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Radioactive metal find in Vladivostok reveals gaping country-wide hole in radiation safety control

Bellona

Publish date: September 29, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – Vladivostok authorities are yet to make any progress in identifying those responsible for the scandalous delivery of a radioactive metal cargo to the port of this large city in the Russian Far East more than two weeks ago. As the cargo, which originated in St. Petersburg, awaits further decisions on its fate, environmentalists fear more radioactive shipments may find their way into general circulation.

Hazardous cargo in the port of Vladivostok

On September 8, a cargo of metal set off radiation detectors in the Sea Trade Port of Vladivostok, a major maritime destination in the Russian Far East. The railway car, in which the cargo had arrived after a long ride from the VM company in St. Petersburg –  a city at the other end of the country, in the Russian northwest – contained metal pipes that were emitting radiation at levels hazardous to human health.

Altogether, thirteen twelve-metre-long pipes with a diameter of 32 centimetres each were found that were confirmed to be highly radioactive. The rest of the cargo was found to be “clean” and was unloaded and moved to a warehouse. The radioactive pipes remain in the car – which itself has been detached from the freight train and taken away onto a dead-end track. The site has been cordoned off with signs warning of radiation danger, and local prosecutors have initiated an investigation.

According to local law enforcement, the radioactive pipes originated in St. Petersburg and were meant to end up at a construction site on the island of Russky, where the future Far Eastern Federal University and a conference centre are being built.

Yelena Telegina, who is a senior prosecutor assistant for Primorye, on the southern tip of the vast Far Eastern region, has been quoted in the press as saying “radiation detectors registered high levels of gamma radiation in one of the cars that had arrived at the port terminal, equivalent to a radiation dose of 1,450 microroentgen per hour.”

She said the prosecutor’s office has instructed the regional branch of the Russian Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare, or Rospotrebnadzor, in its Russian acronym, to “conduct an inquiry into whether the piping already used at the construction [site] on the island of Russky complies with radiation safety” standards.

Authorities at sea over the dangerous find

The radioactive delivery soon became too hot a potato for local government branches to handle, with the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations, or MChS, and Rospotrebnadzor embroiled in a public dispute over which should be in charge of taking care of the hazardous cargo. Neither agency wants the responsibility. As instructed by the prosecutors, Rospoterbnadzor is carrying out an investigation into the safety of previous piping deliveries to Russky, but authorities are yet to share any of their findings with the public.

So far, measures to handle the radiation risk at the port have been limited to inspections to the scene and stating the obvious: The cargo is there, and it is radioactive.

The Russian press quoted Pyotr Ivashchenko, head of the radiation safety department of Rospotrebnadzor’s Primoriye branch, as saying: “We were informed of this emergency by specialists from the [MChS]. Our staff visited the scene, with measuring equipment. We issued an [order for] lab tests, which showed that radiation levels exceeded safety standards by four times.”

Ivashchenko said, according to reports, that his staff measure radiation levels in microsieverts per hour, and that the readings came to 0.5 microsieverts per hour. “This is grievously in excess [of the norm],” Ivashchenko said.

Even so, Rospotrebnadzor’s measurements are dramatically off the mark reported by the prosecutors – 0.5 microsieverts per hour will roughly correspond to 50 microroentgen per hour, thus falling far below the levels of 1,450 microroentgen per hour that prosecutors said the cargo was emitting.

Whichever the actual levels, the dangerous cargo, while sitting at the terminal, has created an unprecedented situation where no plans are in place to handle the emergency, and the roles of the state agencies involved, or those of whomever happens to be the cargo owner, the consignor or the consignee, and the freight forwarder – as well as their respective burdens of responsibility – remain to be clarified as well.

State contractor in an unexpected pickle

It is so far the consignee company that may be finding itself with the most unwelcome headache for the time being. As per the prosecutors’ orders, the recipient of the metal piping – a company called Krokus International, which is the general contractor on the Far Eastern University project – was to make sure that none of the materials it has previously used at the construction site are radioactive.

bodytextimage_truby-2.-1..jpg

across the entire country, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Both the supplier and us will be conducting our own investigations,” Krokus’s press service said in media reports.

Krokus also thanked the management and safety services of the Vladivostok Sea Trade Port for the “vigilance they have shown,” as well as the MChS, for their “swift response.”

What about safety?

The matter of “vigilance” is one among the central issues in this scandal. The radiation hazard was only spotted at the Vladivostok railway terminal after the metal had travelled undetected across the entire territory of Russia, covering twelve times zones and thousands of kilometres of the vast network of Russian railway branches – none of which are equipped to deal with potential radiation risks as Russia has no system to guard against radioactive contamination of transported cargoes.

In regulations currently in force, it is only metal scrap that calls for obligatory accompanying paperwork attesting to its radioactive safety before the cargo is shipped off for railway delivery. Furthermore, that clean bill of health needn’t be more than a declaration on the part of the cargo owner, with no independent control required from an accredited radiation safety laboratory.

For newly manufactured goods, no declaration of their radiation safety is even required by law. In effect, no system of control would prevent a radioactive cargo from travelling by rail across the whole country.

