Albion Monitor /News

Funds to Close Creaky Nuclear Plants Keep Them Going

by Judith Perera

"Extending the life of old and potentially dangerous reactors was not our intention"
(IPS) LONDON -- European funders putting millions into patch repairs to Europe's creaking Soviet era nuclear reactors keep saying the funds are meant only to hold them together while plans are laid to quickly close them -- not to keep them going indefinitely.

But as a commission from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) found on a recent monitoring visit to a joint project to increase safety at Russia's Leningrad nuclear power station, it's a point that appears to be falling on deaf ears.

"Extending the life of old and potentially dangerous reactors was not our intention," explains a source close to the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Account (NSA) group, which funds and monitors the work at the behest of the Group of Seven richest nations.

"The NSA is supporting short term-safety improvements only on the understanding that the reactors will be closed as soon as they reach the end of their design life, and preferably earlier. NSA funds are limited and they will simply be withdrawn if it seems that the recipients have lost sight of the purpose of the assistance."

Extending the operational life of the reactors by five to seven years beyond the initial design period

The NSA allocated 30 million ECU (33.7 million dollars) to the Leningrad plant in June 1995 for short-term safety upgrades to the four Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors. The project is due to be completed by the end of 1998. While expressing gratitude for the EBRD's aid, plant director Valery Lebedev notes that money it has allocated to his plant will cover only three percent of the total reconstruction costs.

The station is carrying out the reconstruction mainly with its own funds, receiving nothing from the federal budget, Lebedev explains. As a result, the work to improve safety at the plant will be completed only by the year 2001.

Reconstruction has already cost around 600 million dollars and a similar sum will be required to complete the work. However, Russian specialists believe the work will extend the operational life of the reactors by five to seven years beyond the initial design period.

Such suggestions, however, are likely to lead to increasing tension with the EBRD which in recent months has become increasingly concerned about how NSA money is being spent.

The NSA was established on the initiative of the Group of Seven in 1993, initially for three years to fund some safety improvements to those Soviet-designed reactors perceived to be the most dangerous -- the Chernobyl-type RBMKs and the oldest small pressurised water reactors, the VVER-440/230 models.

In 1996 the account was extended for a further three years. Funds are provided from contributions made on a voluntary basis with a minimum amount of 1.5 million ECU. By the end of 1996, 14 European Union countries had contributed a total of 257.2 million ECU (about 289 million dollars).

So far the NSA has allocated some 27 million dollars for upgrades to four VVER-440s at Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant, 35 million ECU for Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear plant with two RBMKs, 39.3 million dollars to the Leningrad plant (four RBMKs), and 50.5 million dollars for joint prjcts at Russia's Kola and Novovoronezh nuclear plants (four VVER-440s).

In addition some 118 million ECU (132.6 million dollars) has been allocated to the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine for the construction of waste treatment and spent fuel storage facilities with the aim of speeding up closure of the plant.

Work was delayed on the Ignalina plant pendi~g the report of a panel of international experts who identified a long list of vital safety improvements that were needed.

Lithuania is expected to finance 80 percent of the work through energy tariffs while the remaining 20 percent will come from various sources including the EBRD and bilateral agreements with the United States, Japan and Sweden.

Continuing differences of opinion over the date for decommissioning the reactors

In 1998, foreign assistance is expected to be mainly in the form of upgrading assistance and equipment while the Lithuanian budget will allocate additional funds. Overall internationally recommended improvements are estimated to cost 120 million dollars.

Parliament speaker Vytautas Landsbergis has called for more international assistance for Ignalina. Last month, he told a visiting EBRD delegation led by EBRD deputy vice president Joachim Jahnke, that the Ignalina plant was a problem for the whole of Europe and that Lithuania therefore "looked forward to international aid and support. "

He confirmed that Lithuania was prepared to find the 30 million dollars needed to carry out safety improvements recommended by a panel of independent international experts in March. The panel recommended that neither of the two units at Ignalina should be restarted after routine closure for maintenance in 1997 unless these safety issues were properly addressed.

However, there are continuing differences of opinion over the date for decommissioning the reactors. RBMK reactors require the channels in the core to be 're-channeled,' bored out, after a certain time to prevent the fuel from sticking inside them.

Lithuania initially agreed, in effect, to close certain reactors by agreeing not to re-channel them. But this was only on condition alternative power sources were available which would have meant decommissioning them in 2002 (Unit 1) and 2008 (Unit 2). However, plant manager Viktor Shevaldin has recently stated that Unit 1 can be safely operated until 2005 without this work.

Problems are also looming over the formal licensing of Ignalina. The government has promised that this will only be done on the basis of satisfying the demands made by the International safety panel.

However, the deadline set by he EBRD for licensing was mid- 1998, and it now seems unlikely that all the work will be completed by then. Work is also behind schedule in Russia and the EBRD warned in June that this could jeopardize the grants. In response Russia appointed deputy nuclear energy minister Lev Ryabev to ensure that the work is speeded up.

More is at stake that just the NSA grants. Most of these nuclear stations are also receiving grants through other European Union funding programs such as TACIS and PHARE. Any really serious dispute with the EBRD could put these at risk as well.

This will almost certainly act as a spur to Ukraine, Lithuania and Bulgaria. The leverage on Russia is likely to be much less because Russia has its own experts and does not depend on western technology. Although the finance is welcome, Russia could decide to forego it, if the conditions imposed by the various agencies involved become too onerous.

"The NSA is aware that Russia will not allow the west to force closure of nuclear plants which it still considers economically viable," says the source close to the EBRD.

"It will have to be a nice compromise between increased safety and delayed closure if cooperation is to continue with Russia. But the EBRD can afford to be heavy handed with the other countries. "And that is precisely what is expected."

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Albion Monitor July 29, 1997 (

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