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Russia Set To Extend Life of Nuclear Reactors Past Engineered Life Span 215

Posted by Soulskill
from the tempting-fate dept.
Harperdog writes "Yikes! Russia is extending the lifetime of nuclear power reactors beyond their engineered life span of 30 years, including the nation's oldest reactors: first-generation VVERs and RBMKs, the Chernobyl-type reactors. This goes against existing Russian law, because the projects have not undergone environmental assessments. 'Many of the country's experts and non-governmental organizations maintain that this decision is economically unjustifiable and environmentally dangerous — to say nothing of illegal. The Russian nuclear industry, however, argues that lifetime extensions are justified because the original estimate of a 30-year life span was conservative; the plants have been significantly upgraded; and extensions cost significantly less than constructing new reactors.'"
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Russia Set To Extend Life of Nuclear Reactors Past Engineered Life Span

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  • So does Canada. (Score:4, Informative)

    by slackware 3.6 (2524328) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:12PM (#38360004)
    The Chalk river reactor.
    • Re:So does Canada. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:27PM (#38360340)

      As does the US, which has re-certified multiple reactors, including both at Nine Mile Point, which were re-certified for an additional 20 years after their initial lifespan.

      • Re:So does Canada. (Score:5, Informative)

        by icebike (68054) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:53PM (#38360802)

        Design life span is a best guess.

        Actual use reveals the true life span. Aggressive maintenance can stretch life span even further.

        The same is true of small to medium sized hydro dams. They were so over-built that many of them have exceeded their design life. Some have doubled their design life without showing significant degradation, especially with new resurfacing technologies.

        It is said that "Engineering is the art of finding the least safe design".
        By which it is meant that engineers design to use the least materials, cost, labor, and still achieve a safe result.

        When actual measurements and data are poor, or not available, engineers (the good ones) over build.
        They design in extra safety factors, excessive strength. The result is you have Brooklyn Bridges, (a whipersnapper compared to the Ponte Fabrico [wikipedia.org] B52s, the aqueducts (some still in use) and similar very over-engineered projects.

        That some reactors that were designed when the industry was in its infancy are still safe and suitable today is not all that surprising. People didn't push the envelope as often then.

        But it remains to be seen expect that of future designs.

        • Re:So does Canada. (Score:4, Interesting)

          by gman003 (1693318) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @05:37PM (#38361750)

          Ponte Fabrico [wikipedia.org]

          Shit, I remember reading about that in school. Latin class, to be specific - translating a section of Cassius Dio's Historia Romana about its construction. That alone tells you how incredibly old and overdesigned that thing is.

        • Actual use reveals the true life span. Aggressive maintenance can stretch life span even further.

          The same is true of small to medium sized hydro dams. They were so over-built that many of them have exceeded their design life. Some have doubled their design life without showing significant degradation, especially with new resurfacing technologies.

          See, the key word here is "maintenance". Yes, you can stretch it for a while longer if you have the money and the inclination to maintain it. Problem is, Russia didn't exactly have much of that back in 90s, and maintenance is not really back to USSR levels even today.

          It's ironic that you had to mention hydro dams, since they kinda showcase the problem [wikipedia.org]. Of course, this will look much more spectacular when an RBMK reactor goes down in a similar fashion.

      • by kiwix (1810960)
        That's one of the side effects of the anti-nuclear lobbying. We don't build new reactors, but we still need electricity, so we keep the old ones running longer than they're supposed to...
    • I think they keep that mess limping along because it's one of the few plants still capable of producing isotopes for medical purposes?

      I could be wrong, but still pretty scary.

    • by Cochonou (576531)
      And so does France, with the Fessenheim reactor, which is also 30 years old.
    • But was that done illegally with no environmental assessment? I'm all for nuclear power, but with rigorous oversight.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Chalkriver is kept operational by political decree.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalk_River_Laboratories#2007_shutdown [wikipedia.org]

        On December 11, 2007, the Canadian House of Commons, acting on independent expert advice, passed emergency legislation authorizing the restarting of the NRU reactor and its operation for 120 days (counter to the decision of the CNSC), which was passed by the Senate and received Royal Assent on December 12. Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized the CNSC for this shutdown which "jeopardized the health and safety of tens of thousands of Canadians", insisting that there was no risk, contrary to the testimony of then CNSC President & CEO Linda Keen. She would later be fired for ignoring a decision by Parliament to restart the reactor, reflecting its policy that the safety of citizens requiring essential nuclear medicine should be taken in to account in assessing the overall safety concerns of the reactor's operation.

