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.
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Though there's talk of technology breakthroughs, such as breeder reactors that produce more fuel than they use, the new stations to be built and exported are basically pre-Chernobyl Soviet designs that have safety systems added on. Russia is currently building seven nuclear stations abroad – more than any competitor – in Iran, China, India, and Bulgaria.Skip to next paragraph
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In addition, atomic officials say they're in talks with at least a dozen developing countries, from Algeria to Vietnam, about buying Russian reactors.
"We are world leaders in developing nuclear technology," says Sergei Novikov, spokesperson for RosAtom, the official atomic-energy agency. "We are major innovators in safety systems, and new reactors we are building are among the most secure in the world."
Worries of proliferation
The planned floating nuclear stations have attracted fierce criticism. "These platforms will need to be protected by warships to prevent anyone getting near them; they are much less secure than land-based stations," says Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Eco-Defense, a Russian environmental group. Since they use fuel that's been enriched to 20 percent (nuclear fuel for most civilian reactors is about 4 percent), "they pose a clear risk of proliferation," he warns.
Russian experts say the units have been offered to Persian Gulf states, where they could be used to run desalinization plants, as well as to such countries as Indonesia, Algeria, Malaysia, and Argentina.
Some Russian sales successes, such as the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear station in Iran, have prompted allegations that Moscow is already providing dangerous technologies to rogue regimes.
Russian experts argue that Bushehr has nothing to do with Iran's alleged drive to acquire nuclear weapons, since there will be total Russian control over the reactor's fuel cycle.
For reasons that remain unclear, construction at Bushehr has been stalled for many months, and Russia has delayed delivery of the first installment of fuel rods.
Officials insist it's not about politics.
"Since January, the Iranians have not been making the agreed payments," for Bushehr, says Mr. Novikov. "You can't build a reactor on good relations alone. Why they're not paying is a question to ask the Iranian side."
US-Russia deal for close monitoring
At the Kennebunkport summit early this month, Putin and US President George Bush approved a long-stalled Global Nuclear Energy Partnership deal which, if ratified by Congress, could enable Russia and the US to move toward joint marketing of nuclear technology.
The idea, long advocated by Putin, would be to make atomic energy widely available while imposing tight control over the potential weapons-producing stages: the enrichment of nuclear fuel and reprocessing of reactor waste.
"We have a common vision, to expand the use of nuclear energy while keeping the world safe," says Mr. Pshakin. "It's a dream, but it's time to introduce it to the world community."
But critics say that Russia's nuclear industry, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption and unsafe practices, needs to clean up its own act first.
"The Russian atomic establishment is not ready to carry out this massive planned buildup," says Mr. Slivyak, the environmentalist. "There are lots of reasons to worry that all this haste could lead to bad consequences."