On 18 November, following a meeting of the Russian-France commission on issues of bilateral cooperation at the prime ministerial level, the two nations signed a declaration of cooperation in the field of nuclear power.
Russian Federation Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed on behalf of Russia, while inking the document for France was French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
Not surprisingly, details of the agreement were not announced, but a Russian source familiar with the negotiations stated that a high priority of Moscow was its interest in expanding the involvement of French companies in building the 2,300 megawatt Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant, also known as the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, particularly in raising investment and utilizing French companies’ technologically advanced energy equipment.
The Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant will be the first nuclear energy facility built in Russia since Soviet times and will be the first Russian nuclear power plant with foreign participation.
The Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant is to be built in the Russian Baltic port of Kaliningrad and scheduled to come online in 2016. Putin signed the order for construction of the plant in September 2009. According to Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency Rosatom, 49 percent of the project’s shares will be offered to European companies, hence the outreach to the French. Ominously, the Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant is to operate two VVER-1000 pressurized water reactors, the design for which is already 40 years old.
It could be that besides seeking French investment, Moscow is also seeking French nuclear expertise to improve the VVER-1000 design, as French state-controlled nuclear group Areva SA operates the country’s 59 nuclear reactors, which generate 78.8 percent of France’s electricity the highest percentage in the world, unlike Rosatom, has never had a single major incident.
But minor incidents abound – in July 2008, an overflowing tub at the Tricastin French nuclear plant spilled uranium into the groundwater, while a burst pipe leaked uranium at another nuclear site, raising an alert, illuminating two accidents within two weeks. In September, a nuclear accident at the Marcoule site, killed one worker and injured four others, according to the French Nuclear Authority.
Farther east, what about regional worries about the proposed Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant in the wake of the 11 March 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan?
Not to worry, Chairman of the State Duma's committee on energy Yuri Lipatov told Itar-Tass news agency on 18 November, commenting on the International Energy Agency’s 2011 “World Energy Outlook” report, released last week. Lipatov said, "After Chernobyl many people said that development of nuclear energy would bring mankind to apocalypse, but this never happened. We do not see ‘waves of protest’ about nuclear energy after the events at Fukushima. The power plants at both Chernobyl and Fukushima used technologies of the 1960-70s, while modern technology offers 95-98 percent safety."
Last year prominent Russian environmentalist, academician and former scientific adviser to Boris Yeltsin and now head of the Green Russia faction of the liberal Yabloko Party, Alexei Yablokov, stated during an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the safety of Russian nuclear power plants has not changed substantially since Chernobyl, commenting, "It's been said that nuclear power plants are like nuclear bombs that generate electricity.
Any of them can explode. Not like an atomic bomb, of course, but with huge repercussions like Chernobyl. Even if the damage is 10 times less than Chernobyl, it would be a tragedy for millions of people."
As for that 1960s-1970s Soviet technology, it is worth noting that since 1986, five years before the collapse of the USSR and two years after the Chernobyl meltdown, Rosatom has spent at least $3.25 billion on upgrading Russian nuclear facilities, according to Rosatom`s deputy chief Aleksandr Lokshin, adding that over the next two years Rosatom intends to spend an additional $585.9 million to upgrade security at 32 reactors located in 10 Russian Federation nuclear power plants.
The Russian government is counting on the Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant to become a cash cow of exported energy, with estimates running as high as $12 billion and has emphasized the possibility of supplying electricity to Germany, which in the wake of the Fukushima disaster decided to close all the country’s nuclear power facilities.
Rosatom is building or planning nuclear power plants in 14 countries, including India, Bulgaria, and Iran. At least one Russian has absorbed the lessons of Fukushima, as the month following the Japanese plant’s meltdown Yablokov stated, "The fact that Russia is demonstratively signing deals to build nuclear reactors when the rest of the world is watching the catastrophe in Japan with great concern is a call for world public opinion (to stop the deals)."
Given that Rosatom and Areva are direct competitors for the world’s shrinking nuclear power plant market, it is difficult to see how the recent agreement will be implemented.
While is does represent a unique opportunity for French investors, given Russia’s still opaque business practices, the issue presents more than usual risks, as does Lipatov’s observation that “modern technology offers 95-98 percent safety,” which course, means a three-five percent margin of effort – acceptable perhaps in the Russian Federation, but much less so in the European Union.
Still, no doubt the catering at the Kremlin for the meetings between Putin and Fillon was impressive.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com