Representatives from Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, have sought to sooth environmentalist over concerns that removing tons of spent nuclear fuel from an old submarine base near Murmansk won’t cause further contamination risks at Mayak, the country’s notorious fuel reprocessor, located 3,000 kilometers to the south.
The submarine base is Andreyeva Bay, situated 60 kilometers east of Russia’s Norwegian border, and its cleanup is one of the most important joint environmental efforts that Oslo and Moscow have taken on in decades. Bellona has been at the forefront of advocating for the removal of the base’s 22,000 spent nuclear submarine fuel rods, which threaten to contaminate the Barents Sea.
After years of negotiations among Bellona, and the governments of Norway and Russia, removal of the fuel at Andreyeva Bay finally began in June of 2017. From there it is taken to Mayak, near the Ural Mountain city of Chelyabinsk, for treatment and reprocessing.
But Mayak has a checkered past. Now one of he world’s most voluminous nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, the Mayak Production Association is also responsible for decades of nuclear contamination throughout the Ural region.
The Russian government also has a history of covering up that contamination, and it was these concerns that some environmentalists brought to a press conference in Tromsø, Norway when a joint Russian-Norwegian Commission on nuclear submarine disposal wrapped up on Friday.
Vitaly Servetnik, co-chairman of the Russian Social-Ecological Union, was among the environmentalists who attended the press conference, which was a first time event for the Commission, which has traditionally closed its doors to the press and the public.
“Sending spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from the Murmansk region to the Chelyabinsk Region, in our opinion, is not only moving the problem from one region to another through the whole country, but also aggravating existing problems in the areas around the Mayak plant,” Servetnik said, addressing the commission. “In addition, there is no information available to us about how much and what kind of waste is being brought there.”
It’s necessary to point out that Russia doesn’t view spent nuclear fuel as waste. The Russian nuclear industry — like the ones Britain and France but unlike the one in the United States — adopts a closed nuclear fuel cycle. This means that it treats spent nuclear fuel – including the submarine fuel found at Andreyeva Bay, as a resource from which more fuel can be synthesized.
At present, and for the foreseeable future, Mayak is the only facility in Russia capable of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Simply not taking the spent nuclear fuel from Andreyeva Bay to Mayak, as Servetnik suggests, is therefore a technological impossibility for Russia’s nuclear industry.
Servetnik also expressed concern about the transparency about how Mayak is run, and how difficult it is to get information about its procedures if an environmental group is not a member of Rosatom’s public council.
“The real situation at Mayak is much worse than what Rosatom representatives are telling us about it,” he said at the conference.
Rosatom representatives who were present fundamentally disagreed with Servetnik’s statement.
“We would never engage in this project if we moved problems from one area to another,” Oleg Kryukov, Rosatom’s state policy director for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel said.
He went on to say that Russia has a developed nuclear infrastructure that is capable of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and read off a list of Mayak’s accomplishments — including finding ways to reprocess two kinds of complex spent uranium fuel types within the past two years.
He said that any nuclear waste arising from Mayak’s reprocessing activities undergoes what’s known as vitrification — a procedure that bakes unusable reprocessing byproducts into molten glass for storage. He further stated that Russia is currently examining ways to permanently bury such waste near Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. In that case, he said, removing Andreyeva Bay’s spent nuclear fuel and placing it in Mayak’s hands hardly constitutes moving the problem from one place to another. It’s just a part of the established technological chain, he explained.
To conclude his remarks, Kryukov added that since Mayak is already reprocessing some 450 tons of spent nuclear fuel a year, the loads coming from Andreyeva Bay are completely insignificant.
“I want to emphasize; this is the correct disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” he said. “Rosatom professes the point of view that we need to reprocess all spent nuclear fuel, not dispose of it. This is justified economically and it’s also more environmentally friendly, as the volume of waste sharply decreases.”
“So as far as Mayak is concerned, please don’t worry,” said Kryukov in closing.
Representatives of the Norwegian side — which is financing much of the fuel transfer from Andreyeva Bay— were present at the commission press conference and agreed with Kryukov. .
“We think that our financial support for this activity is a step towards safer handling of spent nuclear fuel and the possibility of its subsequent processing,” said Audun Halvorsen, a State Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and co-chairman of the nuclear safety Commission.
He noted that Norwegian and Russian authorities already had a history of successful cooperation to monitoring Mayak — a history Halvorsen said the Norwegian side would like to resurrect.
“We have already started a dialogue with Russian partners on this issue, now there is a discussion on what form this cooperation should be resumed,” he told the press conference.
After the conclusion of the conference, Servetnik and other environmentalists who attended weren’t reassured by Rosatom’s insistence that they need not worry about the fuel transfers from Andreyeva Bay to Mayak.
“The state corporation views the movement of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel as part of an integrated process,” he said. “If that’s the case, then all of the attention the Russian and international community devoted to the project of cleaning up Andreyeva Bay should now be devoted to Chelyabinsk Region [where Mayak is located].”
Andrei Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s Murmansk office, agrees that much of Mayak’s environmental history leaves much to be desired, that that its transparency about its activities past and present is required.