        This reactor suffered 2 major emergency shutdowns since this incident already. Each resulted in many months downtime.

        Basically, it's a reactor used for medical isotopes built back in the 50s kept limping along into 2nd decade when it should have been completely shut down and replaced. But that effort failed,

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAPLE [wikipedia.org]

        so we are stuck with a leaking, 50+ year old machi

  • Well, (Score:5, Funny)

    by SJHillman (1966756) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:13PM (#38360020)

    What could possibly go boom?

    • by wanzeo (1800058)

      Good question. The article says nothing about what makes a reactor have a "lifetime". What keeps them from running them for hundreds of years?

      • Most metals become brittle when irradiated.

        Someone will be along with more details then I can recall offhand.

        I would just design the plant to run with brittle metals from day one. Nothing that can't be solved with thicker walls (in many cases anyhow).

        Steel also becomes brittle through work hardening. Which is often overbuilt to accommodate the loss of toughness. Nothing lasts forever.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by y86 (111726)

          Most metals become brittle when irradiated.

          Someone will be along with more details then I can recall offhand.

          I would just design the plant to run with brittle metals from day one. Nothing that can't be solved with thicker walls (in many cases anyhow).

          Modern reactors use a neutron shield that goes with the fuel basket. It can be replaced and greatly decreases vessel embrittlement by becoming the sacrificial element to first absorb/slow the errant neutrons.

          The problem is with shutdown and startup. This needs to be done with control as things become harder and have less flex.

      • Re:Well, (Score:5, Informative)

        by roman_mir (125474) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:33PM (#38360440) Homepage Journal

        Except it does:

        During life-extension projects, engineers determine which components are in need of replacement, and which can remain in service if maintained regularly. Some parts of a reactor, however, cannot be replaced -- including the reactor casing and its internal elements, the graphite stack (found in RBMK reactors), primary coolant circuits, primary coolant pumps, and biological shield systems. These parts are crucial for the safe operation of a reactor, particularly a first-generation reactor.

        In the case of the Kola nuclear power plant in northern Russia, for example, the reactor casing should be replaced in order to ensure safer operation, but that cannot be done without building a new reactor. In addition, the proximity of the fuel assemblies to the steel walls in the VVER-440 reactor tank -- such as those used in two of Kola's reactor units -- results in higher neutron irradiation than in other types of reactors, so the walls of the VVER-440 become brittle more rapidly.

      • Re:Well, (Score:5, Informative)

        by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:39PM (#38360538) Homepage

        Material decay under long-term exposure to radiation, most likely. Also, as new technology becomes available, they may expect the plant to be out-dated and no longer worth the necessary modifications to match newer standards after thirty years.

        • Re:Well, (Score:4, Informative)

          by makomk (752139) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @05:29PM (#38361554) Journal

          As I understand it, the RBMK reactors are already a long way from meeting modern safety standards. They have no containment building, they still have a positive void coefficient, the monitoring and control systems are quite limited despite being upgraded and this can't really be fixed, there appear to be a bunch of single points of failure that can't be fixed either, and so on.

          • Re:Well, (Score:4, Informative)

            by subreality (157447) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @04:29AM (#38367262)

            Modern updates greatly reduced the positive void coefficient. It used to be wildly positive (4.7), which allowed running unenriched uranium on a non-heavy-water reactor. Now it's around 0.7, which gives you a lot more room for error.

            The controls are considerably upgraded: no more graphite tips on the control rods, more manual control rods, more neutron absorbers, no more safety overrides, and more.

            There aren't many single points of failure, but the safety margin and redundancy is much lower than western designs. A PWR can be leaking like a sieve and still maintain adequate cooling; a RBMK can hit trouble with only a few broken pipes, and as you say, there's no way to mitigate it, since it's part of the design.

