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.
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.
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.
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."