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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sergei Kirienko has a reputation which survives no matter how selfish his aims, destructive his methods, ruinous his results. He was small enough to be looked down upon by President Boris Yeltsin; he hasn’t grown under President Vladimir Putin. As prime minister in 1998 – the smallest, shortest PM in Russian history — he presided over the government’s bond default and collapse of domestic savings, only to disappear abroad, some allege (falsely) with a fortune. Since Kirienko doesn’t answer unscripted questions from the press, he never admits making mistakes. Not even the most costly one in Russia’s recent history.

Russia managed to survive that one. It is less certain that Kamchatka would survive the one Kirienko as head of the State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) has been planning. That is the installation of the floating nuclear reactor vessel, Academician Lomonosov (right image), a 21,500-tonne barge being completed in St. Petersburg, and scheduled to be swtiched on at the Vilyuchinsk Naval Base in Avacha Bay, less than 20 kilometers from the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

This week, however, the Kamchatka governor Vladimir Ilyukhin and federal Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced this isn’t going to happen. Electricity, they also announced, will be generated instead by gas delivered overland to Vilyuchinsk by pipeline. The Lomonosov has already cost Rb13 billion ($420 million); completion is expected to cost another Rb7.6 billion ($245 million).

The reactor vessel’s hull was put on the water in 2010, but then became a hostage in the flight from Russia of Sergei Pugachev, and the subsequent bankruptcy of his St. Petersburg shipyard, Baltic Zavod. There were just two references to the Lomonosov in Rosatom’s last annual report, the one for 2011: “acceptance tests were carried out on head core 14-14 for reactor unit KLT-40S of the Academic Lomonosov floating NPP, which is under construction at the Baltic Plant in Saint-Petersburg” and “construction of the Floating Nuclear Power Station (Academic Lomonosov) also continued.” The latest word from Rosatom was issued on February 1 of this year, when Kirienko wasn’t about to acknowledge the objections from the locals at Kamchatka, and from the Navy.

According to Rosatom, “the installation of two 300-tonne tanks has taken the project to build Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant a step further towards completion. The tanks, which provide a shielded housing for the reactor vessels and their cooling circuits, were manufactured by Baltiysky Zavod shipyard, which is constructing the plant for Rosenergoatom. They were lowered into the reactor compartment of the Akademik Lomonosov over two days in an operation made complicated by ice on the Neva river…Akademik Lomonosov is Rosenergoatom’s first-of-a-kind floating nuclear power plant and will contain two 35 MWe KLT-40S nuclear reactors. The vessel’s keel was laid in April 2007 at Sevmash in Severodvinsk, but the project was subsequently transferred to the Baltiysky Zavod. The 21,500 tonne hull was launched in 2010, although construction work was frozen in mid-2011 amid bankruptcy proceedings against the shipyard. The company was subsequently acquired by state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation and Rosenergoatom signed a new contract with Baltiysky Zavod shipyard for the completion of the first floating nuclear power plant in December 2012. It is now scheduled for commissioning in 2016.”

The Fukushima disaster has proved to be less of a nuisance for Kirienko’s plan than Pugachev’s mismanagement. On March 17, 2011, Rosatom began briefing the press from its situation center in Moscow six days after the disastrous breakdown began at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan. “We are confident,” announced Yaroslav Shtrombakh, a member of the Situation Center and first deputy director at the Kurchatov Institute, “that there cannot be an inadvertent chain reaction.” In the worst case “we can observe dispersion of fuel inside the building. But I think it’s unlikely. We don’t see any catastrophic scenario associated with fuel dispersion over the territory of Japan and surrounding countries.” Russia’s reactors were safe, he added.

At the same time, Putin ordered a check of the country’s 31 operational nuclear reactors, producing about 22 gigawatts or about 10% of Russia’s installed capacity. Rosatom, however, refused to respond to questions about the status of the Lomonosov, or the series of three to five comparable reactor vessels to follow for mooring off Russia’s remote Arctic settlements.

Objections by Russian environmental organizations to the seaworthiness and reactor safety of the Lomonosov-type vessel were summarized here. Kirienko had said at the launch of the hull that the Lomonosov would be “absolutely safe”. But Kirienko’s spokesman Vladislav Bochkov, along with Olga Galkina, spokesman for the state inspection agency Rostekhnadzor, weren’t prepared to repeat the claim after Fukushima. Russian critics of the project argued at the time that if the earthquake and tsunami, which hit northeastern Japan and triggered the Fukushima fire and meltdown, had struck further north, when the Lomonosov was in operation, the reactor cycle could not have been shut down and the nuclear fallout would have been impossible to contain. Russian records indicate that on November 2, 1952 an earthquake and tsunami did occur in the region at this threat level. A “sea of Hiroshima”, one critic, Alexei Yablokov, has called the Lomonosov risk.

