Officials have packed up the first container of spent nuclear fuel from the notorious Andreyeva Bay submarine maintenance yards in Northwest Russia, which for decades has been a source of anxiety over its Cold War nuclear legacy.
Valery Ermenko, of the SevRAO, the Northwest center for radioactive waste management, told Bellona Tuesday that technicians had loaded seven spent fuel assemblies into one cask they are preparing for transport. He added that radiation levels remained within specified norms during the packing process.
“The first cask is just the beginning,” he said in a release. “We have a lot of work ahead, but we are sure that in the process of dealing with the spent nuclear fuel we will gain additional industrial skills for doing operations, and will improve specific industrial processes and at the same time speed up the shipment of spent nuclear fuel.”
The move has been a long time in the coming, and is a bright spot in international cooperation between Russia and the West at a time of sanctions and ever mounting mutual suspicion. The first shipment of fuel that will be sent to storage away from Andreyeva Bay is expected to leave by the end of this year.
Andreyeva Bay, located on the Kola Peninsula 100 kilometers from the city of Murmansk, is a former onshore maintenance base for the Soviet Northern Fleet, and served as the largest storage site for the Navy’s radioactive waste and spent fuel.
In the early 1980s, the dangers of the site became apparent when its wet storage facility holding several thousand spent fuel assemblies developed a leak that threatened to expose the fuel and allow radioactive water to start seeping into the nearby Barents Sea.
To contain the leaks, spent fuel was moved to improvised dry storage units on the base. The units were vacant tanks meant for liquid radioactive waste, and steel pipes were welded into them to accommodate spent fuel assemblies. This was thought to be safe until permanent storage was built.
But that storage never came, and over time the condition of the spent fuel assemblies and of radioactive waste also storage at Andreyeva Bay became more worrisome.
On the whole, Andreyeva Bay 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 nuclear submarine reactors – or a little over 3,000 storage casks. These casks hold 22,000 spent fuel assemblies.
As the first of these moved out this week, it represented the culmination of a fuel removal plan developed by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom that has been in the works since 2001.
“Finally, we have waited for the beginning of one of the most important and complicated stages of this project,” said Alexander Niktin, who heads up Bellona’s Russia offices. “We hope that the fuel removal process goes according to plan and to schedule.”
Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general director and nuclear physicist called the first evacuation of spent fuel “a truly historic event,” and added that “it means the beginning of important work to reduce the risk of leaks and emergencies at the facility.”
Bellona first began working with the Andreyeva Bay issue 23 years ago. Since 2001, time and technology have caught up. Bøhmer noted that moving the fuel is not without risk and urged that packing and shipment proceed under strict control.
“In my view, it would be important and useful to do the most dangerous operations with the participation of independent experts,” he said.
Vladimir Luzin, the general director of RosRAO, of which SevRAO is a part, told Bellona the removal of the first parcel of fuel sounds a strong note for the international attention focused on the issue.
“To begin with, we needed 10 years alone to work out engineering documentation, to conduct public hearings, to work out and define investment procedures, for construction,” Luzin said. “I can say with confidence that we have taken another important step in Rosatom’s work toward solving environmental problems in Russia’s Northwest.”
The fuel removal is part of a Russian government Federal Target Program called for so-called industrial level decommissioning of military installations by 2020. Under that plan it is hoped that the majority of the fuel will be hauled out in the next five years.
Among the principle risks that remain is the process of shipping Andreyeva Bay’s fuel by rail for reprocessing and storage to Russia’s Mayak Chemical Combine 3,000 kilometers to the South in the Chelyabinsk region.
Then there is the risk of trying to extract several damaged fuel rods that may be wedged in among the assemblies technicians are working to extract. Last year, Bellona was told during a visit to Andreyeva Bay that if they could not be removed individually, they would be removed together with their assemblies.