Officials still house hunting in Northwest Russia for a place to store nuclear waste

nuclear-waste-problem Nuclear waste containers. (Photo: Bellona)

Russia’s uncertain search for a place to store its low level radioactive waste has again focused on areas surrounding Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg. One of these places, eventually, will be home to the carcinogenic debris, but the national nuclear waste handler is still house hunting.

Russia currently operates one repository for low and medium level waste in near the city of Novouralsk in the Sverdlovsk region. That site will eventually host some 53,000 cubic meters of waste, shielding it from the outside environment for three centuries.

Russia’s National Operator for radioactive waste management has picked other regions as well. The area near the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine in the Southern Urals is slated for a repository that would hold 200,000 cubic meters of waste. Another site near the city of Tomsk in central Siberia will get a site to store 150,000 cubic meters.

The industries and institutes that use them will pay for the sites, and the fees they are charged will go toward a federal radioactive waste management fund. The fees then go toward the production costs for the repositories, and cover their design, construction, operation and eventual decommissioning.

Speaking Wednesday, Nikita Medyantsev, the National Operator’s director for social and international communications, said that while its necessary to build a repository for Northwest Russia’s nuclear waste, the choice of where that would be is still an open question.

All three regions the National Operator is considering, said Medyantsev, are at different points along the legal path to approving a repository in their areas, and none are going very smoothly.

Akhangelsk, he said, had approved the plan for a repository in its legislative assembly. Among prospective sites in that region is the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, a former Soviet nuclear test range in the Arctic. Warming global temperatures, however, have eaten at the archipelago’s layer of permafrost, which had been hoped to insulate the waste. Russia’s state nuclear corporation has reportedly cooled on the Novaya Zemlya prospect as well.

map novaya zemlya Novaya Zemlya's location. (Source: ultima0thule.blogspot.com)

A second possibility is the city of Sosnovy Bor, near St Petersburg and home to the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant. But the approval process there has been dragged on for years, Medyantsev noted. He called the prospect of interring waste in the region “not promising” because of cost. Sosnovy Bor also has an organized group of anti-nuclear lobbyists who have pushed back against the repository.

That left the Murmansk Region, where Medyantsev said the National Operator was considering two different sites, but no official agreements have been reached with area authorities.

He added vaguely that the National Operator was considering yet more regions and collecting preliminary data on other prospective sites. Site selection is based on whether local geology can shroud the environment from radioactivity.

How close it is to where the waste accumulates, and what measures can be undertaken to avoid accidents in transport are also considered. Site selection is also considered from the point of view of legislation.

A measure of public opinion toward a nuclear waste repository that will store radioactive refuse is also theoretically considered. Public hearings are often held, where those who will live near repositories are shown state environmental impact studies and informed about the research that goes into them.

On Tuesday, Medyantsev acknowledged that such levels of public involvement were aspirational.

“We try to do all we can, and to be open about what Russian legislation requires of us,” he said. “Of course, there are always people who will speak out against where we put our facilities, and that’s natural.”

The National Operator, he said, tries to organize tours of prospective sites for specialists and journalists, as other countries in Western Europe do.

Of the possible areas for a repository near Murmansk, the National Operator is investigating four. One is an old mine shaft near the industrial city of Monchegorsk, which meets geological requirement for interring low and medium level nuclear waste. Another site is near Zelenoborsk. Two other sites, near Dalnyie Zelentsi and Kashkarantsi, have also been proposed by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Andrei Zolotkov, a nuclear expert with Bellona’s Murmansk offices, said a repository for the region is an important goal owing to the number of nuclear installations that call the region home. The homeport of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleets, Atomflot, is located near metropolitan Murmansk. In his view, it’s a contemporary solution to a pressing problem.

zolotkov pollution seminar Andrei Zolotkov. (Photo: Bellona)

But Zolotkov is skeptical of the time frame proposed for a Murmansk area repository. The National Operator started its work in Murmansk this year, he said, but the area won’t have enough low and medium level nuclear waste to inter until the first reactor at the Kola nuclear plant is decommissioned, something that likely won’t happen for another 30 years.

Yet the first reactor at the Leningrad nuclear power plant, said Zolotkov, will likely be taken out of service far earlier, in 2019, and, as such, will become a more pressing source of nuclear waste.

“In all likelihood, the thrust of repository constructing in Sosnovy Bor isn’t going as the National Operator planned, so they decided to look for a different site,” said Zolotkov. “Apparently they are not bothered by the fact that they will have to haul the waste a thousand and a half kilometers [to Murmansk].”

The repositories that the National Operators want to build, Zolotkov said, are meant to house waste for hundreds of years. As such, they will be drawing on waste that will build up several decades down the road, when more of Northwest Russia’s nuclear power plants are decommissioned.

“Now is too early to talk about building repositories in the Murmansk region,” he said, and pointed to Sayda Bay, a refurbished nuclear storage site on Kola Bay where dozens of reactor compartments from nuclear vessels are kept.

“We have Sayda Bay here, which has a huge complex for dealing with nuclear waste, and that is sufficient for storing it for a long time.”

 

Anna Kireeva

anna@bellona.ru

Charles Digges