Real estate shopping for nuclear waste in Northwest Russia in a time of melting ice

novaya zemlya test The first nuclear device detonated on Novaya Zemlya in 1955. (Photo: Still from NTV Russian television.)

The acting director of a Russian national park has made the surprising suggestion of packing the country’s nuclear waste into a high arctic archipelago where the Soviets used to test atomic bombs.

Alexander Kirilov at the Russian Arctic nature reserve suggested in a recent interview that storing radioactive waste on Novaya Zemlya, in the Arctic Ocean dividing the Barents and the Kara Seas, wouldn’t pose any special threat to the environment and may be good in the long run for Russian nuclear science.

Because Russia doesn’t have the technology at present to reprocesses or recycle this waste, he said, Novaya Zemlya, which until 1992 was a site for burying some liquid and solid waste, could act as a literal icebox to store it until science catches up with a way to tap it. In the meantime, he added, it would spur the development of long term radioactive storage technologies, which are better learned now than later.

novaya_zemlya014 The Novaya Zemlya Archipelago as seen from the water. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

Moving part of Russia’s vast stores of radioactive waste to Novaya Zemlya isn’t a new idea, but is one that’s been shelved by state nuclear corporation Rosatom over the of prohibitive costs of transporting waste to it, and then operating it.

A little more than a year ago, officials in the Arkhangelsk Regional Government approved a plan to start digging a repository there for low to medium level waste. But global warming is making that look less certain.

Novaya Zemlya’s permafrost is one of the things that is supposed to trap radioactivity at the planned repository, but freak winter temperature spikes to above freezing are burning it off.

Despite Kirilov’s suggestion, which sounds unorthodox coming from Russia’s national park service, Rosatom is now plotting around its Novaya Zemlya plans. But just where it’s looking instead is provoking some thorny debate.

Two other possible sites have been floated for repositories to deal with Northwest Russia’s nuclear waste, Sosnovy Bor, home to the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near St Petersburg, and the Murmansk Region, where the Kola Nuclear Power Plant and Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port Atomflot are located.

According to Russian press reports and environmentalists, the Murmansk Region seems the most likely candidate – and not everyone is happy about that.

First, said Andrei Zolotkov, a nuclear expert with Bellona, it’s not clear that the Murmansk Region actually needs a nuclear waste repository.

Saida Bay, a former fishing village under the control of the Russian Navy, will provide ample above ground storage of low level nuclear waste for what Zolotkov estimated would be the next 30 to 50 years. Sayda Bay could even expand to take more.

More pressing, said Zolotkov, would be building a repository in Sosnovy Bor. The geological conditions there, which feature clay, are said to be better, and the need there is also arguably greater. But Sosnovy Bor’s well-organized and active anti-nuclear lobby, which is already harassed by the construction of a second Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, has howled in protest against a waste repository.

In contrast, Zolotkov characterized the municipal response to repository plans in the Murmansk Region as less feisty.

But the geology there is less agreeable. Zolotkov said the area is mostly rocky, and Rosatom would have to blast any potential repository into an unyielding environment.

Zolotkov said surveying in the area in the 1990s revealed only one area, called Dalniye Zelentsy, which would be suitable for a repository. But still, the whole of the Kola Peninsula doesn’t present anything as accommodating as the clay formations near Sosnovy Bor.

Still, investment plans for the Murmansk Region are coalescing around the possibility of a repository somewhere on the Kola Peninsula at some point, he said.

While no specific site has been picked, Zolotkov urged Rosatom to evaluate where the Northwest Russian nuclear waste situation is in 30 years. The region’s deep rock formations, he said, are no less susceptible to climate change than is the permafrost of Novaya Zemlya.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no