Lesson Not Learned

23 May 2012, 11:10

In all the time that has passed since the Chornobyl disaster, it has not been legally recognised that the cause was the deficient design of the RBMK-1000 (high-power channel-type) reactor. The court found only the operating staff guilty in 1987, not the representatives of higher bodies, such as the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, the Nuclear Supervision Agency and the Igor Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy (the chief designer of the RBMK reactor), without the approval of which, it was impossible to conduct any experiments at the power plant. Russia has absolutely no interest in studying the true causes of the accident, because if the deficiencies of the RBMK design are legally recognised, it would be put in such a light, that even third-world countries would refuse to cooperate with it in the nuclear engineering sector.


At the time of the Chornobyl disaster, 14 RBMK-1000 reactors were in use in the USSR: four each in Chornobyl, Kursk and Leningrad and two in Smolensk. Immediately after the Chornobyl explosion, a complex of mandatory measures to increase their reliability was developed. This is actually the key to understanding the causes of the tragedy. The list of the reactor’s deficiencies is very long: various experts have listed 15-32 flaws in the design and even departures from nuclear safety norms that were effective in 1986. The main cause was a large positive steam coefficient of reactivity. It cannot be eliminated without completely redesigning the entire reactor, so all reactors of this type that continue to operate at Russian power plants, are operating in violation of the above- mentioned norm of nuclear safety. The last such reactor in Ukraine was shut down in 2000. However, the Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant, which has three RBMK-1000 reactors, is located on the Desna River, which flows into the Dnipro, while the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant (with four such reactors) stands on the Seym River, a tributary of the Desna. In other words, until the last RBMK-1000 reactor is shut down at these nuclear power plants, they pose a potential threat to our country.

Ukraine is now using 15 VVER (Water-Water Power Reactor) reactors at four of its nuclear power plants. Moreover, two more reactors of this type are scheduled for construction. Their design was made by Russian specialists working in the same entities that created the RBMK reactor. Moreover, one of the leading nuclear design institutes of the RF in the field of nuclear technology was named after Nikolay Dollezhal, one of the “co-authors” of the worst ecological disasters in the world. This means that we are dealing with “companies”, to put it mildly, the reputation of which is tarnished by the Chornobyl disaster.


Our country can cooperate with and purchase reactor designs and nuclear technology from any developed country in the world. But we have invariably chosen Russia: the design of their VVER reactor, the fuel it requires and the technology for the production of own fuel for a nuclear power plant, etc. There is only one explanation for this phenomenon: the nuclear lobby in Ukraine finds it easier to the embezzle budget money together with Russia’s nuclear lobby. Cooperation in the nuclear energy sector with the merely the technologically backward Russia, is a threat to Ukraine’s national security, particularly in terms of the monopolization of this sector by one country-supplier.

At the 26 April 2011 summit of donor states in Kyiv, dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechkin of Russia said that stress tests had been successfully carried out at all Russian nuclear power plants following the Fukushima-2 accident. They were tested to see if they were able to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 10 points and a 14-metre-high tidal wave. But there is no way that there can be such waves on any of the rivers – the Desna, the Seym and the Don, all of which are a mere 3-4 metres deep – on which the Russian nuclear power plants are located! As far as earthquakes are concerned, not a single plant was designed to withstand tremors that exceed a magnitude of 6.0 points. Proof of this is the Crimean Nuclear Power Plant: its launch, scheduled for 1988, was scrapped when it was discovered that earthquakes measuring 8.0 points on the Richter scale are possible on the peninsula as opposed to the designated 6.0 points. The plant was simply shut down. So exactly how were Russian nuclear power plants able to “theoretically” withstand such earthquakes and tsunamis if such NPP designs don’t even exist? It appears that this whole story regarding successful stress test is simply lies on the state level.

Another example that suggests that something is rotten in the nuclear sector of Russia: the main Russian TV channels showed Rosatom’s President, Sergey Kirienko, reporting to the then Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, that nuclear power plants were being built in Russia that could withstand a plane crash. How can this be? In 1986, as helicopters were dropping sand, lead, clay, etc. on the fourth reactor in Chornobyl, one pilot missed and dropped a parachute, carrying a load of nearly two metric tonnes of sand, dolomite, etc. onto the roof of the central hall of the third reactor. It went through the roof and, fortunately, fell next to the reactor. The consequences of a crashing plane would have been much more serious. Russia is currently operating 11 reactors that are similar to those in Chornobyl.

This type of “advertisement” based on blatent lies must at the very least be cause for concern. Moreover, we have already had the bitter experience of such bluffing. In the early 1980s, Academic Dollezhal, one of the creators of the RBMK reactor, gave his assurance that this reactor was completely reliable and safe, so much so that it could even be installed in Moscow’s Red Square. As it turned out, the opposite was the case.

An example of a thoughtful approach can be found in Germany, which shut down the Nord Nuclear Power Plant in 1990, citing the failure of its VVER reactors to meet nuclear safety regulations. The EU advises its new members to abandon Russian-made VVER reactors for the same reason. Poland recently decided to build its first nuclear power plant. France and two American-Japanese companies have submitted bids to design and build it, while Russia is nowhere in sight. To put it simply, Poles have understood that there is no way that the designer of a Moskvich can ever build a Mercedes.


The lessons of Chornobyl, and now Fukushima, prove that nuclear energy should only be approached professionally and that safety should be of primary importance. All factors have to be taken into account, from the human factor to technical aspects. Meanwhile, the commercial approach has prevailed over the professional one in Ukraine. The desire of a group of people to fill their pockets could turn into a tragedy for the entire people and the state as a whole.

The current state of affairs in Ukraine's nuclear sector is cause for serious concern. What immediately catches the eye is the lack of a comprehensive approach to solving problems, such as the construction of a safe geological repository for high-level waste (HLW) and HLW containing transuranic isotopes, the establishment of an infrastructure for taking nuclear power plants (first and foremost, the Chornobyl NPP) out of operation and so on. Cadres are engaged in the management and control in this sector, who have little concept of nuclear issues. A person whom I have known for 15 years as having very little to do with nuclear reactors recently spoke on TV about the advantages of VVER reactors over other types. It was with great surprise that I learned that he was the Executive Director at Ukraine’s Energoatom and was later promoted to a Cabinet of Ministers office. In another example, on live TV, I heard a person with a PhD in physics, who is directly involved with nuclear reactors, confuse such fundamental concepts in the physics of nuclear reactors as prompt and fast neutrons. In all likelihood, such “specialists” have been appointed to high offices with the help of Ukraine’s nuclear lobby which wants to push through its business projects and needs people who are easy to negotiate with.

We need to choose a reliable, decent and tested partner in order to avoid begging money from the entire world to build another “sarcophagus”. We cannot afford to implement technology, the safety of which has not been conclusively proved.


Anatoliy Hrytsak is a nuclear power engineer who was on the crew servicing the first power- generating unit of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Station at the time of the accident. He witnessed the catastrophe and was involved in the clean-up effort.

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