AtomEco 2017

Nuclear glasnost

Print edition : January 05, 2018

The plenary session “Clean energy for future generations” of AtomEco 2017 organised by Rosatom on November 21 and 22 in Moscow. Photo: Courtesy Rosatom

The session on public hearings relating to nuclear projects saw an interesting presentation by Antal Kovacs (third from right). Kovacs was the judo champion in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Photo: Courtesy Rosatom

The “Public dialogue-forum AtomEco 2017”, organised in Moscow on November 21 and 22, discussed the pros and cons of nuclear power generation and its future.

IT was a conference that was eclectic in its proceedings to the point of discussing embarrassing topics too. If the underlying thrust of “Public dialogue-forum AtomEco 2017”, organised in Moscow on November 21 and 22, was to assert that “nuclear power is green energy” and that “nuclear energy is one of the most efficient systems” of generating electricity, there was also a readiness to acknowledge that “switching over to renewable energy is not something for tomorrow but today”.

The topics the conference discussed were remarkable for their sheer variety: how atoms formed a unique tool with which human beings can meet the most fundamental challenges in agriculture, food supply and medicine; public acceptance of nuclear power; ethics in decision-making; the Arctic and the atom; Russia’s mastery in decommissioning research reactors, power reactors and nuclear weapons; the closed nuclear fuel cycle as the basis of clean nuclear power; the reprocessing of spent fuel; radioactive waste management; the need to develop small-capacity reactors for production of isotopes used in nuclear medicine; women occupying top positions in nuclear industry; and so on.

The plenary session, “Clean energy for future generations”, stood out for the insightful observations made, as did two other sessions: “The formats of public hearings in the construction of nuclear power plants: the Russian and the foreign experience” and “The Arctic and the Atom: environment and development”.

The conference was organised by Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation, the overarching organisation under which fall several companies that are responsible for the mining of uranium, its enrichment, fabrication of fuel assemblies, manufacture of nuclear power components, building of reactors, and so on. Rosatom commands 17 per cent of the world’s nuclear fuel market and is a leader in the construction of nuclear power projects. It has $133.4 billion of overseas orders, including those to build reactors in Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Egypt, Finland, Hungary and Iran.

The AtomEco 2017 (Atom Plus Ecology) hosted as many as 1,100 participants from 19 countries, including Germany, Hungary, India and Indonesia. With President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation declaring 2017 as the year of ecology, it was no surprise that the plenary session was on clean energy for future generations.

Combating carbon dioxide emissions is a huge technological challenge and hence the conference assumed importance, the speakers said. They emphasised that issues like countries accepting or rejecting the Kyoto Protocol or the recommendations of the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris in November-December 2015 were “tricky political matters”. Countries changed their position depending on politics, and the number of countries that would agree to a voluntary cut in greenhouse emissions, subsequent to the Paris conference, would be known by November 2018, they said. Incidentally, nuclear power stations generated 38 per cent of global “green” electric power.

Public acceptance of nuclear power generated a lot of debate. Kirill Komarov, first deputy director general for corporate development and international business, Rosatom, pointed to a “paradoxical situation” in which the level of public acceptance was higher among people who lived closer to a nuclear power plant. “It would seem that people, who live in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant should be afraid because if anything happens, they will be the first to suffer. However, they are not afraid because they have maximally fair and direct information,” he said.

He argued that the only way to achieve public acceptance of nuclear power was to provide information about it. Komarov said: “We must be open and carry on a dialogue. It is not by chance that our conference is called not just a forum but a forum-dialogue. Our main goal is to deliver information, respond to certain concerns and bring stability into these relations, thus creating a basis for successful nuclear power development.”

Gloria Kwong, acting head of the Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning Working Area, The Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said: “In a nutshell, what is important is communication.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was convinced that “a top-down approach” in communicating with people in garnering support for nuclear power would not wash with people in India or any other country.

The session on “The Arctic and the Atom: environment and development” stressed the need for a stable and steady power supply for the development of the Arctic region, which is rich in hydrocarbons. The Russian delegates pointed out that the USSR had dumped nuclear-powered submarines, decommissioned reactors and containers with radioactive waste in several locations in the Arctic and spoke of the need to clean up the Arctic.

Transition to renewables

The plenary session started on a lively note with Stanislav Naumov, president of the Russian Public Relations Association, pointing out that several European scientists had raised the pitch for renewable energy sources to be a reality today rather than a long-term forecast. He said: “To this end, they argue that the use of renewable energy sources is economically more beneficial than the use of energy based on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. What is the perception of Rosatom on this? Is the search for new projects on renewables connected with attempts to meet these trends?”

