MURMANSK─Despite the exceptional challenge of the nuclear and radiation cleanup project at Andreyeva Bay and recent delays caused by a disagreement with Norway, removal of spent nuclear fuel from this infamous former naval base in Russia’s north may start as soon as the first half of 2017.
This was announced by Anatoly Grigoryev, head of International Cooperation Programs at the Nuclear and Safety department of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, at a meeting held by the Public Council on the Safe Use of Nuclear Energy on board the nuclear icebreaker Lenin in Murmansk in early October.
Located in the northwest of the Kola Peninsula, 100 kilometers from the regional center Murmansk, Andreyeva Bay is a former onshore maintenance base of the Soviet Northern Fleet that served as the largest storage site for the Navy’s radioactive waste and spent fuel.
In the early 1980s, the base became the site of a major radiation hazard as the wet storage facility that held several thousand spent fuel assemblies developed a leak threatening to expose the fuel and allowing extremely radioactive water to start seeping into the nearby Barents Sea.
One of the results of the unprecedented efforts required to contain the leak was the relocation of the spent fuel into improvised dry storage units on the base’s territory. These dry storage units – vacant tanks initially meant for liquid radioactive waste, in which steel pipes were welded to accommodate spent fuel assemblies – were thought to provide a temporary storage solution until a new storage facility was ready to receive the spent fuel. But the new facility was never eventually built.
The condition of both the cooling pools and the dry storage units, as well as radioactive waste stored in Andreyeva Bay, have remained a great concern for the international community, and since the late 1990s Andreyeva Bay has been one of the primary nuclear and radiation legacy sites targeted for dedicated donor funding from several European countries for joint Russian and international cleanup and remediation efforts in the region. (See Bellona’s 2014 report on these efforts for more detailed information about Andreyeva Bay and other projects in the area).
Twenty years ago, in 1995, Murmansk’s Environment Committee carried out an inspection of the base – a first in the history of the Navy’s deployment there – and banned its further operation. At the time, the sites and facilities of Andreyeva Bay were divided into two categories: hazardous and extremely hazardous.
Twenty years later
Just as two decades ago, the site still holds 17,000 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste, 1,300 cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste, and spent nuclear fuel unloaded from almost 100 reactors that were used on board of nuclear submarines – or a little over 3,000 storage casks. These hold 22,000 spent fuel assemblies, a figure cited by Grigoryev at the meeting (Bellona’s 2014 report cites 23,000 assemblies in storage at the site).
In 2000, a government order transferred Andreyeva Bay, among other naval sites, out of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense into the care of Rosatom’s predecessor, the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation.
That same year, in order to prepare for and carry out decommissioning and remediation work at nuclear legacy sites in Russia’s northwest, a special new structure was founded in Murmansk – a regional branch of the Enterprise for Radioactive Waste Management RosRAO, or SevRAO (for “Northern Federal Enterprise for Radioactive Waste Management”).
Today, that division’s successor, Northwest Center for Radioactive Waste Management SevRAO, wants to begin clearing Andreyeva Bay of spent nuclear fuel in the first half of 2017.
“When SevRAO came to the site, there was not a single document there, and no one among the personnel of the onshore base became part of the SevRAO personnel,” Rosatom’s Grigoryev said at the Murmansk meeting last week. “Everything had to be started from scratch: The work began with making the decision on the creation of infrastructure and determining the order of extracting the fuel, since with creating the infrastructure, the fuel extraction process will be performed within a shorter time frame.”
To date, according to Grigoryev, some 6 billion rubles (about $90.7 million) has been spent on Andreyeva Bay, of which 70 percent is money allocated by donor countries. Italy and Sweden have helped with financing needed for radioactive waste management. Spent fuel management has proceeded with funding allocated by the European Commission, Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The auxiliary infrastructure is being created with the help of the EBRD, Norway, and Sweden.
Creating the infrastructure
Construction of the infrastructure necessary to carry out remediation work in Andreyeva Bay has been in progress since 2001.
The core of the nuclear cleanup activity in Andreyeva Bay is creating and equipping the enclosure building over the dry storage units – a structure that will span over the 22,000 spent fuel assemblies kept there. This is where the removal work will take place, extracting fuel assemblies out of the storage cells.
This may be tricky work, as some of the fuel assemblies in storage are expected to be damaged and may present a certain challenge during the retrieval.
According to Grigoryev, safe conditions have been created for the personnel’s work at the site. Already built there are the accumulation pad, where spent fuel extracted from dry storage will be reloaded into shipping casks for further transportation out of Andreyeva Bay for reprocessing, a personnel decontamination post, a laboratory complex, utility infrastructure, and a power supply network.
A mechanical repair shop and a decontamination station to clean equipment to be used for spent fuel management work have been completed as well with funding provided by Great Britain (the decontamination station has not yet been commissioned).
