Russian officials hold virtual public discussion on radioactive waste storage

Radiation symbol.
Radiation symbol.
Nils Bøhmer

Publish date: October 14, 2020

Written by: Nikita Petrov, Charles Digges

A recent online discussion inched Russia’s first longterm nuclear storage facility toward being realized near Novouralsk in central Siberia, as the public weighed in on a repository meant to seal off radioactive waste for the next 300 years.

A recent online discussion inched Russia’s first longterm nuclear storage facility toward being realized near Novouralsk in central Siberia, as the public weighed in on a repository meant to seal off radioactive waste for the next 300 years.

The repository is a major benchmark for the National Operator, or NO RAO the country’s radioactive waste handler, and its eventual opening has been assisted in part by consultation with Bellona, which views the project is an important and long overdue step toward securing the nuclear legacy left by the Soviet Union.

By 2015, Russia had accumulated about 410 million cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste and another 83 million cubic meters of solid radioactive waste, most of it arising from the civilian nuclear sector. Another 60 million cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste have been deposited in deep burial sites. The bulk of this waste is currently held at various industrial sites owned by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, where it is stored on a temporary basis in facilities designed to hold it for only a short time.

At Novouralsk, NO RAO aims to store what it called class 3 and 4 radioactive waste – not as dangerous as classes 1 and 2, but nonetheless requiring isolation from the environment for generations to come. The bulk of the waste amassed at the site comes from the nearby Ural Electrochemical Combine, a closed facility responsible for enriching uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.

The storage process takes place in two stages. First waste is sent to the site and stored in a special shallow facility. Then, in 2036, the waste will be interred underground until 2336.

It is this last stage in the process that was under discussion during the recent online roundtable, hosted by Novouralsk municipal officials. Because of social distancing restrictions in light of covid-19, officials sent out surveys for the public to voice its opinions on the repository’s opening and published notices in local media. In return, officials received questions and comments from 173 respondents in the city.

“This is an unusual format for everyone,” Tatiana Evseyenkova, deputy director of the Scientific Research Institute of Ecological Problems, said as the online discussion began. She noted that the surveys sent to the public had been widely available, both on the internet, as well as at the local library and from the Novouralsk branch of NO RAO.

Each of these facilities likewise made the justifications for the licensing of the storage facility available to the public.

Responding residents complained about having to wade through pages of documents and technical information. Nonetheless, 95 percent of respondents reviewed the materials.

zoom meeting rad waste The online discussion of the Novouralsk radioactive waste repository. Credit: Bellona

Vladimir Konovalov, the director of the department of licensing and permitting activities with NO RAO, commented on the questions raised by citizens.

Primarily, he said, people are worried about the closure of the first temporary site where waste is being housed until internment in 2036 and what would become of it when it was emptied out.  Konovalov said that NO RAO will enclose the area with a protective concrete screen that will be some 3 meters thick and will carry out long term radiation monitoring at the site.

“This is a contribution to the environment,” said Tatyana Lytenkova of NO RAO’s public relations department.

One local resident asked the NO RAO specialists if they would be confident enough in their radiation protection methods to build summer homes in this “exclusion zone,” and invite their grandchildren for a visit. The NO RAO experts cited the experience of the Germans, the French and the Koreans, who have lived amidst similar repositories. But they disputed the respondent’s use of the term “exclusion zone,” which is ordinarily associated with the area surrounding Chernobyl. Still, the experts kept silent on the question of whether they would invite their grandchildren to summer in the area.

The NO RAO experts went on to say that the territory around the repository will be monitored constantly. Even the public is encouraged to take samples if they are worried.

“We hold events on an ongoing basis, but everything was curtailed because of the coronavirus,” Lytenkova said. Next year we will hold events and restore the information balance in the city, ”the representative of the National Operator promised.

Lytenkova of the touched upon the issue of incentives, a system practiced in France, where local communities hosting radioactive waste repositories are given generous tax breaks. Unfortunately, she said, Russian legislation doesn’t provide for such measures. Lytenkova, however, forward the notion that NO RAO “has the opportunity to do charity work, providing support to local educational institutions.” But she failed to provide a single concrete example of such assistance during the construction of the first stage of the repository.

Several respondents to the public hearing questionnaire called outright for Russia to abandon the production and disposal of radioactive waste. However, it is unlikely that the representatives of the National Operator are authorized to deal with the issue of waste generation.

“Everything that our generation has produced, we must remove, collect and bury in several places, to be precise,” said Konovalov, NO RAO’s Konovalov.

“We respect those who have their own opinion on this issue,” Bellona’s Alexander and who also chairs the Ecology Commission of the Public Council of Rosatom. He asked  participants of the roundtable if they were opposed to the novel way in which the event was held. None did.

On the one hand, hearings in this format, involving the distribution of questionnaires, allow one to relieve social tension and get more thoughtful and concretely formulated responses from the public. On the other hand, such a format seem like an attempt to avoid discussion with citizens because it does not imply a prolonged dialogue. The well-known Q&A format resembles bureaucratic football, where the team in power always wins.

Meanwhile, the search for sites for the final isolation of radioactive waste continues in Russia. Areas in the North-West, Central and Volga Federal Districts are under consideration. For each of them preparatory informational events similar to this one will be held. The task of caring citizens is to actively participate in them and to exert control at all stages of these complex projects, and, if necessary, turn to independent experts and environmental organizations for help.