In what would seem an attempt to claim no part in this or future scandals, the Far Eastern Customs Directorate made a statement of its own, saying, in reports by the Russian news agency PrimaMedia, that “all points of passage by air and sea across the state border of the Russian Federation are equipped with automated fissile and radioactive materials detection systems […] and portable means of customs control over fissile and radioactive materials.”

The Russian public can rest assured that radiation will not cross the state border. As regards safety of inland transportation, however, no such assurances can be made.

What about the origins of the radioactive metal?

As Vladivostok authorities and the cargo recipient are sorting out the mess in their own backyard, finding the original source of the radioactive metal may turn out to be a trickier matter. In a situation where sale and transportation of radioactive metals lend themselves to no proper supervision, such deliveries could in theory be traced to a variety of sources.

One example is pipes used in oil pipelines: Oil contains natural radionuclides – radium, uranium, and thorium – which may over time form hazardous concentrations in sediments accumulated inside the pipes. It is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility to assume that, with no safeguards in place, oil companies may find it more cost-effective to sell such metal rather than pay for its disposal as radioactive waste.

bodytextimage_pic2-15..jpg Photo: Source: www.ecomet-s.ru

In cases that result in an even more serious public hazard – and that are quite frequent as well – metals can be contaminated with artificial radionuclides, including by accident, such as when used radiation sources – for example, Cobalt 60, used in medical facilities – end up in metal scrap meant for reprocessing. One such case has been reported in the town of Taganrog in Central Russia, where a blast furnace had to be taken apart and disposed of after some of the metal it was used to smelt contaminated the furnace.

Do all roads lead back to St. Petersburg?

Other theories point to the vast network of enterprises belonging to the Russian atomic industry, including nuclear power plants, as potential sources of radioactive metals that end up in general circulation.

Run-of-the-mill thefts, corruption, and negligence provide ample enough statistics for reports on unauthorised distribution of radioactive metals in Russia. If these – themselves not infrequent – occurrences were not enough, there is also a perfectly official supply chain through which radioactive metals can be made available on the market.

Ecomet-S, the controversial radioactive metal reprocessing facility located on the premises of Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, in Sosnovy Bor, 40 kilometres west of St. Petersburg – operations at the enterprise were launched without a proper environmental impact assessment, causing protests both among the general public and from personnel, who were exposed to radiation danger – has been melting radioactive metals since 1994.
 
During the reprocessing, some of the radionuclides are removed from the re-melted metal, but a whole “bouquet” of still dangerous radionuclides remains even as the final product gets re-classified as “clean.” Because the stated point of origin on the Vladivostok delivery’s bill of lading is St. Petersburg, speculations may not be entirely unfounded, at least until investigations confirm or disprove them, as to whether Ecomet-S was the enterprise where the metal may have originally been produced.

bodytextimage_pic3-12..jpg Photo: Source: www.ecomet-s.ru

To date, around 600,000 tonnes of radioactive metal waste has been accumulated at the enterprises of the Russian nuclear industry. Some of it comes from nuclear power plants: Nearly 10,000 tonnes of such waste is generated yearly as a result of regular maintenance alone, as aged components – such as steam generators, pipelines, or parts of the reactor coolant pump – are replaced with new equipment.

Most Russian nuclear power plants store their old contaminated equipment in temporary storage facilities on site – often, in conditions no more sophisticated than a place allotted under some improvised roofing in a simple concrete yard somewhere on the premises. Ecomet-S, however, specialises in reprocessing radioactive scrap metal it obtains at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear power generating sites.

Bellona Web contacted Ekomet-S, but received no comment from the
company. Representatives of the head office in Sosnovy Bor suggested
Bellona Web call the company’s St. Petersburg office, where reporters
were referred back to the Ekomet-S head office in Sosnovy Bor.
Although no official commentary was forthcoming, it was established
that VM, the supplier of the metal that turned up in Vladivostok, is
not among Ekomet-S’s clients. So it is entirely possible that the
metal that formed the radioactive pipes had a different origin.

According to Oleg Bodrov, board chairman of the NGO Zeleny Mir (Green World), an environmental organisation operating in Leningrad Region, Ecomet-S has been collecting and re-melting radioactive metal waste from all over Russia despite repeated public outcries.

“The enterprise is still operating without a positive resolution on its environmental impact it was required to obtain by law. According to data gathered by supervisory authorities, its yearly discharges of radioactive substances into the atmosphere may exceed those of Leningrad [Nuclear Power Plant],” said Bodrov.

In a brief historical introduction, available on the enterprise’s English-language web page, Ecomet-S says its primary activity consists of providing “services in [low-activity scrap metal] treatment and recycling with the aim [of reducing] the volume of […] solid radioactive waste intended for disposal and [of returning] the metal to the industry for unrestricted use.”

The problem is that decontamination of metals only goes so far – no technologies available today allow for 100-percent decontamination. Acting entirely within current industry standards, Ecomet-S can legally offer its final product – “slightly” radioactive re-melted metal – on the general market.

What will come of it – construction pipes, beams, or girders, spare parts for cars, or tin cans – is open to chance – and control, if any, on the part of radiation safety authorities.

According to Bodrov, the latter, as the latest cross-country radioactive shipment shows, have been appallingly derelict in their duties.

“The incident in Vladivostok is an illustration of the environmental nihilism of the Russian powers that be of today, of [their] criminal negligence,” Bodrov summed up.

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