“Over the past year, we have removed 1,400 cubic meters of radioactive soil. This was not provided for in the project. We had to do it ‘on the fly,’ so as not to hold back the schedule of the works and let the equipment stand idle,” Grigoryev said, detailing the progress of the project in Andreyeva Bay.
The delivery of equipment for the nuclear materials safety, storage, and accounting system was funded by the European Commission. Speaking about the area that will be used for the storage of loaded shipping casks, Grigoryev said works involved in installing a lifting crane at the site are expected to be completed by mid-October, and then preparations will be under way to deliver the building.
“By November 1, the building is planned to be handed over to the operator organization,” Grigoryev said.
Short-term plans also include announcing a tender for the construction of a shelter building at the solid radioactive waste collection pad. Also among the planned activities is ensuring equipment delivery and developing necessary documentation.
Grigoryev said most of the sites that will be involved in spent fuel removal are now ready for the fuel extraction work to commence. Construction work is being completed on the enclosure building over the spent fuel storage units. There is hope that the construction will be completed next year, making it possible to begin “hot tests” at the site.
Concerning the schedule of works, Grigoryev underscored that the bulk of the work is to be completed in 2016.
“We could start [spent fuel] removal in the first half of 2017. We are already very close to removing the fuel from Andreyeva Bay,” Grigoryev said, with a certain pride showing in his voice.
This year, however, saw an unexpected delay in the implementation of the Andreyeva Bay project due to a disagreement with the Norwegian side.
Norway has now long been one of the most active participants in the remediation work in Andreyeva Bay. When information about the 1982 accident was first made public in 1993, the situation at the base became of particular concern to Norway since the base is located just 45 kilometers from the Russian-Norwegian border. In fact, the first funding allocated toward rehabilitation work there was provided by Norway, in 1998.
According to Grigoryev, in February 2015, a number of agreements were reached with Norway on which contracts would be signed next, for which scope of works, and how much funding would be allocated for that.
The signing of the contracts was planned for May, but the governor of Finnmark, the Norwegian county neighboring Murmansk Region, requested that it be postponed until late August. But in August, already at the meeting where the contracts were to be inked, the governor announced he did not intend to proceed with the signing.
“I don’t know how to comment on that, since everything was already agreed upon, and then the side that is providing the money simply refused to sign the contract,” Rosatom’s Grigoryev said in remarks to Bellona.
The disagreement stemmed from Norway’s insistence that the contracts include installation of navigation markers along the Northern Fleet’s route that the shipments of spent fuel removed from Andreyeva Bay will take – something that, according to the Norwegian side, should make the shipping operations safer.
This is contested by the nuclear safety experts who are responsible for spent fuel retrieval from Andreyeva Bay, as well as many Norwegian experts, including Bellona. Rosatom insists that upgrades on the navigation system do not impact the removal of spent fuel from the site. Their view is that the current state of the navigation markers along the route provides sufficient shipping safety.
“The navigation markers are the purview of the military, these markers are not in any way provided for in the [spent fuel] removal transportation flow chart. The Ministry of Defense’s combat vessels go out to sea, and so we, too, will follow the same Northern Sea Route. The Serebryanka has already made voyages to Andreyeva Bay, the Rossita will sail there this year to ship out the [radioactive waste],” Grigoryev said, referring to the two nuclear maintenance vessels involved in transporting spent fuel and radioactive waste out of the nuclear and radiation legacy sites undergoing environmental remediation in the Russian Northwest.
According to Grigoryev, the issue was reviewed by the Russian-Norwegian commission this year, and Rosatom’s nuclear icebreaker and maintenance fleet operator company “Atomflot’s assurance was that should any sort of difficulty come up at all, the company would provide a pilot, whose help will ensure the safety of the spent fuel’s transportation.”
“During this downtime, we could have done the roads, the sewage system, construction and assembly operations. None of this has been done. We have lost a year. But these works will still have to be done, or the project will take longer,” Grigoryev said bitterly to Bellona.
This summer, equipment needed to carry out integrity checks on the shipping casks should have been installed, but it was not. As a result, in order to secure certification, the casks will have to be shipped to Atomflot for testing – and then back to Andreyeva Bay – which means complicating the spent fuel removal and transportation scheme.
“The contract is still not signed, but I hope very much that it will be signed this year. But I think that most likely, the Norwegian side will transfer this money to the [Northern Dimension] Environmental Partnership fund, which will result in extending the project implementation time frame and increasing its budget,” Grigoryev told Bellona.
The Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP) serves as a clearing house for nuclear remediation projects in Russia, coordinating the efforts of the donor countries, organizations, and financial institutions involved. Its support fund is managed by the EBRD.
“Or we will have to combine carrying out the construction works with removal of the fuel, which is also not very good,” Grigoryev said.