INSIGHTS: The Kyoto Protocol and Russia's Energy Future

{Editor's Note: Vladimir Slivyak is a leader of Ecodefense! an international, nongovernmental, non-profit, environmental organization founded in 1990 in Kaliningrad, Russia. Ecodefense! stands on principles of deep ecology, biocentrism, and nonviolence combined with social responsibility and justice. It is a member of the Social Ecological Union, an umbrella organization for hundreds of environmental NGOs in the former USSR.}

By Vladimir Slivyak

MOSCOW, Russia, April 1, 2004 (ENS) - Russia needs environmentally clean energy and an immediate decommissioning of its old nuclear power plants. Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol may bring funds needed for this purpose. Russian and Danish environmental organizations have initiated activities aimed at the promotion of renewable energy in Russia.

For Russia, just as for any industrially developed country, the energy sector is probably the most important industry in a strategic sense. Economic development requires a stable energy supply. And it doesn't necessarily increase even if Gross Internal Production doubles.

Sound governmental policy toward ecologization of the energy sector can simultaneously stabilize energy consumption while ensuring economic development. In Denmark, where economic growth in late the 1980s to the early 1990s was not followed by increasing in energy consumption, provides an excellent example.

Presently, Russian energy industry has a range of problems, in particular those able to prevent further effective development of the country. Capacities are worked out and demand replacement or reconstruction.

The problem tends to be extremely urgent in the nuclear sector of the industry, as it's not possible to shut a nuclear power plants down by simply pressing a button and this way solve the problem of old and dangerous reactors.

For the next decade nuclear units will present a threat and consume lots of energy and, therefore, will still demand investments that are never going to be repaid. But at the same time, no one wants a new Chernobyl which would not only destroy many lives but also push economical development of Russia far backward, and that means old reactors must be decommissioned.


On Wednesday near the State Parliament in Moscow, political and environmental activists protested first stage approval of a law banning demonstrations near administrative buildings and nuclear facilities. Three people were arrested. Protesters include Sergey Mitrokhin, former member of parliament from the liberal party Yabloko (right), and Vladimir Sivyak of Ecodefense! (left). (Photo courtesy Vladimir Slivyak)
The sooner it is done, the sooner we will have one of the most urgent problems of the energy sector solved and ensure its sustainable and environmentally sound development.

Russia currently has 30 nuclear reactors operating at 10 nuclear power plants that provide about 14 percent of national energy consumption. Dangerous units, having their resource worked or about worked out, are located at Bilibinsk, Kola, Leningrad, and Novovoronezh nuclear power plants and produce about six percent of Russian energy.

By 2010 there will be 19 such reactors producing nearly 60 percent of energy consumed in Russia. The strategy of Minatom and Gosatomnadzor (GAN - a nuclear regulatory body) to prolong lifetime of old nuclear units is a serious mistake that must be corrected as soon as possible.

It's practically impossible to upgrade old reactors to meet international safety standards since their design was projected long before Chernobyl, while the reactor safety improvements have been developed and implemented already after the worst nuclear catastrophe in the human history took place in April 1986.

A safe alternative is obviously necessary to solve the problem. From environmental point of view, the most suitable decision is renewable resource development - wind, solar, biomass, geothermal. But the efforts of environmentalists alone are insufficient for that, unfortunately, it's impossible to implement this idea without governmental participation and support.

In the experts community there is a vision of renewable energy as not being suitable for Russia due to its insufficient potential. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable resources could meet about 30 percent of Russia's energy demand although renewables are now supplying about one percent.

Another 20 percent of energy in Russia can be saved through simple energy effiency technologies as well as well thought out governmental policy regarding industrial consumers.

Concerning household consumption, there is also a great potential for energy saving if there is a sound promotional campaign organized on the national level. This way, development of environmental technologies in the field of renewable energy resources and energy effiency in the energy sector appears to be capable of providing about half of Russian needs for electricity and heat.

power plant

the Kola nuclear power plant is located above the Arctic Circle on the shore of Lake Imandra and generates electricity for the Kola Peninsula. (Photo courtesy Rosenergoatom)
These strategies can help Russia to abandon dangerous nuclear reactors and guarantee avoidance of serious nuclear accidents in future.

An example of development in this direction is Germany, a country that is already decommissioning its nuclear power plants that supply about 30 percent of national energy demand. At the same time a govermental subsidy program is working for those willing to produce energy using renewable resources.

In accordance with a governmental program of renewable energy development, by 2020-2025 energy demands that will arise due to closure of all German nuclear power plants may be covered by environmentally clean energy resources.

Another example is Denmark, a world leader in environmentally clean energy development. About 14 percent of energy demand in Denmark is covered by renewable resources. In 1985, under the public pressure, Denmark adopted a final decision to ban nuclear energy and invest in environmentally clean energy. In result, today Denmark gets the same percent of its energy demand from renewable resources as Russia gets from its dangerous nuclear power plants.

Now environmental organizations in Russia and Denmark have started activities to replicate this experience. For instance, Ecodefense! group runs projects in Ekaterinburg, Voronezh, Kaliningrad and elsewhere focused on the promotion of renewable energy and raising authorities' and businessmen's interest in it these technologies.

In January 2004, a group of Danish experts visited these regions to provide consulting assistance to Russian environmentalists.


NPO Astrophysica solar thermal collector dish test facility at Gribanovo, Russia. (Photo by Allan Lewandowski courtesy NREL)
A scheme proposed by environmentalists includes a very important link that must not be forgotten - the funds needed to achieve progress. It's clear that environmentally clean development of the Russian energy sector can lead to production of more energy to export. But that will hardly be enough for large-scale reconstruction of the industry.

Environmentalists suppose that funds needed to develop environmentally clean energy use and for decommissioning of dangerous nuclear power plants may be raised using the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms.

According to the Western experts, ratification of the protocol, aimed at solving a climate change problem, could bring to the Russian treasury up to $10 billion from trading ??2 emissions limits, and up to another $10 billion through other mechanisms considered under the treaty.

Drawing back from academic research on climate change and scientific discussion on reasons for climate convulsions, there are many positive and pragmatical arguments for ratification, from reducing Russian own emissions that will make an extremely positive effect to the environment and health of present and next generations of Russians, to attracting investments for large-scale development of Russian energy sector and its improvement in environmental terms.

Unfortunately, Russia has still refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in spite of the international community urging Russia to join this United Nations environmental initiative.

Hopefully, in the future the Russian government will revise its approach to one of the most important international environmental and economic treaties and decide to join. It would be not very bright to miss what may be the only chance, in the foreseeable future, to ensure rapid and environmentally clean development of the Russian energy industry.