MURMANSK – Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom says its satisfied with projects to contain and revitalize some of the Arctic’s most pressing Cold War legacy installations, company representatives told a forum last week.
Specifically it singled out work at Gremikha, a storage site for submarine reactors; Sayda Bay, where low level naval nuclear waste is kept; Andreyeva Bay, a former depository for spent fuel from nuclear submarines, and the dismantlement Lepse floating spent nuclear storage vessel that for decades refueled icebreakers at sea and became on its decommissioning the most radioactively hazardous resident of the Murmansk Region.
Speaking at the Atomic Energy in the Arctic: Ecology and Safety last Friday, Oleg Kryukov, Rosatom’s director of state policy for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, said that ushering these rehabilitation projects toward the finish line required not only expansive amounts of time, but enormous financial resources as well.
“Since 2005 to today, donor nations have distributed 32,4 billion rubles ($552.1 million) and Russia at current has invested 14.4 billion rubles,” Kryukov, who’s report is available in Russian here, told the conference.
The dark years of the 90s
Kryukov said the situation in the 1990s looked bleak for Northern Russia’s nuclear safety.
The Russian Navy decommissioned a total of 197 nuclear submarines from its Northern and Pacific fleets, and dismantlement infrastructure was only at that time nascent, allowing only for the dismantlement of three submarines a year. The sheer volume of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste exceeded the space to store it, and the condition of these sites didn’t measure up to ever-changing demands for safe keeping.
The Murmansk area was home to two extremely deteriorated reactors from Alfa Class subs, defective and damaged spent nuclear fuel, and specific kinds of spent fuel containing a uranium beryllium mix.
Some 200 radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) – Soviet-era installations that powered lighthouses and navigation beacons on radioactive and poorly secured strontium 90 – littered the shores of the Arctic Ocean and had long since run out their engineered lifespans. They were routinely being vandalized, exposing their radioactive cores.
In 1998, the Russian government tasked Minatom, Rosatom’s successor ministry, with tackling the problem, and Minatom began with the most hazardous installations first – Andreyeva Bay, the Lepse, Gremikha, nuclear submarines and other nuclear vessels.
Kryuchkov reported that work with the subs yielded good results.
“At present, 120 submarines in Northwest Russia […] have been dismantled,” he said. “One-compartment reactor compartment units have been formed from 79 multi-compartment reactor blocks, and have been stored in safe circumstances at Sayda Bay.”
He added that on the whole, “submarine dismantlement in Northwest Russia has significantly outpaced that of the Far East.”
“This speaks to the effectiveness of the work to solve the problem,” he said.
Kryuchkov said the biggest achievement toward liquidating the Cold War legacy thus far is the Gremikha project. He reported the site had been cleaned of 898 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from water-moderated reactors; that spent fuel for liquid metal cooled submarine reactors had been taken away for reprocessing, and that solid radioactive waste totaling 1600 cubic meters had been gathered and situated for temporary storage at the former Naval area.
In 2016, the plan is to complete reprocessing of all the collected liquid radioactive waste, which constitutes 338 cubic meters. And between 2016 and 2020 workers will continue to disassemble seven spent liquid metal cooled reactor cores from Alfa Class subs and ship the spent fuel for reprocessing.
“In three to four years we will have finished unique docks for the Alfa class boats and will send the spent fuel for reprocessing,” Kryukov said.
Sayda Bay: A storage point for all radioactive waste in Northwest Russia
“Sayda Bay is an excellent technological complex,” said Kryukov. “It has already launched a temporary storage facility for solid radioactive waste – the plan now is to take all radioactive waste in Northwest Russia for temporary storage and bring it into safe conditions.”
He also said the facility at Sayda Bay has taken for storage 79 one-compartment reactor compartment units of an expected 120. A delivery schedule for temporary storage of solid radioactive waste from other nuclear vessels has also been agreed to.
The Volodarsky nuclear service vessel has been dismantled, and the technology has been put into place to form one-compartment reactor compartment units.
In 2016 Sayda Bay took for storage and the beginning of reprocessing 500 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste from Gremikha and Andreyeva Bay. Kryukov said the amassed amount of solid radioactive waste in the Murmansk and Archangelsk Regions was estimated at 45,644 cubic meters. Another 48, 273 tons will be formed by 2020.
The input of Gremikha’s conditioning and long-term storage facility for radioactive waste will enable it to receive solid waste from installations throughout Northwest Russia. It will then process received solid waste, and depending on the physical conditions of the parcels, they will be put into long term – or 70 year – storage packages.
The yearly output of the conditioning center is expected to be 1,380 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste a year, and the dismantlement workshop for reactor chambers is expected to deal with five units annually.
The most complex Cold War legacy installation in Kryukov’s opinion is Andreyeva Bay.
“The complexity lies in the fact that the facility will have to be rehabilitated after the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste are removed,” said Kryukov. “And taking it out requires the creation of an infrastructure, which, in turn, is possible after improving radiation conditions at the site.”
Since 2001, 7,000 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste have been gathered at the site, and some 19,000 square meters of space have been built to assure its nuclear, radiological, and environmental safety.
“In the current year, we plan to complete the infrastructure for handling spent nuclear fuel and begin preparations for its shipment in accordance with approved regulations,” said Anatoly Grigoriev, head of Rosatom’s department for coordinating international projects. “I think this infrastructure will significantly speed up the removal [of the spent nuclear fuel].”
Andreyeva Bay is home to some 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from the Russian nuclear submarine fleet, and currently, workers are close to completing the spent fuel waste handling infrastructure, which will facilitate the fuel’s transfer to the Mayak Chemical Combine near Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals for reprocessing.
“By 2021, Andreyeva Bay could be a non-nuclear zone,” said Kryukov.
In a side interview with Bellona at the event, Grigoriev spoke of the problems of getting Andreyeva Bay’s facilities off the ground.
“For example, we were counting on using existing equipment to facilitate the safety of work,” he said. “Alarm systems to alert us to spontaneous chain reactions – there is such equipment, but it’s become outmoded, and the producer that made it won’t extend its guaranteed work time, even though there seems to be no reason not to extend it.”
He added that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development – through which international donations to Russian nuclear remediation projects have flowed – might earmark funds for producing new alarm equipment, which would cost about 950,000 rubles ($14,000) for one data channel. The system needs three, Grigoriev said, and manufacturing this could take as many as seven months.
“We are still trying to reach an agreement with [the alarm’s producer] about prolonging its expiration date,” Grigoriev said.
Other temporary problems holding things up, said Grigoriev, is the lack of diesel backup generators to keep power going during unexpected outages. These were promised by the Italians, he said.
“So there are problems, but we will solve them,” he told Bellona.