeting attended by environmentalists and officials, Servetnik says.
The authorities approved 800,000 rubles ($26,000) for a pilot wind-farm project managed by the Kola Science Center, a branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. That was not enough money to make the project sustainable, Servetnik says, and in any case the scheme ground to a halt after Dmitry Dmitriyenko was appointed governor in 2009.
Although Dmitriyenko resigned in April, local environmentalists still see the Kola nuclear plant as the main obstacle blocking development of wind and other alternative energy sources. As long as nuclear is king on the peninsula, local authorities will not even consider licensing alternative power plants, Bellona’s Ozharovsky charges. In 2010, the operating life of reactor no. 3 was extended for 15 years, and this January the state nuclear operator Rosenergoatom said construction of the replacement Kola II plant would be brought forward, with two reactors planned to begin producing power in 2020.