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“I design counter-terrorist systems with motion sensors and patrol towers to repel intruders,” says Elena Kamenskaya, winner of Miss Atom 2007, one of the world’s more unlikely beauty contests. She now acts as ambassador for Russia’s nuclear industry, helping to improve its rather poor international reputation.

Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Rosatom, has an image problem. Environmentalists complain that half of the country’s reactors still use the technology that caused the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Security around Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants was questioned following the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive polonium-210. And then there’s the general air of secrecy. “The nuclear industry is military and it retains military customs,” says Rosatom’s Alexander Lopoukhov.

Rosatom’s eagerness to improve its image is spurred on by money. With international oil prices high and climate change on the agenda, nuclear power is in demand as an affordable low-emission energy source. Emerging markets such as India and China are looking to buy new reactors but Rosatom is struggling to compete against the US-based Westinghouse and France’s Areva. The stakes are high: in July, Rosatom lost out to its American rival on a €5.8bn tender to build four reactors in China.

Alongside a controversial contract with Iran, Rosatom’s customers include the military junta in Burma, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria and Pakistan. As with arms, Russia seems to be the nuclear power supplier of choice for those unable to buy western kit. So the pressure is mounting for Lopoukhov and his PR team.

Lopoukhov is also editor-in-chief of Nuclear.ru, a private spin-machine and online information service promoting Russia’s nuclear industry. In 2003 it dreamt up the idea of “Miss Atom” as a way to open up the industry and show a less threatening side. “We wanted to show the types of jobs women have in the nuclear world,” says Lopoukhov. The backgrounds of the contestants at this year’s event reflect this.

The winner, Elena Kamenskaya, is a graduate in security equipment from Pensa University. Anastacia Pletneyova, 31, who came second, graduated from Novosibirsk Building Academy in economic engineering and now markets nuclear fuel. Third-placed Tatiana Rodnyk, 25, is a presenter at a cable TV studio that broadcasts to the community at the Kursk nuclear plant. The professions of the three winners convey an attractive image of better security, marketing and openness.

The contrast couldn’t be greater 500km south of Moscow in Kursk on the Ukrainian border. The nuclear plant is actually located in Kursk’s satellite city of Kurchatov. All of Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants are surrounded by these closed communities.

On arrival in Kursk we give our official minder the slip. The next day we meet up with a smartly dressed fixer who drives us in his Lada towards the 30km perimeter fence that seals off Kurchatov. After 40 minutes we see a checkpoint ahead and our driver heads down a dusty track. The car bounces over the potholes. Soon we emerge into the “secret city”. Rows of austere cracked tower blocks stretch into the distance. We turn into one street to see a wedding party, the women with fiercely lacquered hair. In another street frowning children cycle through the dust.

Far off over the lake is the outline of the nuclear facility. This reactor uses ageing graphite rods and in June suffered an emergency system shutdown. It certainly won’t be winning any beauty contests and shows that, despite its best efforts, there’s still an unreconstructed side to Russia’s nuclear industry.

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