Non-operational radwaste treatment plant off-limits for sponsors

Renseanlegget bygges i bygningen til vestre ved Atomflot nord for Murmansk.
Foto: Aleksandr Raube

Publish date: June 20, 2002

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

A delegation from the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs was in late May this year denied access to the Norwegian-funded liquid radioactive waste treatment plant at nuclear icebreakers' Atomflot base in Murmansk. The $5 million-worth treatment plant is still not put into operation.

Last week, representatives of the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs met with the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy, Minatom, in Moscow to discuss current and future nuclear safety projects. State Secretary of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Elsbeth Tronstad (the Norwegian Conservative Party), is the head of the Norwegian delegation.

The co-operation with Russia is not progressing entirely without problems. In the end of May, State Secretary Mrs Tronstad brought a delegation to the Kola Peninsula. According to the official travel report the aim of the trip was to become more familiar with the Norwegian-Russian co-operation on nuclear safety in Northwest Russia.

The visit hit off at a rather bad start, as the delegation, visiting the base of nuclear icebreakers at Atomflot in Murmansk, was supposed to be updated on the progression of the new treatment plant for liquid radioactive waste. Numerous Norwegian and international delegations and state secretaries have visited the plant before.

0edfeb4fff09764bc0ec3f9dc11125db.jpeg Photo: Foto: Bellona Murmansk

The enquiry was addressed to Minatom, which is the agency in charge of the Norwegian-Russian co-operation on nuclear safety. Vyacheslav Ruksha, the Russian Deputy Transport Minister, who knows the issue like the back of his hand, signed the enquiry. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Transport Minister in September 2000, Ruksha held the position of general director of nuclear icebreakers fleet before he was promoted to the position of general director of Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCo), the commercial operator of the nuclear icebreakers.

Norway contributed $2 million
In his letter to Minatom, Ruksha claims that the Russian management of the new treatment plant suffers from insufficient insight into the technical aspects of the project. It is the semi-governmental company Nuklid, which has been in charge of the project for the Russian side, whereas Norway, in co-operation with the USA, has funded the plant. The total costs as of today has mounted to just above $5 million. The Norwegian share of $2 million has been financed through the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ plan of action for nuclear issues.

The questions of why the plant still is not operating are just as many as the answers. When the Norwegian Office of the Auditor General handled the project, it was stressed that the Norwegian project management was not satisfactorily either. The USA side accentuates a poor project management on the Russian side as a reason for the plant being inoperative. The Russians, however, blame inadequate funding from Norway and the USA for the commissioning of the project as an excuse. Despite the fact that parts of the technology were shipped from the USA, the main parts of the plant are based on Russian technology, supplied by VNIPIET institute in St Petersburg.

More and more workers at the Atomflot base are now considering the choice of Russian technology to be a mistake.

London Convention against nuclear dumping
Three years ago, when the plant was taken through tests for the first time, it turned out that the pipes held a too weak pressure to treat liquid radioactive waste. Whether the reason was too long pipelines or too weak pumps is also subject to different opinions. However, all parties agree that the plant has not yet commenced operation.

Furthermore, the background for the initial implementation of the project is also an issue of dispute. In 1994, when the first steps towards a Norwegian-American initiative were taken, it was based on a wish to assist Russia with a treatment plant so that the country could comply with its commitments stated in the London Convention, which prohibits dumping of radioactive materials at sea.

Liquid radioactive waste from the civil fleet of nuclear icebreakers was until 1989 dumped in the Barents Sea, whereas the Northern Fleet dumped wastes at sea until 1993. Prior to the new treatment plant, which would be able to process 5,000 cubic meters annually, Atomflot had an old plant with a capacity of 1,200 cubic meters. The old plant has sufficient capacity to treat all liquid waste generated by the operation of the nuclear icebreakers, their service vessels as well as waste from the various plants at the Atomflot site. The main purpose of the new treatment plant was in fact to handle liquid radioactive waste from the Northern Fleet, including liquids with a high salt-content.

Other liquid waste treatment plants in operation
The one question both Norway and the USA neglected to put forward previous to the initiation of the project: Who was going to be financially responsible for the processing of the liquid nuclear waste from the Northern Fleet? The Northern Fleet is not regularly known to pay for the treatment of their own generated waste. Atomflot, which may soon become a part of the privately owned MSCo, does not wish to do the job for the Northern Fleet for free. Nor does Norway wish to pay for it and the USA has withdrawn from the entire project for quite some time ago. Both Atomflot and nuclear icebreakers fleet are still and will remain to be the federal property operated by commercial MSCo.

Most probably Minatom should be the one to pay for the operation carried out at the new plant on Atomflot. However, Minatom may have the job done at less expense in one of the new plants that have been constructed after the Atomflot project was initiated. Those plants have their technical limitations, however, such as they are not capable to process all types of waste.

In Severodvinsk, at the state marine shipyard Zvezdochka, a new plant for purification of liquid radioactive waste has been built. Norway paid for the upgrading of the storage tanks, whereas the USA, through the Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programme paid for the waste treatment plant. Furthermore, another purification plant for liquid radioactive waste, with low output however, is currently in use at the Northern Fleet.

According to the first construction plan the plant at Atomflot was scheduled to be in operation from 1996. This plan failed, however, and in 1996 construction works were hardly commenced on. In 1998, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Knut Wollebaek, was supposed to officially open the plant. Wollebaek, accompanied by a considerable Norwegian press corps, was nevertheless deprived of that honour, as the plant at the time was little more than a construction site. Later the same year King Harald, followed by an even bigger press corps, made a visit to the site, but he was not given the opportunity to officially open the plant either. The next in line, the Norwegian labour politician, Espen Barth-Eide, was during his visit invited to lunch on board the nuclear icebreaker Sovetski Souz, instead of taking part in a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Embarrassing for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs
The project in general was growing increasingly embarrassing for the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The Russians turned to Norway for more money, but Barth-Eide made it clear that Norway had no intention of granting any more to the project. This decision was made in spite of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Control’s (NRPC) recommendations stated in a progress report of December 2000, where the institute strongly advice to grant additional money so that the testing of the plant could be concluded and the purification of thousands of cubic metres of liquid radioactive waste from the Kola Peninsula could start up.

NRPC also stressed the importance of concluding the project, which was perceived by many as a project of prestige. NRPC wrote: “A slight expansion of the total project costs would help speed up the work progression. The sooner the plant can be put into operation the greater the effective output for other projects will be.”

In June last year Norway had had enough. In order to conclude its participation in the project in a polite way Norway arranged an official handing over ceremony of the treatment plant at Atomflot. The phrase ‘opening ceremony’ was, however, consciously never applied in this respect, as there was nothing to open.

What was officially handed over was a plant worth $5 million that did not operate. Till this day no one really knows how to put the plant into operation, and more and more Russians are of the opinion that the plant require a complete reconstruction.

It makes hardly strange then that the Norwegian State Secretary was denied access to the treatment plant.