            They actually do have some some containment. It's not a heavy-duty all-encompassing concrete bunker like a western reactor, but there are high pressure management channels, steam condenser pools, etc. Any routine blowout will be contained... Just don't pull a Chernobyl. :)

            I'd say RBMK safety has been upgraded from "Insanely Irresponsible" to "Poor".

      • Re:Well, (Score:5, Insightful)

        by vlm (69642) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:46PM (#38360674)

        No technical limit. Eventually you get to replace the reactor vessel, which for all practical purposes involves disassembling nearly the entire plant, and reassembling it, so you may as well be honest with yourself and call it a brand new plant on the same site. Kind of like the old joke, which is true in my case, that I own my great grandfather-in-laws wood cutting axe, of course its had like 4 new handles and two new heads so there's not much of it older than 50 years or so...

        Standard /. car analogy is that eventually a $5 bearing goes out deep in the car innards, and the labor costs to get in there, replace it, and get out, exceed the costs of a new car, or at least exceed the cost of an unbroken car of similar age and quality car.

        Much like "reusable" spacecraft have kind of fizzled out because it turns out the recertification process is more expensive than making a new one.

        Much like people can spend $75K on a model T restoration, where most people would just buy a much better kia, you could spend the cost of three new nukes trying to rebuild one old nuke, if you really want.

        • "Eventually you get to replace the reactor vessel, which for all practical purposes involves disassembling nearly the entire plant, and reassembling it, "

          Or you can just anneal it in place to remove much of the neutron damage. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annealing_(metallurgy) [wikipedia.org]

    • Russians reactors: 140% lifespan!
    • The lifetime of Russian nuclear power reactors, by design, goes up to 140%.
    • What could possibly go boom?
      Some hundreds of tons of isotopes.
      Russia does not really care. Unlike Japan, they can afford to sacrifice (again) tens of thousands of square kilometers.

  • coming soon near a reactor near you... we may finally get started on this super comics they have been writing about... it's about time :p

  • Apparently everyone wants to be like the Japanese...
  • Insane (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lucm (889690) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:22PM (#38360236)

    A friend of mine was doing electrical panels inspections in Russian nuclear plants (some NGO program), and one time he was in a control center and noticed a door that had no sign. He asked what it was, but nobody knew. He opened it and saw a big rusty pipe. He found out that the pipe was carrying cooling water out of the machine room... The radioactivity level was so high that my friend got a 3-month paid leave to get it out of his system.

    I'm no sissy, I could sleep in a haunted houses or dig out bones from indian sacred land, but there is just no way I'll ever set foot in a Russian nuclear plant or a Chinese chemical plant.

    • Re:Insane (Score:5, Informative)

      by Cyberax (705495) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @05:10PM (#38361162)

      Sorry, that's a fairy tale.

      1) There's no way a 'room which nobody knows about' can exist in a nuclear power plant.

      2) Especially if it contains components from the freaking primary contour. And the secondary cooling contour is absolutely safe - you can drink water from it.

      3) There's no way radiation levels can be large enough to cause significant irradiation in several minutes. Absolutely none at all - primary cooling water is radioactive, but not that much (it's continuously monitored).

      4) Power plant operators after Chernobyl are _very_ careful. For a reason.

      But what do I know? After all, I have actually worked on a Russian nuclear power plant.

      • by lucm (889690)

        Sorry, that's a fairy tale.

        I am always impressed when someone make that kind of statement, knowing almost nothing of the actual event. This is a two-way street, so for the sake of the discussion, I'll say that you working in a Russian nuclear power plant is also a fairy tale.

        • by Cyberax (705495)

          Of course. Yesterday I saw a squad of Martians landing on the Red Square in New York (what? Red Square is in Moscow? Never mind).

          Actual event may be anything from "stumbled and got burned by a hot pipe" to "smoked a few pipes of weed with friends". However, some things are just impossible.

          • by lucm (889690)

            Of course. Yesterday I saw a squad of Martians landing on the Red Square in New York (what? Red Square is in Moscow? Never mind).

            Actual event may be anything from "stumbled and got burned by a hot pipe" to "smoked a few pipes of weed with friends". However, some things are just impossible.

            What you describe is unlikely, not impossible. Maybe you need to understand the difference, and stop trying to pass your opinions as facts.

