Russia accused of cover-up over lethal submarine fire

Russian navy ships and a submarine take part in a naval parade at the port of Severomorsk, Russia July 31, 2016. Picture taken July 31, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian commentators have challenged officials for not releasing full details about an accident on board a military submarine that killed 14 sailors.

The incident took place on Monday, according to the Defence Ministry, but was not officially disclosed until late on Tuesday. Nearly two days on, there was still no word on whether the submarine was nuclear-powered.

Some Russian media accused officials of starving the public of details and drew parallels with the dearth of official information during the meltdown of a Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986.

The ministry said on Tuesday the sailors had been killed in a fire on what it described as a deep-water research submarine surveying the seabed near the Arctic.

The type of vessel was not specified and there were few details of the circumstances beyond the fact that it had been in Russian territorial waters and the fire had been extinguished.

“Absolutely nothing is known at the moment – who, what… I don’t understand one thing: why did a day go by and only then did they make the statement about the deceased?” said Yevgeny Buntman, an anchor for the Ekho Moskvy radio station. “Why don’t we know their names? Is this normal?”

The Bell, a news site often critical of the government, wrote: “Nearly a day without information about the accident in a nuclear facility and the need to look out for Norwegian statements about the level of radiation should have given a shudder to those who remember the Chernobyl nuclear power station.”

A view shows Russian navy ships at the port of Severomorsk, Russia July 27, 2016. Picture taken July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

A view shows Russian navy ships at the port of Severomorsk, Russia July 27, 2016. Picture taken July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

SECRET SUB

Norway’s authorities said on Tuesday they had not detected any abnormal radiation.

Asked on Wednesday if the vessel had a nuclear reactor on board, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred the question to the defense ministry.

He told reporters in a conference call that details of the submarine were classified, but that information had been provided in good time.

The media outlet RBC cited an unnamed military source on Tuesday as saying the submarine was an AS-12, which is powered by a nuclear reactor and designed to carry out special operations at extreme depths.

That vessel, nicknamed the “Losharik”, was launched in 2003 and is one of the most secret submarines in the Russian fleet.

Several hours before the official statement, blogger Yevgeny Karpov reported a fire on a vessel belonging to the Northern Fleet, but he then took down the report at the fleet’s request, he told the Meduza news site.

The fire is one of the deadliest submarine accidents since August 2000, when the nuclear-powered Kursk sank to the floor of Barents Sea, killing all 118 men aboard.

Authorities then, and in particular President Vladimir Putin, who was at the beginning of now almost two decades as president or prime minister, came under fire for their slow response and shortcomings in the rescue operation.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Christian Lowe; additional reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Cracks in Scottish nuclear reactor core prompt safety checks

FILE PHOTO: The Hunterston nuclear power station in West Kilbride, Scotland May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett/File Photo

By Nina Chestney

LONDON (Reuters) – A reactor at EDF Energy’s Hunterston B nuclear power plant in Scotland will remain offline for additional safety checks after cracks were found in its core, Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) said.

Ageing reactors generate just over 20 percent of Britain’s power but almost half of this capacity, including Hunterston, is due to go offline by 2025, prompting the government to plan new plants.

ONR was informed in March about keyway root cracks found during planned inspections of graphite bricks in the core of Reactor 3 at Hunterston.

Graphite bricks ensure reactors can be cooled and thousands of them are used in reactor cores.

“Inspections confirmed the expected presence of new keyway root cracks in the reactor core and also identified these happening at a slightly higher rate than modeled,” EDF Energy said in a statement.

The reactor has been offline since March and was due to come back online this month, but EDF Energy has extended the outage until later this year.

“While Hunterston B Reactor 3 could return to operation from the current outage, it will remain offline while the company works with the regulator to ensure that the longer term safety case reflects the findings of the recent inspections and includes the results obtained from other analysis and modeling,” it said.

Hunterston B in North Ayrshire, Scotland, has been generating electricity since 1976. Last year, it produced enough electricity for 1.8 million homes.

CRACKS

In 2015, EDF Energy said routine inspections had revealed cracks in part of the graphite core at a Hunterston B nuclear reactor. It said three of 6,000 bricks had cracked, something that had been expected to begin happening at that point in the power station’s life.

Two of EDF Energy’s nuclear power plants in Britain – Heysham 1 and Hartlepool – were offline for months in 2014 for inspections after a crack was found on a boiler spine at Heysham 1.

