Russia at risk of reviving old SNF import saga, making Murmansk possible port of entry

The series of bilateral deals the United States has been signing with Russia and other states – or 123 agreements, dubbed so for the relevant section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act – outline US prospects for nuclear-related cooperation with nations, groups of nations, or regional security organisations as possible only on the condition that proper agreements are in place with such entities and that these agreements are approved by the President of the United States and ratified by Congress.

Such agreements have already been concluded with 25 countries; similar partnerships have also been forged with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community. The issue of signing a 123 agreement with Russia has long been on the table, but it was not before Sergei Kiriyenko, the current chief of the Russian atomic authority, Rosatom, came to head the agency that the talks between the two nations finally approached the level of concrete actions. In May 2008, the agreement was signed, but its ratification fell through after the Russian-Georgian conflict broke out over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia in August that year.

Once the U.S.-Russian 123 agreement is successfully passed in Congress, Russia will be entitled to an active role on the American nuclear market. The deal will effectively pave the way for Rosatom to pursue the exchange of technologies, materials, equipment, and various components required for nuclear research and nuclear energy production. And there are quite a number of potential cooperation areas to develop: deliveries of uranium ore and nuclear fuel, nuclear technology exchange, issues of plutonium burning, scientific research into new reactor designs and enhanced safety systems, among others.

Imports of foreign-produced SNF into Russia

There is, however, one aspect of the 123 agreement that is better known in Russia – it is the probability that Moscow will start importing US-controlled spent nuclear fuel into the country, thus realising the domestic atomic lobby’s long-term dream of cashing in billions in SNF storage and reprocessing contracts.

In 2001, amendments to the Russian Federal Law “On Environmental Protection” were ramrodded through the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, that allowed such imports into Russia. Estimates offered at the time on the country’s potential earnings from the trade reached $20 billion.

But though it passed the amendments, Russia never actually signed any SNF import deals. However, the very issue is bound to re-emerge if or when the 123 agreement is ratified in the US Congress.

The bulk of global SNF stockpiles are controlled by the United States, and much will depend on the position the White House will take on the subject. Washington has so far followed the open fuel cycle policy: No SNF reprocessing is done in the country for the purpose of extracting uranium, plutonium, or other radionuclides. Spent nuclear fuel generated from American-supplied fresh fuel burnt in reactors of US nuclear power plants or reactors operated in other countries is collected in temporary storage facilities; an immense SNF stockpile has been amassed in Asia.

Radiochemical reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is an extremely environmentally unfriendly process, one that leads to the accumulation of tonnes of solid and liquid radioactive waste. And for the atomic industry, radioactive waste is a nasty headache for which no remedy has yet been or will foreseeably be found in the near future.

This is why countries with stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel will be more than happy to rid themselves of their dangerous burden: Let it sit in storage somewhere in the godforsaken boundless wilderness of Siberia, let it get lost somewhere as far away from home as possible.

Issues of SNF transportation, storage, and reprocessing

Today, Russia has no industrial capacities to reprocess spent nuclear fuel on a commercial scale. This is another reason why foreign companies can be expected to rejoice at the opportunity to dump its SNF in Russia: Once Russia is there as a convenient place on offer to accept the unequivocally dangerous cargo for long-term storage, they do not have to worry about having to subsequently accommodate the radioactive waste that will be generated during the reprocessing and then repatriated to the country of origin, as is the established practice in the civilised world. Russia will simply be unable to reprocess the imported SNF anytime in the near future. In essence, this means that spent nuclear fuel will remain in storage in Russia indefinitely. The likeliest storage location is the town of Zheleznogorsk, in the vicinity of the East Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, which hosts a never-completed SNF reprocessing plant dubbed RT-2.
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But before the storage and reprocessing issues are even resolved, SNF will first have to be imported and reloaded into multi-tonne containers for storage. Two modes of transportation are commonly used – by sea and by rail. Air shipments have been used on certain occasions, but will likely prove unsuitable for imports of such scale.

In Europe and Russia, in particular, rail transport is the most frequently used method to ship spent nuclear fuel. SNF traffic direction in Russia will depend on the geographical location of sites where nuclear energy is applied and where SNF is stored and reprocessed. As the bulk of such transports suggests, this will generally imply SNF traffic moving from European Russia into Siberia.

Transport by sea

Sea transport is only used for SNF shipping in Russia’s Northwest and Far East. In these areas, SNF traffic circulates between former naval maintenance bases, shiprepairing yards where nuclear-powered vessels undergo maintenance and refuelling, and enterprises where spent nuclear fuel is transshipped from cargo vessels into railway cars.

Fourteen Russian seaports have been authorised by the Russian government to handle Class 7 hazardous cargoes. These include the ports of Arkhangelsk, Bolshoi Kamen, Vladivostok, Vysotsk, the port of the settlement of Dixon, Dudinka, Kaliningrad, Kandalaksha, Murmansk, Pevek, the port of the settlement of Provideniya, St. Petersburg, Taganrog, and Ust-Luga. The physical capacity of these ports to accept and service vessels carrying spent nuclear fuel depends on a number of factors. The specificity of these factors aside, Murmansk Sea Port remains currently known as the only port that meets all necessary requirements to deal with SNF shipments, provided that such operations are performed by, and on the territory of, the state-owned nuclear-powered fleet operator Atomflot.

