Actually, the article that caused me to ask that question had a slightly different headline Can Russia Substitute More Coal for Gas?. It should be pretty obvious that Russia “can” burn more coal, it has the second largest reserves in the world and currently extracts less than 1/4 of the amount produced in the United States.
The real question that Russian leaders should be asking themselves is “should we burn more coal”, especially if the investment capital that finances the infrastructure for more mines, more transportation and more coal fired power plants prevents or significantly limits investments in new nuclear power plants.
While coal might be a quicker fix, there is little likelihood that building coal plants would lead to expanded exports of either coal or coal power plants from Russia. There is also the not minor problem of increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – Russia is a signatory to the Kyoto protocols and currently obtains substantial economic benefit from the fact that it has already met its targets by shutting down inefficient, Soviet era industrial facilities.
Russia has a wide base of nuclear expertise, and despite what some sellers of Western nuclear power plants might like you to believe, they build durable, safe, and reliable equipment. Like the rest of the nuclear industry, Russian engineers and project leaders have learned a lot of lessons from Chernobyl. Addition learning will take place as they build new facilities, and practice that they conduct in their home markets would make them even more formidable competitors in the world market.
The world will benefit by having additional nuclear expertise, by avoiding additional carbon, soot, and sulfur emissions, and by increasing the availability of natural gas for uses that are not well served by nuclear energy.
Of course, you probably knew MY answer to the question before you even began reading – Russia should build nuclear plants instead of coal plants.