Earlier this week Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a speech that ‘the only "real and powerful alternative" to oil and gas is nuclear energy. He rejected other approaches as "claptrap."’

We wonder if he’d have used those words if things had gone differently at Russia’s Kursk nuclear power plant earlier this year. Probably not, as he might have been touring hospitals visiting victims of radiation exposure instead. On July 22, it appears that one of the reactors at the plant may have come close a Chernobyl-style disaster.

We say ‘appears’ and ‘may’ because official details from the authorities are few and sketchy. The story that is slowly leaking out however, via Bellona, is one of a highly dangerous mix of incompetence, arrogance, cover-up and propaganda.

The reactor is a RBMK-1000, the same design to the one that caused the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. There is evidence to suggest that the changes made to the Kursk reactor to solve the problem that caused the Chernobyl explosion may have introduced a new fault into the reactor’s design that can lead to equally serious accidents. 

It you want a case study into how not to manage public concerns in a time when suspicion of nuclear power is at its height then Kursk is it. Beyond a few bland online statements from the plant’s operator Rosenergoatom there are few official details as to what really happened July 22. What we’re left with is unanswered questions and informed speculation. Is that any way to run a nuclear industry?

You can see why the Russian authorities might want to cover-up any accident and leak (Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika has so far not responded to Greenpeace’s questions about any possible leak of radiation from Kursk). Russia sees itself as one of the dominant players in the global nuclear industry. From uranium to nuclear fuel to reactor design, building and operation, Russia wants a big slice of the nuclear ‘renaissance ’. Talk of nuclear accidents at reactors with incompetent management and under-trained staff doesn’t look good to potential investors.

When the Russian authorities (and Russia isn’t alone in this) are operating nuclear reactors without honesty and transparency, while it is dumping nuclear waste in the open air, and embracing a technology that has solved none of its dangerous problems in its 60-year history, it is Prime Minister Putin that is talking ‘claptrap’.