Where will Angarsk remelt its radioactive waste?

Radioactive metal remelting. (Source: Atomproyekt)
Radioactive metal remelting. (Source: Atomproyekt)

Publish date: September 21, 2015

Written by: Andrei Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

IRKUTSK, Russia─Participants of a public hearing this summer on the project of building a reprocessing facility to remelt radioactive metal waste of the uranium enrichment enterprise Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine (AECC) voted “no” to the proposed location and suggested that the radioactive metal continue to be reprocessed exactly where it was produced – in Angarsk.

IRKUTSK, Russia─Participants of a public hearing this summer on the project of building a reprocessing facility to remelt radioactive metal waste of the uranium enrichment enterprise Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine (AECC) voted “no” to the proposed location and suggested that the radioactive metal continue to be reprocessed exactly where it was produced – in Angarsk.

The hearing was convened on July 24 in a village called Shiryayeva, some 30 kilometers off the big Siberian industrial and academic center of Irkutsk, to discuss the proposed Center for Reprocessing and Remelting of Metal Radioactive Waste of the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine.

Shiryayeva has a radioactive waste storage facility managed by RosRAO, one of Russia’s two radioactive management entities which handles processing and temporary storage of low- and medium-level radioactive waste, and this – rather than Angarsk – is where the hazardous work is proposed to be conducted.

“The population does not deem the proposed project safe for the environment and expresses its disagreement with building this facility [at the RosRAO site]. We demand that the question of building this facility at a different site be considered,” said the resolution adopted unanimously at the hearing.

The project presented in Shiryayeva is for mechanical, steam, and chemical decontamination, as well as partial remelting, of metal radioactive waste generated as a result of decommissioning the AECC’s uranium gaseous diffusion enrichment plant (Buildings 802 and 804).

The open and constructive hearing

The discussion at the hearing was a democratic one – something that cannot always be said of hearings held on the activities of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom. And both the industry’s representatives and those of the public were almost able to conduct themselves within the bounds of civility and avoid either excessive formalism or vulgar squabbling.

Denis Pleshchenko Denis Pleshchenko, head of PR department at RosRAO, presiding at the Shiryayeva hearing, Shiryayeva village, July 24, 2015. (Photo: Andrei Ozharovsky / Bellona)

Denis Pleshchenko, who heads the PR department at RosRAO and who presided over the Shiryayeva hearing, gave everyone in the audience opportunity to take the floor and ask questions if and when they wished to, without registering in advance. Those gathered, in their turn, appreciated the democratic approach and refrained from abusing the opportunity they were presented to discuss all angles of the proposed project.

“The hearing that took place was open and constructive, though notifying the local residents had clearly not been done in a sufficient way,” Maksim Vorontsov, co-chairman of the environmental NGO Baikal Ecological Wave, said in a comment on the NGO’s website (in Russian).

Transporting tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste: A no-go idea

Still, the participants rejected the idea of placing the new dangerous remelting site in their municipality. The project envisions transporting some 35,000 tons of radioactive metal waste from Angarsk, where the AECC – the waste’s producer – is located. The shipping was supposed to be done by motor transport across a bridge which is within the city limits of Irkutsk – something that creates additional risks.

map_poarao_irkutsk_abramov The radioactive waste storage facility proposed as the future location of the remelting site is located close to Angarsk, but transporting the radioactive metal there from the AECC is only possible using the bridge across the river Angara, which is within Irkutsk city limits. (Source: Atomproyekt)

Furthermore, it turned out at the hearing that both decontamination and remelting of the radioactive metal waste had in fact been done for several years at the AECC itself. And this activity has apparently been successful enough: At any rate, no accidents or incidents have been reported at the site. But if the AECC in Angarsk has both the equipment and the experience to conduct the work, as well as the information on the origin and composition of the metal waste subject to decontamination, then the idea of creating a new production site at a certain distance from the existing one appears odd indeed.

“No convincing arguments have been presented to us either in the [Environmental Impact Assessment report] or at the hearing against continuing the remelting and decontamination of the waste at the AECC, in immediate proximity to the location of this waste,” said one participant of the Shiryayeva hearing, professor with the physics department of the Irkutsk State University Sergei Korenblit. “[This waste] is AECC equipment, well familiar to the combine’s specialists, who can participate in bringing it to a less dangerous condition. Furthermore, the AECC has ten years’ experience reprocessing what has now been some 12,000 tons of this waste. It’s logical to assume that the AECC will deal with this work successfully in the future as well. Besides, it will rule out transporting radioactive waste via Irkutsk.”

Of course, if the proposed production is hazardous, then it must be located at a distance from Angarsk, a city with a population of 230,000. But at the hearing, the project developers’ assertion was that no accident would result in radioactivity escaping the perimeter of the production facilities and shops, and there could possibly be no danger to the population outside the production site. If this is the case, then the opinion of the Shiryayeva residents is well founded.

