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Russian Support for Nuclear Power Weakens as Chernobyl Anniversary Nears

A general view of the sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant February 24, 2011. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia will mark the 25th anniversary of the nuclear reactor explosion in Chernobyl, the place where the wor
A general view of the sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant February 24, 2011. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia will mark the 25th anniversary of the nuclear reactor explosion in Chernobyl, the place where the wor

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Japan’s nuclear accident comes as Russia prepares for the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion.  This combination may weaken support for nuclear energy in Russia, long a major nuclear advocate.

A Soviet official hysterically bellowing that there is no accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is not the face the Russia nuclear power industry would like to project to the world at this time of Japan’s nuclear leak in Fukushima.

But the scene is featured in Innocent Saturday, a docudrama about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that opened in movie theaters across Russia one month before the 25th anniversary of the explosion and fire at the Soviet power plant.

The movie is banned in Belarus, the country that most suffered from the Chernobyl disaster.  Last week, Belarus authorities signed a $9.4 billion deal with neighboring Russia to build two nuclear reactors.

The export deal is part of a drive to make Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company, the leading builder of nuclear reactors around the world.  Building plants in Turkey, Bulgaria, India, China and Iran, Rosatom says it is building one quarter of the 60 nuclear power plants under construction worldwide.

To help this sales effort, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev posted an eight-minute video on his website saying Russian designs offered "maximum safety barriers." He called for restrictions on construction of power plants in earthquake zones.

But Russian environmentalists say that nuclear reactors are already in use in earthquake prone areas of the former Soviet Union, in Armenia, and in Rostov in Southern Russia.

Domestically, Russia plans to build another 11 reactors during the next decade, raising the nuclear portion of the nation’s electricity from 16 to 25 percent.  Overseas, Rosatom wants triple sales, to $50 billion by 2030.

The head of Russian environmental group Eco-Defense, Vladimir Slivyak, led an anti-nuclear protest Wednesday outside the headquarters of Rosatom in central Moscow.  He says of the company’s sales forecasts:

"That is government propaganda.  I do not believe they are able to sell that amount of reactors per year or even per decade," he said. "The Russian government now needs to spread as much propaganda as possible to make Russian people believe that Russian nuclear industry is great, and much better than Western nuclear industry."

Slivyak says that 11 of the 32 nuclear reactors working in Russia are of the Chernobyl era, built with designs from the 1970s.  One outside St. Petersburg, just had its working life extended for 15 years.

Last week, in light of the nuclear accident in Japan, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered an across the board review of nuclear safety in Russia.  But with electricity prices slated to rise by 15 percent this year, an election year, the government does not want to retire old reactors.

Aging reactors are part of a wider problem.  Modern day Russia is coasting on infrastructure investments made during the final decades of the Soviet Union.

A wakeup call came two summer ago, when turbine bolts broke at Sayano Shushenskaya Dam, the largest hydroelectric plant in Russia.  The ensuing water hammer pushed a 1,000-ton turbine into the air like a toy.  The accident took 75 lives and caused damage that will take four years to repair.  The accident was blamed on sloppy maintenance and metal fatigue in a plant installed 40 years ago.

In Germany, Chancellor Merkel is suspending operation of seven aging nuclear plants pending the outcome of "stress tests."  The German leader made the move to head off a brewing anti-nuclear campaign.

But Germany is far more densely populated in Russia.

Here, in the world’s largest nation, the attitude toward nuclear power is often: out of sight, out of mind.

Greenpeace Russia Campaign Director Ivan Blokov says local opposition is often strong.

"Something like 75 percent to 92 percent of the population is totally against.  But when people do not see a nuclear power station in their backyard, they simply do not care," he said.

But with the Chernobyl anniversary coinciding with balmy spring weather, bigger anti-nuclear protests may be in store for Russia.

"On April 26th,  when the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl will happen, we are planning to organize bigger protests and probably more radical," says Vladimir Slivyak of Eco-Defense.

The mix of radiation leaking from Japan’s damaged reactor compounded by the Chernobyl anniversary may shift public attitudes in Russia, currently one of the world’s strongest advocates of nuclear power.


James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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