The Russian state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, is aggressively pursuing export contracts throughout the world – pledging to offer an ideal all-inclusive solution to the huge problems and risks associated with nuclear reactors
Even leaving aside the massive economic and human costs of a Fukushima-like disaster, nuclear reactors are expensive and slow to build. They require maintenance, regulatory infrastructure, and skilled labour to operate. They generate waste that is lethal to life for longer than modern humans have existed on the planet.
For decades Greenpeace has tirelessly exposed the corruption, environmental contamination and exploitation of populations by various nuclear suppliers and operators. These include: Areva, Westinghouse, GE, Hitachi and Toshiba. The nationality of the bad actor is not the issue. The massively negative impacts and socialized risks wrought by these actors, as well as the inherent risks posed by nuclear energy, are the problems.
But a new Greenpeace report exposes Rosatom, the most ambitious nuclear exporter, peddling a supposed cure-all contract solution to the enormous nuclear problems, as a particularly risky and dangerous business partner.
Our report lays bare the troubled history and current problems with the Russian nuclear program. As Rosatom’s predecessors oversaw the worst nuclear disaster in world history at Chernobyl, the company likes to claim it learned from its mistakes and has some of the safest reactors in the world. But a look at both its domestic and foreign projects casts a long shadow of doubt on both these claims and their future ambitions abroad.
Rosatom offers what seems like a deal too good to be true – a Build Own Operate (BOO) contract, which promises to finance, build, and operate reactors abroad – as well as take back and reprocess the waste spent from those reactors. But the deal has serious financial, environmental and political implications.
Countries attracted to it for what they see as energy independence and security will, in fact, find themselves frequently indebted and beholden to this Russian state company for both the reactors Rosatom owns in their territory as well as uranium fuel imports. They could also find themselves with vast piles of highly radioactive wastes from reprocessing piled back on their doorstep– an important, but often overlooked footnote to the promise of Russian reprocessing.
In short, Rosatom is peddling this BOO scheme because nuclear power equals political power.
To be able to tap that political power, you need to get into the market, and for that you need financing. Rosatom, backed up by the Russian state budget and state controlled banks, can deliver it. Russia can offer loans at low interest rates (the goal is not monetary, but political profit, remember). But, as Hungary could attest, those low rates can come with enough complex punishment paragraphs in the fine print, to tie you hand and foot.
Many countries buying into Rosatom’s BOO schemes believe that the company is selling a tested standardised product with its MIR reactor. As a bit of background, “Mir” means peace or world in Russian, MIR stands for Modernised International Reactor. In reality, except for the marketing concept, all VVER 1200 reactors so far have been completely different – as the Czech nuclear envoy Václav Bartuška has concluded.
Of course, in addition to technological safety, and political risks, there are also issues of corruption, cost overruns, and delays.
All of it adds up to a very risky and dangerous business partner – one that should cause a long pause before any policymaker jumps after a shiny promise of Russian nuclear only to find themselves in the nuclear quicksand rather than in greener renewable energy pastures.
Jan Haverkamp is nuclear expert consultant at Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe.
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