The risks of waterborne disaster striking floating nuclear reactors have already been assessed as so great in the United States, the Atlantic programme to install four Westinghouse reactors off the coast of New Jersey, south of New York, was called off in 1978, after six years of planning.

Wednesday’s announcement putting the Kamchatka kybosh on Kirienko is unambiguous. It is also evident that the governor was able to defeat Kirienko by overpowering him with Shoigu, whose jurisdiction covers the Vilyuchinsk submarine base.

Vladimir Chuprov, head of the energy programme at Greenpeace Russia in Moscow, is cautious. “Until we will see this solution fixed, not even in a regional document but in a federal one, talking about cancellation is premature. Still, the fact that there were conversations and they appeared after contact with Shoigu, this can mean a lot.” According to Chuprov, there have been fifteen years of discussions over how best to provide heat and electricity to Vilyuchinsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. But the floating nuclear source turned out to be “super-expensive, which was said by German Gref, when he was minister of economic development. And his words very clearly show that the [Lomonosov’s] cost of the installed energy — $7,000 per kilowatt – could never be repaid. So all these talks about small nuclear power stations and floating nuclear power plants – this is feasible only where there are high tariffs and expensive northern delivery of fuel. For Kamchatka it is certainly not suitable.

“Even more so since after the talks on the Lomonosov project started, a few geothermal plants have been launched, several hydroelectric plants. And in the end it turned out that in Kamchatka the authorities said that if you will come to us with your super-expensive nuclear power generation, you will put a lift here under all our housing and utility rates, and our entire social sphere will float away.

“This argument didn’t stop Kirienko, because the process, once started, has invested billions of rubles. Naturally, Kirienko has very strong weight in the government. Nuclear energy is Putin’s favorite child. And of course, this issue is also about image and geopolitics. Because, allegedly, waiting in a queue for this floating nuclear power plant are China, India, Brazil, etc. But why do they need the floating vessels? They need the technology, they need the design – they can take the pilot project, duplicate it on submarines, and nothing more. The floating nuclear power plant isn’t needed in Hell, if you will pardon the expression.

“The Greenpeace position is very clear – the nuclear power plant in Kamchatka mustn’t be there. In Kamchatka, first of all, it is necessary to develop geothermal and wind power. There are calculations which show that Kamchatka can be self-sufficient in energy supply without the atom and – take note — without gas. Therefore, we hope that the next step in understanding the whole situation in Kamchatka is that they will realize that it is necessary to stop these games. Still, the budget is not elastic, and it’s needed to think how to transplant our energy-generating technology to decentralized, renewable energy sources.

“After Fukushima happened, it became evident that it should be prohibited to place nuclear power plants in areas vulnerable to tsunamis. But in Russian law and regulation today, there is a special order of Rostekhnadzor [environmental safety agency] saying that in the tsunami-risk areas nuclear power plants can be placed! You can even build nuclear power plants on tectonic faults, but on one condition — that they should be of high quality, they must observe high levels of construction standards, containment technologies, etc.

“[President Dmitry] Medvedev in his time after Fukushima took the initiative to make an international standard by which in tsunami-risk areas no nuclear plant can be built at all – neither in Japan nor in Russia, nowhere at all. This initiative has stalled for some reason, I do not know why. What Medvedev could have done was simply replace the order of Rostekhnadzor and delete the paragraph about tsunamis. Introduce a simple ban. But in that case Kirienko would have lost, and immediately. Against the background of the post-Fukushima conversations, of course it would have looked like a defeat for Kirienko and his floating nuclear project. To our petition campaign against [the Lomonosov installation in Kamchatka] we received a formal reply that there is nothing wrong — that it’s possible to build such plants — thanks for signing but everything will remain as before. That is how the Government disavowed Medvedev’s initiative, with an outcome once again demonstrating his weakness.”

Greenpeace is actively backing the Kamchatka regional government in opposing the Lomonosov, but expects Kirienko to lobby Putin to overrule Ilyukhin and Shoigu. “We welcome this decision,” says Chuprov, “because finally good sense has started to win out in this story. We very much hope that behind this stand economic calculation and common sense, not big-time politics and the fighting of clans. It is understood that gas generation [of electricity] must be the substitute. This is also the brainchild of Putin, it is also a Putin favorite. So it is possible that what is happening is that the gas clan defeated the atomic clan. Of course, the two bears will not fit in a single Kamchatka lair. It must be gas or nuclear – there’s no third option. So here it is possible that as a result of undercover games, Kirienko could not offer a more affordable political and economic price. Because every project always [consists of] interested parties – they are contractors, subcontractors, kickbacks. Maybe this is what has turned out — in a struggle of clans Kirienko lost to the gas clan.”

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