Andreyeva Bay gears up to send away more old nuclear fuel

spentnuclearfuelandreyeva.jpg Spent nuclear fuel stored in so-called “bottles” at an open-air site in Andreyeva Bay. (Photo: Bellona)

The second bundle of 22,000 spent nuclear fuel rods are set to leave the submarine maintenance base of Andreyeva Bay as part of an ongoing effort to secure Cold War radioactive hazards lurking near the Russian-Norwegian border, a Russian official said last week.

Anatoly Grigoriev, director for the international technological assistance program of state nuclear corporation Rosatom, confirmed on Friday that 13 new containers of spent nuclear fuel were being readied for departure to the Mayak Chemical Combine by the end of this month.

Grigoriev was speaking to a special working group dealing with issues of the environment and radioactive contamination in the Russian Arctic. During his appearance, he noted several advances in programs that Bellona has long advocated for, including the dismantlement of the Lepse nuclear waste storage ship, and the elimination of hundreds of aged nuclear submarines.

Much of the fuel from those submarines piled up at Andreyeva Bay, a mere 55 kilometers from the Norwegian border, over a period of decades. Many of the storage facilities sprang radioactive leaks, and still more of the fuel was stored in the open air, where it degraded and threatened to contaminate portions of the Barents Sea.

rossita-andreyeva-bay1 The Rossita getting ready to disembark with the first of Andreyeva Bay's spent nuclear fuel. (Photo: Anna Kireeva)

Bellona and the Norwegian government took up the charge to clean up the maintenance base in 1995. On June 27 of this year, their efforts finally met with success when a ship called the Rossita sailed away with the first of some 50 loads of spent nuclear fuel bound for Murmansk.

Once there, the fuel was transferred to a train and shipped 3000 kilometers to the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Chelyabinsk region. This first shipment reached the Mayak in mid-August.

But amid all of those successes, Grigoriev said the work at Andreyeva Bay was running late by the schedule of clean up plans approved by the government in 2007.

“By 2017 we should have shipped all the fuel out of Andreyeva Bay, but this year we have only just begun that process,” he told Bellona, adding further that the Lepse should also have been dismantled by now.

“The problem is that these are unique projects and the work on them is very complicated,” he said.

More complicated still, he said, would be deciding what to do with an estimated 26,000 further containers of radioactive waste and spent fuel that has accrued at places like Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, the Gremikha naval installation near Archangelsk, and at the Nerpa shipyard, where the Lepse is being dismantled.

Dealing with all of that safley, Grigoriev said, requires a bloom of infrastructure building in the places where spent fuel piled up, as well as a technological infusion at the Mayak Chemical Combine.

“By 2018, we will have created the technological infrastructure for icebreaker fuel,” he said. “Then we can extract fuel from storage at Atomflot – and soon, we will have the infrastructure for the dismantlement of the Lepse.”

andreyevaNilsFrederic Bellona President Frederic Hauge and Nils Bøhmer, Bellona's general director, at Andreyeva Bay in 2016. (Photo: Amund Trellevik/NRK)

He predicted that during the latter half of the 2020s, the spent fuel from all of these sources would be hauled out of Russia’s north.

Meanwhile, he said, the delicate work of packing up damaged fuel rods at Andreyeva Bay continues, demanding never-before used technology.

Much of that fuel has languished for 30 years in fuel storage facilities that were meant only as a temporary stopgap. Meanwhile, radioactive water from the facility’s notorious building 5 continues to contaminate soil.

A host of nations have pumped funding into the cleanup effort. Starting in 2003, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Great Britain, joined by Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and the European Commission pooled resources for a total contribution of $70 million over several years.

But Norway has led the pack by far, contributing some $230 million over the past 20 years toward safely removing Andreyeva Bay’s spend nuclear fuel – a national movement spawned when Bellona published its first report on Northwest Russia’s nuclear hazards in 1996.