"Kola nuclear power plant much safer"

Director Advisor at Kola nuclear power plant, Yevgeny Nikora, beleives electricity from a new nuclear power plant could be sold to both Finland and Norway.

POLYARNYE ZORI: Numbers of events influencing safety have plunged from 41 in 1993 to three this year. “We would be happy if you could communicate that all the money contributed from Norway are effectively implemented for safety,” says Yevgeny Nikora, Director Advisor at Kola NPP. Here pointing in the direction where Rosatom wants to build the second nuclear power plant.


Despite ageing reactors, figures speak in favor of improved safety at the nuclear power plant neighboring Nordic countries for decades have feared. During the first years after the breakup of the Soviet Union the plant had some 20 to 40 safety events annually. Some of them real serious like loss of power to emergency cooling. Fear of a major nuclear accident triggered a massive technical aid support from Norway, Sweden and other European support programs. 

Last year and so far this year, only three minor events where recorded respectively. 

“We received the first mobile diesel generator from Norway in 1994,” says Yevgeny Nikora showing BarentsObserver around at the power plant. Such diesel generators are backup in case of power loss to the cooling of a reactor. Loss of cooling because the diesel generator didn’t work was one of the consequences of the tsunami striking Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011. 

Safety first
“The safety has significantly improved over the last 15 years,” Nikora continues to stress as we pass the security check inside the building to the reactors- and turbine rooms. A sign on the wall reads: “Daddy, don’t make mistakes at work.” 

A couple of security guards watch every step we make while entering the turbine hall. With sauna-like temperatures and a noise level like walking near a runway where a jet aircraft is about to take off, you understand the dimensions. Nuclear power plants are complicated. Four reactors and eight turbines make Kola NPP a complex industrial enterprise. 

The reactors are configured on a double-unit basis, two reactors are arranged in one reactor hall with certain mechanical equipment and secondary systems together. Hall No. 1 holds the VVER-440/230 reactors from 1973 and 1974, while hall No. 2 holds the VVER-440/213 reactors commissioned in 1981 and 1984.

Taking photos inside, or even near the plant outside is an indisputable issue. Therefore, several of the photos attached to this article under the text are dating back to 1992 and 1993. 

Older, but looks younger
Norwegians that visited Kola nuclear power plant back in 1993 will be impressed by the changes. Compared with the lack-of-safety thinking and muddle around the plant that characterized those days, the 2013 version of Kola NPP shines. If allowed to exaggerate a bit, you could say the plant doesn’t look 20 years older, but 20 years younger. And that is not only a question about new paintings on the walls. New equipment and other high-tech safety systems have continuously been installed in a close cooperation between the Russian engineers and project partners in the Nordic countries.

But it takes more than machinery and equipment to make a plant run safety. The human factor is also complicated. Therefore, much focus is put on how staffers are trained and qualified. 

Two visible human factors today compared with 20 years ago are evidently. No one longer smokes in the corridors between the turbine room and reactor control room.  And looking at the car park outside, it is obvious that the employees must have a decent salary.

The entrance door to the control room No. 1 is locked. Besides the door, a monitor shows the photos with names of the eight staffers on duty right now. They are in charge of the oldest reactor at Kola nuclear power plant. Started on June 29, 1973 the reactor’s 40 years anniversary was celebrated only a few months ago. 40 years is a long time for a reactor originally supposed to be closed down after 30. The fatigue life of the reactor has already been expanded two times with renewed licenses. It is not easy to ask for closedown when half of the electricity production on the Kola Peninsula comes from nuclear power. 

Hundreds of millions in safety
Since 1994, a total of 1,130 safety measures are implemented at Kola NPP. After the European Union’s TACIS program and support from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Norway has contributed with most money to safety. Nearly $15 million are given by Norway. Followed $13 million from Sweden and $2,3 million from Finland. Out of $718 million invested in safety, $96 million comes from abroad. 

“There has been parliamentary election in Norway. We would be happy if you could communicate that all the money contributed from Norway are effectively implemented for safety here at Kola nuclear power plant,” says Yevgeny Nikora. On the screen, he proudly shows how the doses to the workers are reduced by a factor of four since 1995.

“Dose-rates to our workers are lower than average at Russian NPPs and on average globally,” he says.

“Like a broken bulb”
“The few events that happen nowadays are comparable to having a broken bulb on your car’s driving lights,” Nikora smiles knowing that Kola NPP’s Deputy Chief Engineer Sergei Vasiliev, sitting beside him will correct his comparison. “Like a broken flasher,” Vasiliev says.

