Just six months after the Norwegian government announced it had helped rid the Russian coast of 1000 orphaned radioactive power sources operating lighthouses and navigational beacons, Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has announced it’s developing new ones.
The news, reported by the RIA Novosti newswire, comes as a slap to hundreds of technicians and funders in Norway and globally that that invested €20 million in mapping and removing dilapidated, often vandalized, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGS, running on strontium 90 in Northwest Russia and replacing them with solar power sources.
Some 1000 RTGS were put into service around the Soviet Union, many of which simply got lost in the upheaval of the Union’s collapse.
After Moscow’s walk-back of so many other cooperative international non-proliferation and nuclear security agreements in recent years, it’s hard not to see the drive for the new batteries as part of Russia’s efforts to rid itself of perceived foreign tinkering in its affairs.
Begun in 2009, the joint Russian-Norwegian effort to tackle those in the country’s northwest was one of the most important and unsung acts of bilateral cooperation in recent memory. It rid Russia of potential sources of radioactive material for dirty bombs, as well as to provided safeguards against accidental radioactive exposure to hikers and campers who often happened upon these installations to return home with radiation sickness.
The joint effort deactivated 180 strontium-90 batteries from along the shores of the Barents, White and Kara seas and shipped them off for reprocessing at the Mayak Chemical Combine in the southern Urals.
Now, Rosatom says it’s planning to build new radioactive battery-powered units at the closed nuclear city of Zheleznogorsk in Western Siberia to support navigational equipment in Russia’s far arctic reaches running on nickel 63, with other possible applications for space travel.
Rosatom says the nickel-63 will be safer and placed in more guarded circumstances than the strontium-90 sources.
“At the Arkhimed lab [at Zheleznogorsk], we will present the means to get the highly enriched – not less than 80 percent – nickel 63 isotope for use in so-called beta-emitting sources of power,” Dmitry Druz, deputy director of technical operations at Zheleznogorsk, told RIA Novosti.
This will be accomplished by enriching nickel 62 in centrifuges, he said.
“This discovery is the bridge between the idea of creating these power sources and their practical application,” said Druz.
Druz added that the properties of nickel-63 make it especially well suited for small-scale, safe Beta-emitting batteries that he forecasts will demand little maintenance over their calculated operational lifespans of more than 50 years, making them useful for power production in remote areas like the Arctic.
And Druz said the unit would be entirely safe: “The advantage of nickel-63 is that it’s a so-called ‘light’ beta-emitter, there’s no gamma radiation or neutron radiation.”
“The beta-radiation, will be entirely shielded by the casing of the power unit,” he added.
Andrei Zolotkov, a Bellona adviser on nuclear issues in Murmansk said by email that it was premature to worry about a mass proliferation of the nickel-63 powered devices, as they were still in experimental stages. This, he said, was evidenced by Druz’s failure to mention the battery volume of the new units.
“This is a very important indicator for their application in various devices,” said Zolotkov. “Nowhere does [Druz] mention that” in his interview to RIA Novosti.
Zolotkov also pointed out that these new beta-emitting batteries might not be intended to precisely replace the older model RTGs.
“The use of new batteries run on nickel-63 in the Arctic doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be put to use as substitutes for the old RTGs,” he said. “Previous experience with RTGs will be taken into account and it’s unlikely that the new batteries would have the same consequences.”
Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist acknowledged that mass production of the nickel units was probably still far off. But he said he was concerned that the new beta-emitters were not terribly different in their impact on human health than were the notorious strontium 90 batteries, which were also beta-emitters.
“Nickel-68 and Strontium-90 emit beta-radiation when they undergo radioactive decay,” he said in an email interview. “Beta-radiation is easy to stop, which means it has to be absorbed by the human body in order to do damage.”
Based on numerous mishaps with the old strontium-90 RTGs, Bøhmer said strontium-90 had been taken up in the bones of several people who happened upon them, and their bodies were irraditated from there.
”Nikel-63 is also taken up by the body, and would irradiate the body from within,” he wrote.
Another frightening possibility, said Bøhmer, was that the new devices, remotely placed, could become attractive sources of radioactive isotopes for dirty bombs – making Russia’s boycott of a recent mutli-nation nuclear terrorism summit in Washington, and its subsequent announcement of the new battery experiments, appear plain irresponsible.
“The main objective of a dirty bomb is to create uncertainty and fear, and one can use any radioactive substance to achieve this goal,” said Bøhmer. ”Regardless of whether someone choses to use strontium-90 or nickel-63, the fear factor would cause a panic.”
This is not a remote possibility in the wake of the bombings in Brussels and other deadly attacks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, Istanbul, and Lahore.
Chillingly, one of the plotters of the Brussel’s attacks was discovered to have surveillance footage of a top Belgian nuclear official, suggesting terrorists intended to go much farther than the March 22 bloodbath before their capture.
Bøhmer also said the plans for the new batteries were a galling step backward after lavish amounts of Norwegian and other foriegn funding were pumped into making Northwest Russia’s radioactive power sources run on green energy.
”This is a serious setback for the international community, which spent huge amounts of money to swich potentially dangerous RTGs onto harmless solar power,” he said.
Parties who participated in that effort at Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority could not be reached for comment by press time.