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Lithuania vexed by Leningrad nuke mishap

Aug. 24, 2011 at 6:09 AM   |   Comments

VILNIUS, Lithuania, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- A construction accident at a next-generation prototype Russian nuclear power plant is alarming and shows a lack of transparency, Lithuanian officials say.

Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Audronius Azubalis said this week at a conference in Estonia that Russian nuclear power projects near his country are being carried out in secrecy and serious red flags about their safety have emerged.

Speaking at an event marking the 20th anniversary of Estonia's independence from Moscow, Azubalis said a July incident during the construction of the Leningrad-2 nuclear power plant showed that the design of a new generation of Russian of water-cooled, water-moderated reactors is dangerously flawed.

Lithuania, he said, was dismayed by "the non-compliance with international safety requirements at the nuclear power plants that are planned for construction in Lithuania's neighborhood," pointing to a July 17 incident in which construction was halted on the Leningrad-2 project.

The Russian nuclear energy company Rosenergoatom said the mishap occurred when construction crews were pouring the concrete for the outer protective shell of Unit 1 at the site about 50 miles west of St. Petersburg on the shores of the Gulf of Finland.

Shortly after the concrete was placed, the reinforcement cage began deforming about 26 feet above the ground, resulting in what officials said would be commissioning delay of several weeks, Itar-TASS reported.

Rosenergoatom said no "machine or mechanism was damaged" and blamed the accident on "a breach of construction technology by the subcontractor."

Russian officials said the incident didn't reflect on the safety or design integrity of the VVER-1200 water-cooler reactor, which is the cornerstone of the country's ambitious nuclear power expansion program.

Six such new reactors are planned around the country, including four at Leningrad, Kaliningrad and Udomlya, Russia -- which Vilnius considers is in its "neighborhood."

"Reactors of this type have four independent safety systems," Rosenergoatom Deputy Director General Sergei Boyarkin told the news agency. "They will be complemented with another two in this project. The probability of an accident is estimated as one per 10 million years."

The VVER series includes two 5-foot-thick concrete containment vessels around the reactor, which, he said, "can withstand even a plane crash. Therefore a release of radiation into the environment will be ruled out."

But such assurances haven't persuaded Lithuania.

Political director of Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Eitvydas Bajarunas said during a meeting with British Energy Security Envoy Adm. Neil Morisetti last week his country remained concerned with the "non-transparent ... realization of projects of nuclear power plants" in Russia and Belarus.

Bajarunas told Morisetti the Leningrad construction accident was discussed and both agreed "this is really worrisome because similar reactors are to be built near Lithuania," the Latvian online business publication Baltic Course reported.

Earlier this month Azubalis complained to Kaliningrad officials that residents of the Russian enclave weren't being allowed to vote on the building of the new nuclear plant there.

He said the lack of public consultation violates the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment, to which Russia is a signatory, The Moscow Times reported.

Lithuania is striving for energy security and independence from Moscow and is seeking to replace its own shuttered Ignalina power plant, which when it closed in 2009 was supplying most of the country electricity demand.

It sees the key issue it faces as moving ahead with such strategic energy projects meant to bring the Baltic region out from the energy isolation.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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