“Our priority, safety,” reads the slogan over the main entrance that meets the workers entering the nuclear power plant. “We have implemented several measures after the Fukushima accident. Including a theoretical scenariomodel on how to cope with a earthquake and tsunami,” explains Nikora. A tsunami striking Kola nuclear power plant sounds unlikely. The nearby Lake Imandra, from where the reactors get their cooling, has a maximum depth of 67 meters. What the nuclear industry eventually learned from the 2011 tsunami in Japan is to prepare for the unlikely.

One of the most comprehensive measures taken at Kola NPP is physical protection to avoid terrorism. “You understand I can’t go in detail on those measures,” says Sergei Vasiliev. The visible part of his words is the barbed wire fences wherever you turn around and look outside the buildings. The armed guards at the check-point on the entrance road to the plant is another example of physical protection you didn’t see in the early 90ies. Those days, it was possible to drive your private car uninterrupted straight to the entrance door. 

Trout a La nucléaire
The canals with cooling water from Kola NPP flow out in Lake Imandra a few hundred meters from the plant. With temperatures seven to ten degrees Celsius warmer than the lake water, you simply can’t find a more suitable place to locate a fish farm. Dubiously, however, that the restaurants selling the fish highlight in their menus “Trout from the cooling water of a nuclear power plant.” Maybe with one exception; the cantina at Kola nuclear power plant serves trout from the fish farm. It tasted delicious!

Tens of net cages are attached to each other. Trout in different ages are divided in between. Sergei Blinov catches trout from one net cage and brings it to another with his wheelbarrow. He says they are 10 employees. 

One net cage has Caspian Sea sturgeon, famous for its black caviar. Last year, some of the sturgeon made black caviar for the first time here on the Kola Peninsula. So far, black caviar from the cooling water of Kola nuclear power plant is no commercial gold find. Only for scientific purposes we are told. Some few kilograms were however sold in the town of Polyarnye Zori. A pre-Christmas gift to the inhabitants last year. Sold much cheaper than what you will have to pay for black caviar in stores for luxuries in Moscow. 

Polyarnye Zori is the town where the 2,500 employees at Kola NPP live with their families. The town was built simultaneously as the plant in the early 70ies.  

Second nuclear plant in pipe
Walking the shores of Lake Imandra, Yevgeny Nikora points in the direction where Rosatom might build the second nuclear power plant. Rosatom is Russia’s state nuclear energy company. The plans to construct Kola NPP-2 have existed since the late Soviet period. After spending some 20 years in a moth bag, Rosatom again brushed the dust off the plans some few years ago.

“We hope more of the electricity produced at Kola nuclear power plant can be sold to Norway and Finland,” says Yevgeny Nikora well aware that Oslo recently said no to build a new transborder transmission line to Russia in the north. The politicians argue against importing electricity that could keep the two oldest reactors at Kola NPP running longer than absolutely necessary. 

“We support a new transmission line if Norway supports it. In the future, import and export of electricity between our two countries could go both ways. Especially the northern part of the Kola Peninsula, including the town of Murmansk, could in period benefit from importing electricity,” says Nikora.

Before construction of a new nuclear power plant can start, Rosatom will have to decide which reactor-type is preferable. At other nuclear power plants in Russia, the larger 1000 MW or even 1200 MW reactors are chosen. Those are likely not suitable for the future electricity demand on the Kola Peninsula.

New reactor design
“We hope that the scientific committee of Rosatom choses to design a medium size reactor, both for domestic construction and for export abroad,” says Yevgeny Nikora. He believes a medium-size reactor is more suitable because of the limitations in today’s transmission net from Polyarnye Zori. “It all depends on future energy consumption.”

The second Kola NPP will be located some 10 kilometers to the south of the current plant.

Meanwhile, the two oldest reactors will continue to run. No deadline is set for closure, according to Deputy Chief Engineer Sergei Vasiliev. He assures that the day older reactors are closed down, funding do exist for safe decommissioning. Due to high levels of radiation, stripping down a reactor is extremely expensive and takes decades. It includes clean-up of radioactive materials and progressive demolition of the plant. In USA, the decommissioning of 590 MW reactor at Connecticut Yankee NPP got a price tag of $820 million. 

“5 percent of all income from operations of nuclear power plants in Russia are put aside to a decommission fond,” says Sergei Vasiliev.