Russia Presses Ahead With Nuclear Plants After Japan Crisis

While Russian authorities saw the recent calamities in Japan as a chance to initiate a rapprochement with the country, Moscow's overtures to Tokyo have received a cool reception. However, Japan's nuclear crisis nonetheless represents an opportunity for Russian policy-makers to take a fresh look at the country's nuclear energy policies in order to ensure that both existing and future plants are protected against natural or man-made calamities, even those that may still seem unthinkable.

Russia Attempts Rapprochement with Japan

Less than a month ago the Russian government seemed locked in an escalating war of words with Japan over the four disputed Kuril Islands, going so far as to threaten the deployment of the S-400 air defense systems and Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles to protect the territories.

But when tragedy struck Japan on March 11, killing thousands and threatening a nuclear meltdown, Russia's political leadership showed a readiness to set animosities aide and instantly offered help. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - who had been at the forefront of the war of words over the disputed islands - was spotted laying flowers at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow on March 14. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has repeatedly promised to boost supplies of energy to Japan while President Dmitry Medvedev offered on March 14 to host Japanese disaster victims at Russian resorts. The Russian president even suggested that his ministers explore the option of "making use of some of our neighbors' labor force potential, especially in sparsely populated parts of Siberia and the Far East." "This could benefit our country, and at the same time it could be one means of helping out our neighbors in this very difficult situation," Medvedev told the March 18 meeting of his Security Council.

Medvedev's insight that Russia could benefit is telling, but not unprecedented.

This is not the first time Russia has scrambled to help a major country in need, and in the past such a move has led to significant, albeit temporary, improvement in bilateral relations. The best known example, of course, was when Putin became the first foreign leader to call U.S. President George W. Bush and offer help in the wake of 9/11. A more recent example was Moscow's decision to grant wide access to Polish investigators probing the April 2010 crash of Poland's President Lech Kaczynski's plane in Russia, which subsequently facilitated a temporary rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow.

But Moscow's hope that its offer of help would prompt Tokyo to instantly mend fences didn't materialize. The Japanese government reacted coolly to overtures from the Kremlin. It was only on Wednesday that specialists from Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom were allowed to fly to Japan. Japan's reluctance is understandable, given that a rapprochement with Moscow would also mean putting the territorial dispute on the back burner.

Impact of Crisis at Fukushima on Russia's Nuclear Energy Plans

While trying to lend a helping hand to Japan, the Russian government has also taken measures to prepare for the potential impact of the accident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant (NPP) on Russia's Far East, including even use of fresh-water mussels into the water supply system of the city of Vladivostok. Realizing the psychological impact that the nuclear accident is having on Russia, where memories of the Chernobyl disasters remain strong, Prime Minister Putin has ordered safety inspections at Russian nuclear facilities and a review of the nuclear industry development plans.

However, none of the existing plans have been suspended as a result of the accident in Japan, as has been the case in Germany. Nor is it likely that construction of NPPs in Russia will come to halt in the near future, particularly given the upcoming parliamentary elections in December 2011 and presidential elections in March 2012. (The only domestic NPP project that could require major revisions is Rosatom's plan of to build a floating NPP in the Far Eastern region of Kamchatka, given the wreckage that the tsunami caused at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant). Russia is not a Western-style liberal democracy and changes in public opinion do not necessarily have such a strong and immediate impact on political decision-making.

Given President Medvedev's statements last week, one can also glean that Moscow is determined to press ahead with the building of NPPs abroad as well. "The colossal tragedy that has struck Japan has no doubt put construction of nuclear power plants into the public gaze, and everyone is asking themselves, can nuclear energy really be safe? The answer is clearly that it can be and is safe, but only if the right decisions are made on nuclear power plants' location, design, and operators," Medvedev said on March 16 when receiving Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the construction of a NPP by Rosatom in Turkey.

So far neither Turkey nor other countries, which have already clinched deals with Rosatom, show any inclination to walk away from existing agreements.

However, one doesn't need a crystal ball to see how Rosatom's foreign contracts portfolio, which Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko has hoped to expand to around $30 billion this year, will shrink as some nations either cancel or suspend tenders until they can craft a qualitatively new set of safety requirements for the design, production, and maintenance of NPPs.

And it is not only Rosatom's customers that need to take a pause.

NPP manufacturers and designers not only in Russia, but also in other countries, need to sit back and think about what actions they need to take to ensure that both operating and future plants are safely protected against natural or man-made calamities, including those they may still deem unthinkable. Otherwise, the already fragile Nuclear Renaissance may quickly turn into the Dark Ages for the global nuclear industry.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center and member of U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. Prior to joining the Belfer Center he had worked as a journalist and a researcher in Russia for 15 years.