To the discontent of those gathered, the AECC had not dispatched any representatives to the hearing, so the issue of the possibility of continuing to decontaminate the radioactive metal waste in Angarsk was never settled.

The official part

The public hearing continued for over four hours; 43 participants had been registered for the procedure, including representatives of Rosatom structures and the St. Petersburg-based Environmental Rights Center Bellona.

zal1 The radioactive waste storage facility proposed as the future location of the remelting site is located close to Angarsk, but transporting the radioactive metal there from the AECC is only possible using the bridge across the river Angara, which is within Irkutsk city limits. (Source: Atomproyekt)

The hearing began with presentations by the project developers, the enterprise Atomproyekt, and representatives of RosRAO.

Anatoly Pavlov, head of the Irkutsk branch of RosRAO, gave information about the existing radioactive waste storage facility, the site that was proposed for the future location of the remelting production.

“The system for storage of radioactive substances and radioactive waste meets the modern safety criteria, norms, and requirements,” Pavlov said. He also said that the local budget had received some 1.4 million rubles in tax revenues from the enterprise in 2014.

The project’s chief engineer, Andrei Abramov, a representative of the St. Petersburg-based Atomproyekt, said the radioactive waste reprocessing center will be classified as a Category 4 potential radioactive hazard site, which means that in case of an accident radioactive substances will not escape beyond the site’s premises and structures. He also said that the source of financing will be RosRAO’s own funding. This is somewhat strange since, as a rule, radioactive waste management is financed out of the Russian federal target program for nuclear and radiation safety.

The waste conditioning center’s capacity will be 2,000 tons of metal radioactive waste a year, of which 700 tons will be remelted. The center will employ 82 workers; construction costs are estimated at 1.228 billion rubles in 2014 prices, and the complex’s service life is expected to be 30 years.

Abramov also spoke about the engineering survey undertaken for the project. Another speaker, Alexander Kosobuko, reported on the technology and equipment to be used at the waste conditioning center. Two reports, on the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment and on radiation control, were presented by Lyudmila Zvyagina, an engineer with Atomproyekt.

The specialists’ presentations lasted for about two hours; those gathered in the audience were waiting patiently for their own opportunity to speak. That they were given when the hearing shifted to the Q&A session, with questions both forwarded in written form and asked by participants from their place in the audience.

Residents’ criticism

The participants’ objections were both against the project and over the manner in which the local residents had been informed about the prospective hearing. In adherence to the law, a notice of the public hearing had been published in the federal, regional, and municipal papers. Several photocopies of the municipal paper that had carried the notice were fanned out on the registration counters. The very fact of this paper’s existence seemed to be news for those gathered. “This is the first time we’ve seen this paper!” shouted some people from the audience. It wasn’t exactly clear whose fault it was supposed to be that the paper’s information was never read by the intended readership.

dialog2 People speaking from the audience at the public hearing in Shiryayeva village, July 24, 2015 (Photo: Andrei Ozharovsky / Bellona)

“Nobody in Shiryayeva knew about the hearing! You didn’t gather the population! No one wrote a notice!” people in the audience said. True, no information about the upcoming event was to be seen either on the building of the village community center, where the hearing took place, or on the local bulletin board.

In their conversations with Bellona, participants said that many had only learnt about the hearing when they saw the gathering of cars and strangers in Shiryayeva. But some participants had received information about the hearing from the regional media and from the websites of environmental NGOs – the Baikal Ecological Wave and Bellona. So notice had in fact been officially given.

Residents: You’re offering us a radioactive dump!

Clearly, no one anywhere wants to see waste – be it regular household garbage or chemical or radioactive waste – end up next door to their house. For many years, the AECC enriched uranium, servicing the nuclear industry and its power sector. Now some of the plant’s equipment has become radioactive waste, and one way or another, something must be done with it. It cannot be left in the old buildings that are falling apart or under the open sky – which is how some of this waste is currently stored. But Shiryayeva residents do not consider it their problem. Those gathered at the hearing were quite emphatic: “You’re offering us a dump! Do it in Angarsk, why don’t you. You haven’t convinced us! Go take it all to your St. Petersburg. All of us here, the Shiryayeva folk, we’re against it!” The chairman of the hearing quelled this wave of outcries by promising that the locals’ opinion would be taken into account.

The authors of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment report tried repeatedly to assure the audience of the complete safety of the proposed production. But their assurances were met with consistent mistrust. “And how do you think Fukushima’s designers, how did they assess their project?” was one rhetorical question from the audience. “The consequences of any one mistake at sites like this are irreversible. There is the principle of environmental hazard!” said professor Korenblit, lending support to the participants’ doubts.

dialog1 Lyudmila Zvyagina, of Atomproyekt, is answering questions from the audience at the hearing in Shiryayeva, July 24, 2015. (Photo: Andrei Ozharovsky / Bellona)

What further precluded establishing a rapport with the audience was the claims by Atomproyekt’s Lyudmila Zvyagina of the purported absence of a link between oncological disease and radiation. “You’ll accomplish nothing here, people will line up on the railroad!” said the local Orthodox priest.