Komarov acknowledged that switching over to renewable forms was the need of the hour. “Alternative energy is not exotic,” he said. Russia was keen on knowing the existing trends of renewable sources of energy, he said, and added: “Alternative energy has long ceased to be such. Billions of dollars are being spent on solar and wind energy. The capital expenditure [in erecting solar and wind power plants] has reduced significantly. That is good news. Whether the world is ready to accept power consumption based solely on them [wind and solar energy], I don’t think the answer is ‘yes’. These technologies are weather-dependent.”

Komarov cited the example of Germany, which had decided to exit from nuclear power and announced “a dramatic increase” in the generation of renewable energy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He claimed, quoting experts, that carbon dioxide emissions had been growing in Germany for the past several years owing to the use of fossil fuels for power generation. “So there is no escaping the fact that carbon dioxide emissions are growing [even when] wind generation is used at full power. It indicates that with all the positive features associated with the development of renewables worldwide, we do not consider them an alternative source to nuclear power,” he said.

Mikhail Chudakov, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, IAEA, Vienna, asserted: “Without nuclear power, we shall neither fulfil the conditions of the COP climate change conference [on reducing carbon dioxide emissions] nor achieve the goals of sustainable development.” In many countries, including Russia, the Netherlands, Finland and Slovakia, public support for nuclear power has exceeded 50 per cent. This support alone is not enough to build new nuclear power plants for fulfilling the conditions of the climate change conference. To meet those conditions, it was necessary to build 20 nuclear power units right now and 31 nuclear power units in the 2030s, each with a capacity of one GW, he said.

Chudakov said public acceptance of nuclear power should be transformed into public demand. “We saw this in Armenia when people voted for the closure of nuclear power plants and then for the resumption of their operation,” he said. He suggested that the public should be shown the real advantages of nuclear power and the energy security it brought about. For instance, hundreds of thousands of kW/hour of electricity could be generated using one kilogram of uranium. A nuclear power plant with an installed capacity of one GW needed only three sq km of land, but wind turbines with similar capacity would occupy 900 sq km. Besides, windmills depended on the vagaries of the weather. “It is, therefore, necessary to speak about the real situation at all levels. We need to talk the truth about nuclear power,” Chudakov said.

Currently, 30 countries are operating 450 commercial nuclear power units with an installed capacity of 3,91,000 MWe. This amounts to 5 per cent of the world’s installed capacity and 11 per cent of the electricity generated. Fifty-seven reactor units are under construction in various countries. Another 30 countries have plans afoot to build nuclear power reactors. It was estimated that to comply with the terms of the Paris climate conference COP21, the world needed to have 1,000 GWe of installed capacity of nuclear power and 25 per cent of the world electricity sale by 2050, Chudakov said.

According to the IAEA’s annual projections, the dynamic energy development scenario showed that the demand for nuclear energy would keep increasing despite the Fukushima accident of 2011. Demand is projected to grow by 2.5 to three times, while generation remains at the same level. “The question is how to sustain this dynamic trend without pitting nuclear energy against renewables? On opposite sides must be carbon energy and carbon-free energy, where nuclear power must eventually be the basis for carbon-free energy,” he said.

After Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima, a wide range of programmes helped ratchet up safety in nuclear power stations in various countries, Chudakov said. For instance, special hydrogen traps were installed to prevent hydrogen explosions inside the containment dome of nuclear reactor buildings. “Besides, all new post-Fukushima safety requirements issued by the IAEA had been addressed in generation 3+ reactors which have been successfully installed in Russia. An innovative reactor called VVER-1200 of this generation has been recently installed at Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant unit six. The same type of reactor, with all passive and active safety systems, is under commissioning at Leningrad Nuclear Power Project-2. Russia is the first country to have built such power reactors,” he said. “In turn, the IAEA defines safety principles and prepares related documents, helping to develop national safety and security systems at nuclear facilities. To this end, the national regulator of various countries issues the regulatory framework, whose requirements are much more stringent than those of the IAEA. The international expert reviews conducted by the IAEA conform to the highest level.”

Public hearings

While several interesting papers were presented on topics such as nuclear medicine and oncology, isolation of radioactive waste and the ecological aspects of mining uranium ore, the most popular session was the one on public hearings: “Modern formats of interaction with the public in the construction of nuclear power plants—the Russian and the foreign experience”. The star of the session was Antal Kovacs, Director of Information and Public Relations of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant in Hungary. Incidentally, he won the Olympic Gold in Judo at the 1992 Barcelona Games at the age of 19 and became the world champion the following year. Kovacs traced the history of public hearings in Hungary and how their format had changed over the years.

“It was almost a military operation,” he said, when the first public hearing was held in 1995 in Hungary on the extension of the life of a nuclear power plant. It was time-limited and the questions were short and replies brief. Subsequently, participants were allowed to formulate their questions beforehand. People belonging to countries that bordered Hungary were allowed to formulate questions. “We got 40,000 questions from different borders and states of the European Union.... Some of them had developed a negative attitude towards the whole process,” he said.

