Is Russia’s Nuclear Plant Innovation Sufficient, Touting It As Accident Free?

The Russian nuclear industry has profited by selling reactors abroad, mostly to developing countries like China and India.

These countries whose insatiable energy appetites are keeping them attracted to nuclear power despite their promise to act more prudently in light of recent Japan’s nuclear disaster.

Even as radioactive steam was rising from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in mid-March, Russia’s state owned nuclear power company, Rosatom was signing a contract to build a nuclear reactor in Belarus.

Rosatom has long been marketing its reactors as safe, not despite the meltdown of its Chernobyl reactor, but because of it Russia contends that lessons learned from Chernoby and the safeguards built into new reactors make them the safest in the world.

The innovation the Russians tout is a core catcher devised by the physicist, Leonid A. Bolshov who was awarded a Soviet hero’s medal for his efforts at Chernobyl and is now the director of the Institute for Nuclear Safety and Development.

Amid the disaster, he devised a system in which coal miners tunneled under a smoldering reactor and built a platform of steel and concrete, cooled by water piped in from outside.

Much more sophisticated core catchers based on Mr. Bolshov’s design are now standard in Russian-built nuclear reactors.

But despite Rosatom’s core catcher feature, its reactors may be potentially vulnerable to release of radioactive material if the water cooling system failed, as it happened at Fukushima Daiichi.

But whatever the reactor design, operational safety procedures are crucial. And the Russians contend that their industry and engineers benefited more than others from the lessons of Chernobyl, including the stark reality that most reactors are poorly equipped to contain a full core meltdown.

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