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Russia plans big nuclear expansion

Leading the globe in construction of new plants, it also hopes to export as many as 60 plants in the next two decades.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2007



Moscow

Before the Chernobyl accident threw everything atomic into disrepute, Soviet economic planners dreamed of mobile nuclear power stations that would light up remote Arctic towns.

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Public antipathy and economic woes shelved those dreams for two decades. But now, under direct orders from the Kremlin, ambitious Soviet-era expansion plans are being dusted off and rapidly implemented – including the first-ever floating atomic power station, set to begin operations in the frigid White Sea by 2010.

In a sweeping revival of Russia's nuclear industry, President Vladimir Putin has signed off on the construction of 26 major new nuclear stations, which will almost double the share of atomic power in Russia's electrical grid. In addition, the country's main atomic agency says it hopes to export as many as 60 nuclear power plants in the next two decades.

Critics say those export plans – particularly for floating stations, which use uranium enriched nearly to weapons-grade level – pose a proliferation risk, and warn that the largely Soviet-era technology could have dire ecological consequences. But advocates say the expansion wave is unstoppable, due to a partial shift in public attitude, the exigencies of global warming, and increasing economic pressures.

"Russia's economy is growing faster than anyone predicted; it's outrunning the capacities of our energy sector," says Vladimir Fortov, director of the official Institute of High Energy Physics in Moscow. "We're already starting to feel shortages of electricity, even in the Moscow region."

About 15 percent of Russia's electricity comes from nuclear power. Putin wants to increase that to 25 percent or more by 2030.

New state-run behemoth

Nuclear power engineering is no longer the Cinderella of Russian industry but "a priority branch for the country, which makes Russia a great power," Mr. Putin said last year, inaugurating the new program. "The most ambitious projects and progressive technologies are linked with this branch."

To facilitate the crash expansion, the Kremlin this month ordered more than 30 nuclear-related companies to amalgamate into a single state-owned behemoth, which will control every stage of civil atomic engineering from uranium mining to construction and export of power stations to fuel enrichment to decommissioning old reactors.

The new nuclear giant, to be called Atomenergoprom (Atomic Energy Industry Complex), is similar to other conglomerates that the Putin government has created and now runs in branches such as aircraft production, arms exports, electricity, and gas.

"I hope Putin has taken steps to avoid a second Gazprom," the natural-gas juggernaut that's sometimes accused of dictating state policy, says Gennady Pshakin, director of the independent Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in the formerly closed nuclear-science city of Obninsk. "It's going to be a monopoly, and that's not always a good thing."

Surveys suggest that Russian public opinion has shifted somewhat in favor of nuclear energy since the post-Chernobyl nadir in the 1990s. But many people remain skeptical.

A recent poll by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that just 27 percent of Russians want to see new nuclear-power plants, while 42 percent support keeping the 31 reactors already operating. Just 19 percent were completely opposed to atomic energy.

Not in my back yard

But, according to the online newspaper Gazeta.ru, 70 percent say they're strongly against any atomic station in their own neighborhood.

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