The first SNF delivery by sea was made in 1998 from the port of Dudinka to Murmansk, on the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s Far North, using a vessel called the Kandalaksha (the Murmansk Shipping Company was the vessel’s operator). On board were shipping casks containing spent fuel assemblies unloaded from a nuclear reactor in Norilsk. Incidentally, the Kandalaksha had not been duly certified for shipping operations of this kind.

In the autumn of 2008, an appropriately certified vessel called the Lynx, operated by an American shipping company, delivered a batch of spent nuclear fuel from the Institute of Nuclear Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from the Slovenian port of Koper to Murmansk.

Then, in the summer of 2009, retrofitting works were performed under a project designed by the St. Petersburg-based Alexei Krylov Shipbuilding Research Institute on the Russian-flag cargoship MCL Trader at the Estonian yard Netaman Ship Repair Oy in Tallinn. The ship was upgraded to comply with international standards for vessels shipping spent nuclear fuel and received an INF-2 Class certificate for such operations.

The MCL Trader is owned by the Russian company Concern ASPOL-Baltic. It is a dry cargoship built in Singapore in 1990 and has the following characteristics: vessel length of 95 metres; beam 15.9 metres; draught 6.3 metres; speed 15 knots; and deadweight 4,326 tonnes.

SNF transports in Murmansk Region

In September 2009, the MCL Trader made a delivery of spent nuclear fuel from Poland’s Gdynia to Murmansk. The fuel had been unloaded from the Polish research reactor Eva. During the voyage, the ship passed just 25 to 30 nautical miles off the shore of Norway’s Lofoten Archipelago, in the country’s north. When going past a coastline at a distance as short as this, vessels with displacement of over 5,000 tonnes are expected to report to the authorities onshore, informing them of the load they are carrying.

However, Norway never received any information about the nature of the cargo on board the MCL Trader, either from Russian or Polish officials. It is noteworthy that in 2008, Poland and Norway had in fact reached an agreement stipulating that Poland and Russia would inform this Nordic country of any SNF shipments proceeding past the Norwegian coastline into Russia.

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Specialised SNF transportation vessels

In Murmansk Region, maritime shipments of spent nuclear fuel have originated – and still originate – from the following enterprises: the former naval onshore maintenance base Zaozyorsk (SevRAO regional branch No. 1), the former naval onshore maintenance base Ostrovnoi (SevRAO regional branch No. 2), and the Shiprepairing and Dismantlement Yard Nerpa and Shiprepairing Yard No. 10 in Alexandrovsk. All such shipments are made to the nuclear fleet operator Atomflot. Zaozyorsk and Ostrovnoi are under the purview of SevRAO, which is Northern Enterprise for Radioactive Waste Management. Both – as well as Alexandrovsk – are restricted-access areas called in Russian officialese by an acronym of ZATO, which stands for “closed administrative territorial entities” – the famous closed cities dealing with secretive scientific or military procedures.

It was on these routes, connecting the former naval bases and shipyards and Atomflot in Murmansk, that so-called naval floating maintenance bases and technical maintenance vessels servicing the northern nuclear fleet – the Lepse, Imandra, Lotta, and Serebryanka, all operated formerly by the Murmansk Shipping Company (they are now the responsibility of Atomflot) – have made routine voyages carrying spent nuclear fuel unloaded from nuclear submarines and icebreakers.

The Serebryanka is currently undergoing upgrades to be soon certified as a Class INF-2 vessel. Additionally, a Class INF-2 containership called the Etna is being built in Italy as part of international efforts to help ensure safe maritime transportation of SNF in Russia. The project is fully financed by the Italians, and the overall costs of design and construction are estimated at €71.5 million.

The future containership with a deadweight of 4,000 tonnes is scheduled to be floated in 2011. The vessel’s specifications are as follows: 84 metres in length overall, 14 metres in beam, 16.7 metres in height, and a maximum draught of 4 metres. The ship will have two isolated cargo holds with a combined capacity of 720 tonnes and is supposed to be an “all-purpose” SNF carrier, capable of accommodating containers with spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste of any type, including spent removable sections of submarine reactor compartments.

For transshipment operations, a 45-tonne electrohydraulic rotating crane will be installed onboard with a boom reach of between 4 and 15 metres. The vessel will be able to travel at speeds of up to 12 knots and make non-stop voyages as long as 60 days. Its design operational range is 3,000 nautical miles. As the future owner and operator of the vessel, Rosatom chose Atomflot, which had just prior to the contract signing been severed from its parent company, the Murmansk Shipping Company, and put under Rosatom’s control.

Murmansk as a transit port for foreign SNF?

There are now all the indications that the 123 agreement between the US and Russia will result in a number of offers from various nations willing to send their spent nuclear fuel to Russia for storage and reprocessing. Given the situation at hand, there are reasons to assume that Murmansk – the operating grounds of Rosatom’s Atomflot – will become that junction where imported SNF will be transshipped from sea-going vessels into railway cars.

Both the traffic generated by these imports and the profit it is going to make for Rosatom are likely to be of sizable proportions. What it will mean for Russia, however, is future stockpiles of nuclear materials and the responsibility to ensure their safe storage for thousands of years to come. No profits that Rosatom might extract from importing foreign-made SNF will ever cover these expenses. Furthermore, as transports of nuclear materials grow in size and frequency, so will the risk of accidents occurring during such shipments.

As before, Bellona intends to watch the situation closely for further developments.

Maria Kaminskaya