        • by jo_ham (604554)

          Even if we assume the part about the "unknown room" is true, the physics behind the way radiation works (that we know a lot about) are strongly against this being a true story, unless there's an exposed piece of the core sitting on a table in that room which I find unlikely.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      The radioactivity level was so high that my friend got a 3-month paid leave to get it out of his system.

      That sounds, really, really, impressive and scary to the uninformed. But it's not actually. If your friend exceeded his quarterly allowed dose, it means he took the equivalent of a few transcontinental flights or chest X-rays. (I.E. practically nothing.)

      I'm no sissy, I could sleep in a haunted houses or dig out bones from indian sacred land, but there is just no way I'll ever set foot in a Russ

      • by lucm (889690)

        I'm no sissy, I could sleep in a haunted houses or dig out bones from indian sacred land, but there is just no way I'll ever set foot in a Russian nuclear plant or a Chinese chemical plant.

        No, you're not a sissy. Just badly misinformed and prone to EWW RAD1AT10N !1!11! syndrome.

        Well, thinking of that, haunted houses are not that scary either. I'm still on the fence for the indian sacred land thing.

        As for my friend, he did not lose his hair or got leukemia, but still, eww.

    • by Dyinobal (1427207)
      Any idea which reactor it was?
  • Summons Scotty (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Machtyn (759119) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:24PM (#38360280) Homepage Journal

    "A good Engineer is always a wee bit conservative, at least on paper." - Scotty, to La Forge, regarding IRC Tank Pressure Variances Regulation 42/15

    This story brings this quote to mind.

    • My favorite exchange was this (Paraphrased from memory):

      La Forge: But the specifications say no more than X!
      Scotty: Who do you think WROTE the specifications?
      • Re:Summons Scotty (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Tacvek (948259) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @08:58PM (#38364428) Journal

        I'm pretty sure that was the same exchange. Quoted in full:

        Scotty: Shunt the deuterium from the main cryo-pump to the auxiliary tank.
        La Forge: Er, the tank can't withstand that kind of pressure.
        Scotty: [laughs] Where'd you... where'd you get that idea?
        La Forge: What do you mean, where did I get that idea? It's in the impulse engine specifications.
        Scotty: Regulation 42/15 - Pressure Variances on the IRC Tank Storage?
        La Forge: Yeah.
        Scotty: Forget it. I wrote it. A good engineer is always a wee bit conservative, at least on paper. Just bypass the secondary cut-off valve and boost the flow. It'll work.

  • by mmell (832646) <mmell@hotmail.com> on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:24PM (#38360300)
    . . . we've been doing that for years.

    Just sayin'.

  • by dmomo (256005) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:36PM (#38360494) Homepage

    Having Played SimCity, I can say from experience that this is a terrible idea. They clearly did not consult their advisers who would certainly have recommended upgrading to Microwave or Fusion. But, to be fair, it could be that Russia didn't unlock those yet.

    • by Impeesa (763920)
      Yeah, everyone knows that all power plants fail catastrophically at 50 years on the dot.
  • USA, Canada, Russia... so on and so on...

    Can we please build modern reactors? Y'know the kind that can actually use waste fuel so we can reduce the existing stockpile and are physically incapable of runaway reactions.

    In the long standing tradition of auto comparisons: you wouldn't feel safe in a 35+ year old car if you drove it every day for all those years would you?

  • We do this too... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Urza9814 (883915) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:39PM (#38360546)

    So far the US has granted extensions like this to more than SIXTY reactors. How many has Russia given out so far?

    http://money.cnn.com/2011/03/15/news/economy/nuclear_plants_us/index.htm [cnn.com]

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      So far the US has granted extensions like this to more than SIXTY reactors. How many has Russia given out so far?

      To be fair, no US reactor has yet exploded, caught fire and spread radiation across half of Europe.

      • by malraid (592373) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @04:56PM (#38360870)
        Yep, never have we spread radiation across half or Europe, only our east coast [wikipedia.org]
        • by 0123456 (636235)

          Uh, you do realise that comparing Three Mile Island to Chernobyl is like comparing spilling your coffee to burning your house down, right?

