Major radioactive storage site near Murmansk to be decommissioned amid controversy

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MURMANSK – A public hearing on dealing with radioactive waste held at a derelict storage facility in The Murmansk Region, near the Finnish and Norwegian borders, took on the task of ending two of the facility’s licenses that are critical to its operation, as the site nears permanent shut down when its hazardous innards will be moved to other locales.

The public hearing established that the licenses held by Russia’s northwest territorial center for handling and transporting radioactive waste, RosRAO – formerly known as Radon – will be allowed to expire as of 2016 as part of a state plan to centralize radioactive waste and spend nuclear fuel storage.

The decision was met by opposition from Russia’s nuclear safety oversight body, which levied several claims against SevRAO, indicating it was in violation of several norms governing nuclear waste transport, and whose representative instead suggested the site should be kept operational as a temporary radioactive storage depot.

As a consequence of the decision to pull the licenses in two years, the Northwest RosRAO site, located 33 kilometers from Murmansk – which has since 1962 held some 800 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste and another 400 cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste – will be shut down. The shutdown of the Murmansk facility coincides with the shutter of a number of other similar sites across Russia located in Kazan, Samara and Chelyabinsk.

According to Russian nuclear authorities, the Murmansk RosRAO site will be free of all radioactive sources by between 2016 and 2020.

The public hearings were held in the Murmansk Region town of Kola, but drew few local participants. Among the 20 or so attendees, only two were, in fact, locals. Eleven of the participants had taken the time to read through the documentation on the decommissioning operation beforehand.

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Alexander Penchikov announcing that the RosRAO site in Murmansk will be closed down. (Photo: Anna Kireeva/Bellona Murmansk)

The low turnout was accounted for by the fact that Murmansk media have actually offered thorough and accurate reporting on the RosRAO shutdown. It has been a major story on Murmansk-television and in newspapers, residents told Bellona, leaving few questions lingering in the public mind.

Local residents also told Bellona that the sheer number of nuclear remediation projects occurring in their area – from nuclear naval decommissioning projects to civilian waste storage sites – that have passed without major incidents have somewhat inured them to fears of the current RosRAO project running awry. The hearing also took place on a week day, which also somewhat dampened attendance.

Northwest RosRAO took its first shipment of radioactive waste in 1962. During its operational period, it was tasked with accepting solid and liquid radioactive waste. But in 1994, an inspection of the Radon facility by the Kola Regional offices of Gosatomnadzor, Russia’s former nuclear oversight body, uncovered that the installation’s technical specifications didn’t met legal specifications, and it was closed to accepting further waste.

An enormous cover was erected over the facility and a process of inventorying its radioactively hazardous legacy began.

Preparing for the move

At current, the process of inventorying the Murmansk regional RosRAO site’s accrued radioactive waste is ongoing with an eye to preparing it for transport to the St. Petersburg’s Leningrad Region. Successive measures are underway to decommission the site. An accounting of the site’s contents includes four underground storage units with a volume of 200 cubic meters each for the storage of solid radioactive waste, and two reservoirs, also of 200 cubic meters, to store liquid radioactive waste.

Site chief Alexander Penchikov told the public hearing that 152 cubic meters of low-level activity liquid radioactive waste and 30 cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste have thus far been removed from the site.  Penchikov noted that during the site’s 50-year existence, it was never outfitted to actually accept liquid radioactive waste for storage. Instead, given its northern, icy climbs, the liquid radioactive waste build up on site as a result of ice melts, precipitation, and condensation prior to the building of the current dome covering over the site.

“All remaining radioactive waste at the site, specifically11 cubic meters of low-level liquid radioactive waste formed by precipitation, and 176 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste of low- and medium level activity will be removed from the site during 2014 through 2015,” Penchikov told the public hearing.

Transportation

Despite the fact that by 2016 it is expected that the RosRAO site plans to have rid itself of all radioactive waste, licenses are still necessary to handle the waste, and must be prolonged at a bureaucratic level to allow the facility to actually transport the waste.

According to the Igor Kolesnikov, the area’s civil defense and emergency situations chief, the transport is taking place according to all norms: specialized transport and accompaniment is hauling prepared parcels of radioactive waste to the town of Sosnovy Bor, located 20 kilometers west of St. Petersburg along the Gulf of Finland, to the Leningrad Region’s RosRAO site.

“Transport is being effected by previously developed and agreed-to routes,” Kolesnikov told the hearing. “No accidents have occurred during the time we have been transporting the waste.”

Nuclear oversight body against RosRAO decommissioning

Vitaly Ustinov, head of the Murmansk division of the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Oversight’s inspection division for radiologically hazardous installations has voiced his strong opposition to the closure of the Murmansk RosRAO site.

“The site should undergo reconstruction in order to continue its task of temporarily storing radioactive waste until a site is ready at Sayda Bay,” said Ustinov. “It’s expected the site at Sayda Bay will be done in a year and a half.”

Ustinov insists that the Murmansk Region needs a facility where radioactive waste can be collected. Currently, Sayda Bay is undergoing the third stage of construction for a longer term storage facility for nuclear reactor compartments. According to the long term plans of nucler authorities, Sayda Bay – a former fishing village in Russia’s far Northwest annexed by the Russian Navy for storage of low-level radioactive storage – will become a regional center for the temporary storage of radioactive waste.

Ustinov further noted that a number of violations at RosRAO had been uncovered by his agency, which, unless addressed, would lead to the facility not receiving extensions for its radioactive waste handling and transport licenses.

Ustinov cited RosRAO for a lack of qualified personnel who would guarantee safe nuclear and radiological safety, and the absence of decontamination support for radioactive waste transport containers.

RosRAO representatives responded by saying they had already purchased mobile decontamination posts, and that all other violations pointed out by Ustinov would be addressed within the timeframe proscribed by the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Oversight.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom says that reconstruction efforts for the Murmansk division RosRAO would be senseless. Corporation representatives underscored that transporting ionizing radiation sources from the site to the Leningrad region will continue at the current level until storage facilities at Sayda Bay come online.

The hearing concluded with an agreement that Murmansk RosRAO’s licenses will be extended under the condition that the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Oversight’s demands are met.

Anna Kireeva

anna@bellona.ru