Hearings on Russian radwaste repository proceed transparently – to a point

Onkalo The Onkalo nuclear repository in Finland. (Photo: Carnegiecouncil.org)

A public hearing on laboratory whose studies could lead to a deep geologic repository for radioactive waste in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk Region of Siberia drew some 400 participants Friday, Russia’s National Operator for Radioactive Waste Management (RosRAO) said.

The laboratory is slated to investigate the geological fitness of the Nizhnekansky Rock Mass in the Krasnoyarsk Region to hold medium and high-level radioactive waste for thousands of years.

If the coming nine years of lab construction and studies find the area suitable, RosRAO has said a repository capable of holding up to half a ton of radioactive waste – which would be retrievable – would be built, starting in 2024.

underground lab schematic A schematic for the underground lab as presented at the Krasnoyarsk conference. (Photo: NO RAO)

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Right Center (ERC) Bellona, has been involved in the repository talks through his role on the public committee of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom.

He said that the citing of the repository in the Nizhnekansky Rock Mass is just one step that could last for several decades more should the locale prove unfit for deep geologic storage of radioactive waste.

“If that happens, we’ll be back at the beginning, looking for new places to build a lab,” he said.

Process transparent – to a point

RosRAO representatives Denis Yegorov and Valery Beigul told a November gathering in Krasnoyarsk that any town putting itself forward as a candidate to host the repository would have to approve the decision by a vote, as per the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA’s) requirements.

Yegorov NO RAO NO RAO’s Denis Egorov addressing the November gathering in Krasnoyarsk. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer)

According to a Russian-language release from RosRAO, the Friday hearing was held with an eye to transparency.

“All who were present had the opportunity to ask questions relative to the future installation and to enter their suggestions,” RosRAO said in the release, and then ticked off that representatives of the Krasnoyarsk Citizens’ Assembly, the Public Environmental Board, the Krasnoyarsk Ministry of the Environment and Public Resource’s public council, and members of the public had attended.

It further described that Friday’s hearing included a host of reports from RosRAO’s ecology division, the lab’s hydrogeological contractor, and the daughter company of RosRAO responsible for building the laboratory deep in the geological mass.

Project documents on display in closed city

But the release also noted that project documents – which are supposed to be publically accessible to any interested citizen – are only on display within the confines of the nearby closed nuclear city of Zheleznogorsk itself.

This was a major concern among ecologists who attended November hearings on the repository, and the release seems to confirm their fears were well founded.

As Zheleznogorsk is a closed nuclear city, Russian’s must apply to enter in order to view laboratory project materials, and entrance applications take several weeks to review. Foreign observers are not allowed within the city limits at all.

Public commentary on the project documents closed on April 25 – allowing scant time for other possible commentators to be cleared to enter the city.

The siberian aerospace university, Zheleznogorsk. (Photo: Wikipedia) The Siberian Aerospace University, Zheleznogorsk. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Cordoning off project plans in the sequestered city is precisely what Alexei Yablokov, the grandfather of Russia’s environmental movement, warned against in an email interview with Bellona.

“The whole decision-making process that could lead to the creation of the Krasnoyarsk repository for radioactive waste must be transparent for the entire public of the Krasnoyarsk Region, and not just residents of the closed city of Zheleznogorsk,” he wrote.

According to Russia’s 2010 census (in Russian), Zheznogorsk’s population is 84,795, while the wider population of the Krasnoyarsk Region is 2.6 million. Concentrating the decision on moving forward with the repository only in the nuclear city’s hands would indeed discount the vast majority of those who could be affected by the project.

Alexei Menshikov, chairman of Krasnoyarsk Citizens’ Assembly Chairman agreed, saying as far back as October that the project could not approved without “wide public discussion and the creation of effective means for civil control, because [the repository] concerns environmental safety and the livelihood of citizens.”

RosRAO’s Yegorov reportedly told Friday’s hearing that the underground research laboratory “is a strategic project for the [nuclear industry], the task of which will be to develop technologies for the safe, final isolation of radioactive waste.

Sergei Peshkov, chief of administration for Zheleznogorsk said the hearings were of “an open character,” that all wishes of the public had been taken into account, and that the lab design will be further worked out in accord with the suggestions presented.

Neither RosRAO nor state nuclear corporation Rosatom returned phone or email requests to comment on why the laboratory’s technical documents were only accessible to residents of the closed city.

Repository citing still a push in a modern direction

By engaging in the project, Russia is joining a host of countries such as France, Finland, the UK, and Sweden, which have likewise been engaged in years’ long processes of citing spots for laboratories and possible repositories. The search for repositories has come at the behest of the IAEA.

Yegorov told the November gathering in Krasnoyarsk that the surface space to be occupied by the prospective laboratory was 5000 square meters.

The laboratory will submerge sensors and shafts 500 to 600 meters into the Nizhnekansky Rock Mass to measure its seismic stability, its geological characteristics, and most importantly, said Yegorov, its proximity to water tables.

The laboratory will also determine what natural barriers preventing the escape of radiation exists, and which will have to be specially engineered.

 

Charles Digges