It was truly a trial by fire – one that has now become part of Russia’s nuclear marketing message. Cynical as that might seem.
In April 1986, as workers and engineers scrambled to keep the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s molten radioactive uranium from burrowing into the earth – the so-called China syndrome – a Soviet physicist on the scene devised a makeshift solution for containing remnants of the liquefied core.
Teams of coal miners working in shifts tunneled underneath the smoldering reactor and built a platform of steel and concrete, cooled by water piped in from outside the plant’s perimeter.
In the end the improvised core-catcher was not needed. The melted fuel burned through three stories of the reactor’s basement but stopped at the foundation – where the mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists still cannot approach it.
Although 25 years later Chernobyl remains the radiation calamity by which
all subsequent nuclear accidents will be measured, core-catchers are now a design feature of the newest reactors that Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, Rosatom, is selling around the world. That includes a contract the company signed with Belarus just last week, even as radioactive steam was rising from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
Meanwhile that physicist, Leonid A. Bolshov, who was awarded a Soviet hero’s medal for his efforts at Chernobyl, is now the director of the Institute for Nuclear Safety and Development, formed in 1988 in the wake of that disaster.
Like many others involved in his country’s nuclear power industry, Mr. Bolshov, 64, expresses what to some ears may sound like a jarringly opportunistic sales pitch: that Chernobyl was the hard-earned experience that made Russia the world’s most safety-conscious nuclear proponent.
“The Japanese disaster will give the whole world a lesson,” Mr. Bolshov said in an interview last week. “After a disaster, a burst of attention to safety follows.”
Opportunistic or not, in recent years the Russian nuclear industry has profited handsomely by selling reactors abroad, mostly to developing countries. That includes China and India – whose insatiable energy appetites are keeping them wedded to nuclear power, despite their vows to proceed even more cautiously in light of Japan’s disaster.
And though Fukushima Daiichi provides a new opportunity to stress the message, Rosatom has long been marketing its reactors as safe – not despite Chernobyl, but because of it.
The Russians say they are now building more nuclear power plants globally than anyone, or 15 of the 60 new reactors under construction today. Rosatom says it has an additional 30 firm orders for reactors and plans to sell more.
Late last year, the company has set a goal of tripling worldwide sales by 2030, to $50 billion annually – a goal that might seem much more doubtful now that Japan’s crisis is making many countries think twice about building plants any time soon.
And yet, while stocks of publicly traded companies in the nuclear industry were falling around the world last week, Russian officials were persistently staying on message with their safety assurances.
The Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, himself flew to Belarus last week to sign the contract to build a plant in that country, worth $9 billion.
“I want to stress that we possess a whole arsenal of advanced technical resources to ensure stable, accident-free performance for nuclear plants,” Mr. Putin told journalists in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.