At 1:23 a.m. on 26 April 1986, reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine exploded. As soon as the news leaked out, the accident created a huge echo, perhaps transforming nuclear energy forever in the eyes of the world and contributing to a further worsening of the West’s image of the Soviet Union. What is the state of civil nuclear power in the Russian Federation today, 35 years after the most catastrophic nuclear accident in the history of mankind?
The Chernobyl disaster was caused by a lethal combination of factors. The various investigations carried out in the years following the disaster revealed the guilt of the technicians and supervisors who drove reactor number 4 to the point of no return. But the accident was not only caused by the recklessness – or unawareness – of the workers. The reactor, which belonged to the ‘RBMK’ class (since then, reactors of this class have been known as the Chernobyl type), had several structural and design flaws that, because of the obsessive secrecy surrounding information in the USSR, especially information on atomic energy, which was of vital importance for national security and the external image of the USSR, had largely been concealed from the technicians themselves.
Because of the great need for electricity and the relatively good condition of the other three reactors, despite radioactive contamination, the Chernobyl plant continued to operate in independent Ukraine until December 2000. Today, nine RBMK reactors are still in operation in Russia, having been upgraded to operate more safely.
Rosatom, Russia’s public agency in charge of all activities related to atomic energy – uranium mining and enrichment, construction and decommissioning of nuclear plants and reactors, radioactive waste management – announced earlier this year that 215.746 billion KWh were produced in Russia in 2020 from nuclear fuel. This is the largest amount of energy produced in one year since the construction of the first plant in the Soviet Union, despite a significant reduction in the number of plants operating today compared to those that set the previous record in 1988.
More than 20% of Russia’s national energy needs are met by the 38 nuclear reactors operating in the Federation. Russia is the fourth country in the world after the United States of America, France, and the People’s Republic of China in terms of both the total number of reactors and the quantity of electricity produced annually from nuclear sources.
Today, Russia is an important producer and exporter of nuclear technology, despite the events of Chernobyl and despite having almost entirely inherited the Soviet nuclear plants and reactors. Today the Federation, through Rosatom, exports technology and know-how and builds nuclear power plants around the world (plants have been completed in India, China, Iran, and Ukraine), supplying the fuel needed to operate them. Russia is the sixth-largest uranium mining country in the world, extracting about 5.5% of the world’s uranium needs each year. Rosatom also produces about 45% of the enriched uranium produced in the world each year. It is essential to enrich uranium through a long, costly, and very complex process before it can be used as nuclear fuel.
Finally, regarding the Russian Federation’s Arctic policy, which we will discuss in detail, the Akademik Lomonosov nuclear power plant deserves a special mention. It is the first floating nuclear power plant, which came into operation in 2019 in the far north of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. The plant has a limited energy production capacity compared to traditional plants, but it is of fundamental importance in Russia’s future expansion plans in the Arctic region: it will serve as a boost for the local economy by providing several hundred jobs and contributing to the development of a very remote and, for obvious reasons, underdeveloped region.
In conclusion, the Chernobyl accident does not seem to have worsened the image of nuclear energy in the eyes of the population and institutions in Russia and several post-Soviet states (in Armenia and Ukraine, as well as in Russia, nuclear power plants continue to operate). In contrast to what is happening in Europe, with Italy stubbornly refusing to accept nuclear energy and Germany set to dismantle all its plants by 2022, Russia is determined to continue its nuclear development plans as long as the economic resources at its disposal continue to allow it to do so.