Russia's nuclear ambitions were on full display at "AtomExpo"—a three-day festival of international nuclear technology and conversation hosted by Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear company, this past June in Moscow. Whether it was Fukushima's plant manager describing those first critical moments during the tsunami and the new thinking on "extreme" natural events or the myriad branches of the Rosatom empire showing off their wares at their slick booths, the message was clear: When it comes to nuclear, Russia is open for business.
The disastrous legacy of Chernobyl in Ukraine, where a Soviet-built reactor spectacularly blew up in 1986, is something of a PR problem, however. When Russia expressed interest in supplying the U.K. with 12 new reactors earlier this year, "immediately there appeared some articles with the headline 'Do you want another Chernobyl?' Sergei Novikov, Rosatom's spokesman, told me. "The phantoms of the Soviet period appear immediately."
Rosatom, though, is trying to spin the Chernobyl nightmare into a selling point: Who better to understand nuclear safety than the people who lived through the worst?
One of the biggest safety lessons of Chernobyl for Russian technology is a structure called a "core-catcher"—a steel vessel, water-cooled, built directly under a reactor to catch the molten reactor core in case of meltdown. The technology had been explored for years globally but had yet to be considered standard until Russia began adopting it after Chernobyl. In fact, physicist Leonid Bolshov, the man responsible for that design in those early days, has now become a leading Russian expert on nuclear safety. He is director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Nuclear Safety Institute, which he set up after Chernobyl heralding the beginning of Russia's cooperation with other countries on nuclear safety. His role at the time was considered so important after Chernobyl that he was issued one the few external fax lines in the Soviet Union so that he could communicate with other experts abroad.
Before the meltdown in 1986 Bolshov would have been an unlikely hero. A theoretical physicist with no prior nuclear experience, Bolshov didn't get the call for help until the Chernobyl reactor had already been melting down for five days. The challenge was to stop the hot core from potentially seeping into the ground or—worse—30 meters lower to water table, where radiation could potentially reach the Ukrainian capital Kiev and the Black Sea. "It was sort of a nightmare," Bolshov says.
"There was that Hollywood blockbuster called the China Syndrome and this same problem was exactly what we were trying to answer those first days in May," he recounted in his Moscow office earlier this year. "The Politburo was demanding a 100 percent guarantee of 'mitigation efficiency,' assuming that the fuel was inside, not outside the reactor, and calling for no further leaks into the air or earth. But this is contradictory," Bolshov says. "If you cover the source of the heat you decrease the cooling."
Two weeks of desperate chalkboard trial and error followed, as workers at the site were taking desperate and sometimes unsuccessful measures such as injecting liquid nitrogen into the soil to freeze it. Meanwhile, back in Moscow Bolshov and his team tried to calculate how fast the uranium dioxide fuel would melt compared with how fast they could carry away heat with some kind of coolant carried in pipes. But they had to figure out how to lay the pipes under a smoldering reactor. It was impossible to drill the soil under the reactor and pack the pipes densely enough to cool the melting fuel. What they needed were miners to install the pipes properly, but they also needed something to lower the temperature at the first moment the melting fuel touched the pipes, something with a high thermo-conductivity. The best candidate was graphite. But they would require vast amounts of this material.