Russia’s Booming Nuclear Industry

Construction at the Novovoronezh plant. Once built, these two new 1,200 MW reactors will be a “reference” plant for new countries wishing to learn about Russian technology and purchase reactors for themselves. Image by James Hill. Russia, 2012.

A billboard illustrates the two new reactors being built in Novovoronezh, southern Russia, already the site of five reactors, including two older ones now decommissioned. Russia no longer builds the RBMK model of Chernobyl fame. Image by James Hill. Russia, 2012.

Russian engineers survey the site of two new reactors at Novovorenzh. Work in the nuclear industry is growing and well-paid. By the end of this year several thousand workers will have found jobs here. Image by James Hill. Russia, 2012.

A reactor waits to be placed inside the containment building, currently under construction. New Russian plants have new passive safety measures that don’t require a human in case of a severe accident. Image by James Hill. Russia, 2012.

Uranium fuel pellets on the assembly line at the Mashinostroitelny Zavod (or “Elemash”) complex in Elektrostal, Russia. When it first opened in 1917 it manufactured grenades. Now it is one of the biggest producers of nuclear fuel and fuel rod assemblies in the world. Russia supplies 17 percent of the world’s nuclear fuel market, and half of the fuel used in US reactors. Image supplied by Rosatom.

Russian workers at the Elemash plant show off fuel facilities to visiting Czech reporters. Russia is competing with France’s Areva and Toshiba-owned Westinghouse to build the Czech Republic’s next reactors, a politically charged contest given the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and years of Soviet influence. Image supplied by Rosatom.

Workers inspecting fuel rods at the Elemash factory, which once made fuel for bombs. Image supplied by Rosatom.

A section of the wall of the control room at the Novovorenezh nuclear plant, unit 5, a 1,000 MW reactor which was recently extended for another 30 years following upgrades. Image by James Hill. Russia, 2012.

Control room operators in the Novovorenezh nuclear plant, southern Russia, reactor unit 5. Two new and more powerful reactors are under construction nearby. Image by James Hill. Russia, 2012.

Russian TV cameras film a fishing competition held in the cooling pond of a Russian reactor, part of a PR campaign to assure Russians that nuclear technology is not harmful and that the technology poses no threat of radiation. Image supplied by Rosatom.

More fishing. Prizes for the best and largest catch have included plasma TV’s and fishing spinners made of zirconium, a metal that does not absorb neutrons well and is therefore used to surround nuclear fuel pellets. Image supplied by Rosatom.

A fish is tested for radioactivity. Image supplied by Rosatom.

There’s been much talk in the U.S. and abroad of reviving nuclear energy as a way to relieve the world’s shaky dependence on diminishing fossil fuels and reduce our global carbon footprint. But Fukushima reignited fears, bringing back to mind Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the inherent risks of nuclear technology. Nonetheless, the nuclear renaissance is fully underway in countries like Russia and China, which are funding significant new construction, and—in Russia’s case—pushing an aggressive export model that is already seeing results. Turkey, Vietnam, and Belarus are just a few of the countries where Russian reactors will soon be built. But Russia is eying the entire world, aiming for Western countries like Britain even as it tries to make deals for more reactors in Iran. Arguing that its new technology has safety measures that would preclude another Chernobyl, Russia plans to double the output of nuclear energy at home and triple sales abroad.