          • by malraid (592373) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @05:10PM (#38361168)
            Sure, I'm just saying that because Three Mile Island was very mild to Chernobyl, it doesn't mean that the US is invulnerable to a nuclear disaster. It has happened, and we were lucky. The Russians were not lucky. The Japanese were not lucky. It can happen again. But then I'm sure Chernobyl caused less deaths than coal mining causes every year. It's just a risk that we have to manage and live with.
            • by makomk (752139)

              Three Mile Island had a containment building and a generally less hair-raising design than the RBMK reactors, lacking such misfeatures as a highly positive void coefficient of re-activity. This was probably fortunate; I'm not sure quite how serious a Three Mile Island-style incident would've been in an RBMK, but it's unlikely to have been pretty.

              • I'm not sure quite how serious a Three Mile Island-style incident would've been in an RBMK, but it's unlikely to have been pretty.

                Three Mile Island was a literal core meltdown, if only a 'partial' one. You clearly know more nuclear engineering than I do, but I'd hazard a guess that if Three Mile Island were an RBMK the safe Zone of Exclusion would be at least fifty miles, and the only safe path up the east coast would have to bypass Pennsylvania almost entirely.

                So pretty damn bad. Look at where the island sits; only 75 miles from Wilmington and 100 miles from Philadelphia.

        • You're technically right, but you're being misleading by comparing TMI to Chernobyl and you know it. From the article you linked to:

          The average radiation dose to people living within ten miles of the plant was eight millirem, and no more than 100 millirem to any single individual. Eight millirem is about equal to a chest X-ray, and 100 millirem is about a third of the average background level of radiation received by US residents in a year.

          So did it spread radiation to "our east coast"? Yes. Did it sprea

          • by Alex Belits (437) *

            And how much contamination, do you think, was caused by Chernobyl outside the plant itself, Pripyat city and some swamps for few tens of kilometers around it?
            There was a massive push to make it into an anti-Soviet (it was still USSR then) talking point, so everywhere from Poland to UK people were told that big bad radiation is everywhere.

        • by Frangible (881728)
          Ironically, the very WIkipedia article you link to disputes your claim.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by coldsalmon (946941)

      The original article regarding the Russian reactors is talking about engineered lifespan, whereas your article is talking about license to operate. This is like the difference between renewing your car's inspection sticker and replacing your tires. One is a legal requirement and the other is a physical requirement. Neither article talks about this distinction, and I'm not sure that they're making it. The Russian plants were licensed for 30 years, and according to the article, their physical lifespan is

      • by mirix (1649853)

        Engineering lifespan on something like this is more of an educated guess, and is( or should be) fairly conservative.

        For your example, it's more like when a company produces a radically new tire, with little to no prior experience in the rubber business has to tell the first consumers how long they will last. I'm thinking they're going to err on the side of caution.
        Now, after years of running these tires, with regular valve-stem replacements and such, they realise there is a lot of life in them at the end of

  • by ZonkerWilliam (953437) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:24PM (#38362612) Journal

    Russia is extending the lifetime of nuclear power reactors beyond their engineered life span of 30 years

    What could possibly go wrong ?

  • They understand when a trope is so spot-on it isn't actually funny in that instance; there's no wit, none of the millisecond long confusion and subsequent cognitive leap that makes your brain say "what the fuc....Hahaha that's hilarious!" Not that Soviet Russia jokes were ever hysterical to begin with...

    Anyway, in Soviet Russia they get this rule of humor, unnlike on slashdot where I've already seen five Soviet Russia comments in this post...
  • by careysub (976506) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @07:27PM (#38363502)

    This isn't really an issue about extending reactor life - a perfectly reasonable process if the reactors were safe to begin with. These Water-cooled graphite reacotrs are inherently unstable and were dangerous the day they powered up. They should be shut down ASAP.

    • by Frangible (881728)
      Void coefficients aren't everything. Non-RMBK reactors can fail catastrophically, and RMBK reactors can be run very cautiously without incident. In the case of Chernobyl, it took a lot of human error and many safety systems being disabled to cause the incident.

      And why did that happen? Because Chernobyl was testing a new backup power system, for cooling the reactor when main power was lost. The idea was to use the energy already present in the system before having to rely on backup generators.

      But I g

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