Reconstructing nuclear confidence in the post-Fukushima world is a long and painful process. But real-life energy demands, especially in the developing countries, predetermine a significant share of nuclear energy in their national energy consumption structure. Russian experience in this field can offer some interesting solutions to the decision-makers.
The Fukushima incident has contributed a lot to the lay belief that nuclear energy use is a risk not worth taking. However, according to the data of the non-profit World Nuclear Association, only a very limited number of accidents has occurred in over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 32 countries. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are the most notorious examples of "Houston, we've had a problem"crisis situations. Is it possible to find a balance between reasonable public concerns and nuclear generation crucial for economic growth? The Russian experience in rebuilding global nuclear confidence can offer some interesting solutions in the post-Fukishima world.
Nuclear power use goes hand in hand with irrational fears, especially in the so-called developed countries. A popular genre of post-apocalyptic drama has been thrilling Western consumers with pictures of polluted wastelands and toxic rains for several decades. No wonder the Fukushima incident triggered a decline of the atomic industry in the EU: Germany adopted a total ban, and Switzerland and Spain banned the construction of new reactors.
Independent data analysis shows that the roots of these radical decisions lie in the sphere of crowd psychology--politicians influenced by the green lobby had to stop the atomic panic. However, all energy specialists know that the potential impact of human error in the nuclear sector has considerably decreased. According to the OECD report Risk Statistics, the natural gas and nuclear industries appear to be the safest energy sources. The contrast is especially striking in comparison with other realistic energy options (see a timeline by The Guardian Datablog). Counting accidents with nuclear reactors after the Japanese tragedy in 2011, Simon Rogers wrote, "Of those we have identified, six accidents happened in the US and five in Japan. The UK and Russia have had three apiece."
by Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI)
These data explain why many sovereign governments, such as China, India and Iran, want to use Russia's Atomstroyexport as their contractor, despite the fact that they have their own peaceful atomic programs. Last April, Finnish Fennovoima also invited Atomstroyexport (along with Toshiba) to take part in a tender for building the sixth nuclear reactor in Finland. The first two Finnish reactors were built by Russian specialists, the third and fourth by a Swedish company. The fifth reactor is now under construction by German and French sources.
The Iranian facility in Bushehr is a unique example of engineering expertise. Russian specialists solved many technological problems and successfully integrated German structural elements into the new reactor. In the late 1990s, Siemens AG (Germany) quit the project mostly for political reasons, leaving behind tons of old hardware. Nevertheless, as announced last year by an Atomstroyexport representative, with the help of Iranian scientists the reactor at the Bushehr nuclear power plant's Unit 1 was brought up to 100 per cent of projected capacity on August 30, 2012. Setting all ideological considerations aside, the completion of the project in such a highly seismic area was truly a landmark event for the whole industry. The Bushehr facility successfully passed a harsh stress-test during the latest earthquake in Iran.
After 2011, Rosatom went global and concentrated on its key export project, the NPP-2006. This reactor combines both active and passive safety systems. Innovative solutions include advanced molten core catchers, a passive heat-decay removal system, and other updated protection elements. At the same time, US-Japanese and European companies are primarily developing passive nuclear safety systems, because power outage reports influenced their risk analysis.
Earlier in the 20th century, the Three Mile Island incident in the US (1979) led to massive anti-nuclear protests and inspired the sociological theory of "system or normal accidents" developed by Charles B. Perrow. In short, the theory holds that high-risk systems are prone to failures, however well they were managed. Its effect was to significantly slow down research in the US civilian nuclear industry. Western companies simply lacked field data on various types of accident situations.
In contrast, Russian specialists since Chernobyl have become virtually paranoid about disaster prevention and safety issues, both on the practical and theoretical levels. For instance, Russian reactors can stand a direct collision with a falling plane! Who could ever have thought that degree of prevention necessary in the pre-9/11 world? If Rosatom's modern NPP had been installed in Japan, the Fukushima incident might not have happened. Or, at least, the consequences would not have been so devastating.
This year, on April 26, Russia mourned the 25th anniversary of the tragic events in Chernobyl. The event had taught it a painful lesson. Since its occurrence, Russia has done its homework, and now its nuclear power plants are the most reliable and technologically advanced atomic facilities in the world. One cannot but hope that politicians all over the world will understand that sometimes it is necessary to put safety concerns before lucrative business deals with politically "comfortable" partners. Paraphrasing one famous advertising motto, in the nuclear industry you should really get the best or nothing. Such strategy may help the decision-makers on nuclear projects to strike the happy medium between environmental concerns and actual energy demands.