In Belgium, the regulator ordered production to be stopped at two nuclear reactors in 2012 after finding indications of tiny cracks in core tanks.

The cracks turned out to be particles of hydrogen that were trapped inside the tanks when they were made by a Dutch company in the early 1980s.

EDF said it expects Hunterston B’s Reactor 3 to return to service “before the end of 2018”. EDF Energy’s outage website shows an expected return date of Oct. 4.

Its Reactor 3 and Reactor 4 are both Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors. The outage will reduce its 2018 output by 3 terawatt hours, the company said.

EDF Energy said the operation of its other UK reactors was not affected.

(Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter)

North Korea steps up work on parts for new reactor, IAEA says

FILE PHOTO: The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flies in front of IAEA's headquarters during a board of governors meeting in Vienna, Austria June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – North Korea has increased its efforts to produce parts for a new nuclear reactor it is building while continuing to operate the main existing one that provides fuel for its atom bombs, the U.N. nuclear watchdog has said in an annual report on Friday.

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and dozens of missile tests since the beginning of last year, defying world powers and raising fears of a conflict breaking out on the heavily militarized Korean peninsula.

A missile test last month put the mainland United States in range. Pyongyang later said it had a plan to fire missiles at the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, while U.S. President Donald Trump said any threats would be met with “fire and fury”.

It is not clear whether Pyongyang can miniaturize a nuclear bomb enough to fit it on top of such a missile, and it is widely believed it cannot yet protect such a warhead from the heat generated when a missile re-enters the earth’s atmosphere.

Its effort to produce material for nuclear bombs, however, has rumbled on, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report to its annual general conference. The IAEA does not have access to North Korea and monitors its activities mainly by satellite imagery.

“There were indications in the LWR (light-water reactor) construction yard of an increase in activities consistent with the fabrication of certain reactor components,” the IAEA report posted on the General Conference’s website said.

“The agency has not observed indications of the delivery or introduction of major reactor components into the reactor containment building,” it said. The new reactor is expected to be larger than the current experimental one at Yongbyon.

There was no indication in the past year, however, that the Communist state had used the laboratory near its main reactor where it usually produces plutonium from spent fuel rods, the IAEA said. That appeared to contradict a recent report by a U.S. think tank that said the lab had operated intermittently.

There were indications the experimental reactor had kept running, the IAEA said. Its previous report said the reactor had been refueled in 2015 and those fuel rods would probably be removed two years later. Friday’s report confirmed that prediction, saying this fuel cycle should last until late 2017.

Even less is known about North Korea’s efforts to produce another material that can fuel nuclear weapons — highly enriched uranium — but the report suggested those had continued at Yonbyon.

“There were indications consistent with the use of the reported centrifuge enrichment facility located within the plant. Construction work was undertaken on a building which adjoins the reported centrifuge enrichment facility,” it said.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Ukraine Chernobyl victims remember on 30th anniversary

A man lights a candle at a memorial, dedicated to firefighters and workers who died after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, during a night service in the city of Slavutych

By Alessandra Prentice and Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine held memorial services on Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which permanently poisoned swathes of eastern Europe and highlighted the shortcomings of the secretive Soviet system.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine triggered a meltdown that spewed deadly clouds of atomic material into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

President Petro Poroshenko attended a ceremony at the Chernobyl plant, which sits in the middle of an uninhabitable ‘exclusion zone’ the size of Luxembourg.

“The issue of the consequences of the catastrophe is not resolved. They have been a heavy burden on the shoulders of the Ukrainian people and we are still a long way off from overcoming them,” he said.

More than half a million civilian and military personnel were drafted in from across the former Soviet Union as so-called liquidators to clean-up and contain the nuclear fallout, according to the World Health Organization.

Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, most from acute radiation sickness.

Over the past three decades, thousands more have succumbed to radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, although the total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.

Nikolay Chernyavskiy, 65, who worked at Chernobyl and later volunteered as a liquidator, recalls climbing to the roof of his apartment block in the nearby town of Prypyat to get a look at the plant after the accident.

“My son said ‘Papa, Papa, I want to look too’. He’s got to wear glasses now and I feel like it’s my fault for letting him look,” Chernyavskiy said.

The anniversary has garnered extra attention due to the imminent completion of a giant 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) steel-clad arch that will enclose the stricken reactor site and prevent further leaks for the next 100 years.