On the basis of this experience, the Hungarian authorities changed the style of public hearings. “We did not set any time limits because we knew we had to give exhaustive replies to questions from the public,” Kovacs said. For a public hearing on the construction of the Paks 2 project, he said: “A question was repeated 16 times in a sequence and we never lost our cool.... Some questions had provocative intentions. We were tested and tried.”

Apparently, media representatives too held a negative attitude towards the nuclear industry. The city and project representatives stayed calm and answered all the questions, he said. The public hearing lasted until early morning the next day. “Paks 2 represents an extreme experience and such public hearings have brought their own fruits. Even the strictest defenders of the environment recommended that public hearings represented the best practice that should be followed” before a project was begun, Kovacs said.

The longest public hearing went on for two days, in Germany. “All the people who took part in it were not professionals but were against nuclear power. They were asking the same questions again and again, and we patiently answered them.”

Svetlana Churilova, head of the Communications Department, Rosenergoatom, Russia, referred to a “newsreel” shown before a public hearing was held, which said that nuclear power plants would trigger genetic mutations and babies would be born with several eyes.

It was not as if public hearings would be organised only when a project was planned. They were held several times during the life cycle of a nuclear power station: before the construction began, during commissioning, while increasing the reactor’s output, during decommissioning of the facility, and so on. “We have a continuous cycle of dealing with the public,” Svetlana Churilova said.

About 200 public hearings had been held so far in various federal districts of Russia, a speaker said. In 2015, a public hearing attracted 6,500 participants. Mormunsk and other cities have passed resolutions giving details on how to organise public hearings. “Public hearings are popular among employees of Rosatom. Today, nuclear power has absolute acceptance in the Russian Federation as shown by opinion polls,” he said.

Rosatom followed several principles when it tried to forge public acceptance of its nuclear power projects, said Anna Kasimovskaya, head of the Communications Section, Department of Communications, Rosatom International Network. They were in full compliance with IAEA recommendations; followed the letter of law; established direct contact with stakeholders; combined the best practices of Rosatom and those of the country where the reactors were to be installed; and promoted openness and transparency and dissemination of basic knowledge about nuclear science and radiation.

“We in Rosatom believe that an open dialogue is the foundation to build communication,” Anna Kasimovskaya said. “We need to work with our stakeholders, advocates of nuclear power and also deal with its opponents. Opposition to nuclear power is because of lack of understanding about it. People are eager to listen to all the myths instead of cultivating a reasoned understanding about it.”

Decommissioning of research reactors, commercial power reactors and nuclear weapon facilities was another subject that commanded interest during the conference. There are several Russian women experts in this field and they spoke about Russia’s mastery in this difficult domain. Fifty-three nuclear weapon facilities have been decommissioned so far in Russia. This includes two reactors that were generating plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Elena Artemova, head of the Project on International Sales of Service for Decommissioning the Nuclear Fuel of “Techsnabexport”, said: “We in Russia have taken a big step forward for the final isolation of radioactive waste and we are constructing a big laboratory for storing it. Russia has a systematic and full-scale activity for decommissioning of nuclear power plants, including dismantling them and a long period of observation. Dismantling of nuclear facilities is a demonstrated approach in Russia.”

Decommissioning of nuclear facilities received much attention during the plenary. Speakers highlighted the role of Kurchatov Institute, Moscow, in Russia mastering the technology of closing the nuclear fuel cycle, reprocessing the spent fuel, storing the radioactive waste, decommissioning research and power reactors, and in extending the life of power reactors by forging new materials. Kurchatov Institute, which will be celebrating 75 years of its founding in 2018, is the lead organisation in research and development of nuclear energy in Russia.

Kurchatov Institute has enough expertise in decommissioning reactors. A research reactor situated on its premises in Moscow was among those it decommissioned. “It was done in the heart of the city, without any threat to the safety of the people. This expertise can be translated to other nuclear power reactors,” said Andrey Korolyov, deputy president of Kurchatov Institute.

It has also done enormous work on the closing of the nuclear fuel cycle. “This means we will reprocess the spent fuel. We have built up confidence [in ourselves] that we can treat the spent fuel and the radioactive waste. We have created facilities for storing them.” The institute has also done enough work on developing new materials for various reactor components, which could extend the life of the reactors to 80 to 100 years.

According to Oleg Uratov, Public Council Member, Rosatom, Russia had so far decommissioned six power reactors. This includes the world’s first nuclear power reactor at Obninsk, Kaluga region, about 100 km from Moscow. The five MWe reactor went critical in 1954. It was decommissioned about five years ago. In addition to two research reactors in Moscow that were decommissioned, Russia has decommissioned several of its nuclear-powered submarines and ice-breakers.

German participants in the AtomEco 2017 said an old nuclear power plant, close to the Dutch border, was being decommissioned right now. There were other plants too that were being decommissioned. “Some of them have been shut down and their fuel elements taken out,” they said.

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