The Q&A

Despite the Shiryayeva residents’ contentiousness, the hearing did provide answers to questions about what the proposed activity actually involved. It was confirmed that the enterprise called Ekomet-S, in Leningrad Oblast – which in 2005 and 2011 experienced furnace explosions and a spill of melted metal – was a “certain analog” of the remelting site proposed in Shiryayeva. There is a significant distinction, however: What Ekomet-S does is remelt radioactive metal delivered from nuclear power plants; this waste’s isotopic composition differs considerably from that of the AECC-produced waste, which is contaminated only with natural alpha-emitting radionuclides, mostly uranium.

In response to questions from Bellona, the authors of the Environmental Impact Assessment report said that the future waste reprocessing center was intended exclusively for the management of AECC waste. No waste deliveries from the oil industry are envisioned. “No other waste from anywhere else will be coming here! No shipments are planned from other regions, much less from abroad,” the project’s chief engineer, Andrei Abramov, said at the hearing. Shipments of non-AECC radioactive waste arriving in Shiryayeva was what caused serious apprehension among those gathered at the hearing.

Not everyone was convinced by the assertions of the nuclear industry’s representatives. “There is the invisible hand of the market – there are suspicions that everything will be decided by a greed for profits,” professor Korenblit said at the hearing. It does stand to reason that if the proposed radioactive metal decontamination center, one of its kind, is built in Shiryayeva, it may – much like Ekomet-S today – start accepting waste from all over the country.

The center is supposed to be in operation for 30 years. The AECC has by now accumulated 35,000 tons of radioactive metal waste. This – at the projected processing capacity of 2,000 tons of waste a year – will last the center some 17.5 years. Then, new waste is expected to be generated as the enterprise’s other shops start to undergo decommissioning.

The speech given by the head of RosRAO’s Irkutsk branch, Anatoly Pavlov, was an emotional one: “This is our waste, it has to be reprocessed here. Our country has set the task of getting rid of waste! Thankfully, Irkutsk Region has such an enterprise, which is RosRAO! This waste must be rendered safe, placed into containers. We will transfer them to the National Operator [for Radioactive Waste Management]. It cannot stay here! But if there is no reprocessing, we won’t be able to hand it over! We want to do it for the good of Irkutsk Region!”

The National Operator for Radioactive Waste Management is a Rosatom structure created in 2011 to work out final disposal solutions for certain classes of radioactive waste. No representative of the National Operator was present at the hearing, so those gathered failed to come to an agreed assessment of when the conditioned waste might start to be transferred over into the National Operator’s purview.

MK Secondary radioactive waste – or waste generated during treatment of initial radioactive waste – will be placed in containers such as pictured above. (Source: Atomproyekt)

Altogether, 134 tons of secondary radioactive waste – which is waste generated as a result of treating the initial radioactive waste produced by the nuclear industry’s operations – will accrue yearly at the new production site, corresponding to a load of 70 containers of two types (58 and 12 respectively for the two).

“These can be handed over to the National Operator for placing in repositories. We have planned for an accumulating capacity of up to 2,000 tons of radioactive waste in containers,” Andrei Abramov said. In other words, the new enterprise could accumulate secondary radioactive waste for a period of almost 15 years.

Will there be a second hearing?

Olga Kirillova, of Irkutsk Region’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said that in her opinion, the Shiryayeva proceeding’s record – one of the documents reflecting a hearing’s results – may be deemed invalid, since by law, the hearing must be held at the regional level. Additionally, the Urban Planning Code dictates that a new site must first be introduced into the territorial development plan.

zal4 Participants of the hearing in Shiryayeva village, July 24, 2015. (Photo: Andrei Ozharovsky / Bellona)

“We have not seen the alternatives. The [Environmental Impact Assessment] report has no assessment of risks to public health, a description of the current state of [public] health is needed. We have not been given access to the [Environmental Impact Assessment] report,” Kirillova said.

This last remark was odd, since the Environmental Impact Assessment report on the project had been made available for access for a month both in the village of Shiryayeva and in Irkutsk. On a request from Bellona, RosRAO also provided a digital copy of the report (in Russian), and the document was published, as well as a short review of its contents, on Bellona’s Russian website. A copy was also posted on at least one Irkutsk news website.

“It’s clear that there is a very acute problem of the radioactive waste accumulated at the AECC,” Maksim Vorontsov, of the Baikal Ecological Wave, said in his comment on the NGO’s website. “Discussion of the possible solutions to this problem must continue.” It is safe to assume that this, in any case, is what will happen.

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