The project was funded with donations from more than 40 governments and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Even with the new structure, the surrounding zone – 2,600 square km (1,000 square miles) of forest and marshland on the border of Ukraine and Belarus – will remain uninhabitable and closed to unsanctioned visitors.

The disaster and the government’s reaction highlighted the flaws of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy. For example, the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said he considers Chernobyl one of the main nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed in 1991.

(Additional reporting by Margaryta Chornokondratenko, Sergei Karazy and Andriy Perun; Editing by Robert Birsel and Richard Balmforth)

China could build nuclear plants for South China Sea, paper says

China Made Island in South China Sea

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is getting closer to building maritime nuclear power platforms that could one day be used to support projects in the disputed South China Sea, a state-run newspaper said on Friday, but the foreign ministry said it had not heard of the plans.

China has rattled nerves with its military and construction activities on the islands it occupies in the South China Sea, including building runways, though Beijing says most of the construction is meant for civilian purposes, like lighthouses.

The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said the nuclear power platforms could “sail” to remote areas and provide a stable power supply.

China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, the company in charge of designing and building the platforms, is “pushing forward the work”, said Liu Zhengguo, the head of its general office.

“The development of nuclear power platforms is a burgeoning trend,” Liu told the paper. “The exact number of plants to be built by the company depends on the market demand.”

Demand is “pretty strong”, he added, without elaborating.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying played down the story as a media report, however.

“I’ve not heard here of the relevant situation,” Hua told a daily news briefing, without elaborating.

In January, two Chinese state-owned energy companies, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), signed a strategic cooperation framework pact on offshore oil and nuclear power.

CGN has been developing a small modular nuclear reactor for maritime use, called the ACPR50S, to provide power for offshore oil and gas exploration and production. It expects to begin building a demonstration project in 2017.

Xu Dazhe, head of China’s atomic safety commission, told reporters in January the floating platforms were in the planning stage and must undergo “strict and scientific demonstrations”.

Chinese naval expert Li Jie told the Global Times the platforms could power lighthouses, defense facilities, airports and harbors in the South China Sea. “Normally we have to burn oil or coal for power,” Li said.

It was important to develop a maritime nuclear power platform as changing weather and ocean conditions presented a challenge in transporting fuel to the distant Spratlys, he added.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, and is building islands on reefs to bolster its claims. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.

(Additional reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Iran says it removes Arak reactor core in key nuclear deal step

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran has removed the sensitive core of its Arak nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors will visit the site on Thursday to verify the move crucial to the implementation of Tehran’s atomic agreement with major powers, state television said on Thursday.

Removal of the core from the Arak reactor will largely eliminate its ability to yield nuclear bomb-grade plutonium, and was one of the toughest issues to resolve in the long nuclear negotiations with the six powers.

“The core vessel of the Arak reactor has been removed … and IAEA inspectors will visit the site to verify it and report it to the IAEA … We are ready for the implementation day of the deal,” spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Behrouz Kamalvandi said.

Kamalvandi said “Implementation Day,” when Iran will start to get relief from international sanctions in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program under the July 2015 agreement, would come “very soon.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby concurred, saying “I do think we’re very close” to Implementation Day.

Kirby also confirmed that concrete had been poured into the core of the reactor. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday his Iranian counterpart had told him the core had been removed and would be filled with concrete and destroyed.

Under the deal, international sanctions against Iran will be lifted once the IAEA confirms Iran has met its nuclear commitments. Iranian officials expect the IAEA report on this to be issued on Friday. The Vienna-based U.N. watchdog has so far declined to comment on the report.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the European Union’s Federica Mogherini will issue a statement on Saturday or Sunday on the “Implementation Day” of the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, according to Iranian officials.

The U.S. and EU sanctions have choked off nearly 1.5 million barrels per day of Iranian oil exports since early 2012, reducing its oil exports by 60 percent to around 1 million barrels a day.

Tehran has drastically reduced the number of centrifuges installed at the Fordow and Natanz enrichment sites within the last few months, and shipped tonnes of low-enriched uranium materials to Russia.

“The core’s holes will be filled with concrete … The core was initially supposed to be cut into parts but we did not accept it as we want to keep it as the symbol of Iran’s nuclear industry,” Kamalvandi told state TV.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Doina Chiacu in Washington, writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Frances Kerry)