While questions linger on the issue of proper classification of what happened at Ignalina – an accident, an incident, or an “event” – one thing remains clear: Decommissioning a nuclear power plant implies highly hazardous and complicated works backed by no true and tested technologies. And as Lithuania, with the European Union’s financial support, attempts to dismantle the two nuclear reactors it had to shut down to comply with its membership requirements, it is learning the hard way that the reality is that even after closing down, nuclear power plants remain to be very dangerous, and the world is yet to come up with ways to safeguard them.
Officially, still, Ignalina’s management fail to acknowledge the event as an accident – referring to it coyly as a “technological incident,” as they report that “in order to ascertain the causes of [the] technological incident, [a c]ommission consisting of representatives of the employer of the project (Ignalina NPP) and the contractor of the project (JSC ‘Specialus Montazas-NTP’) was formed.”
The official statement on the results of the investigation launched into the event says (quoted verbatim here and elsewhere in this translation):
“On 5 October 2010 during implementation of the scheduled works foreseen in Project B12 “Decontamination of internal surfaces of [State Enterprise] Ignalina NPP Main Circulation Circuit, Blowing, Cooling and Water Purification Systems” – Unit 1 circuit decontamination – seal failure has occurred in one of the components which resulted in the flowing out of the chemical agents (nitrogen acid (1%) and potassium permanganate) used for decontamination outside of the circuit boundaries. Since the strict safety requirements are applied for implementation of this project, the works are performed in the leak-tight rooms, the chemical agents and substances contaminated by radioactive nuclides have drained through the specific drainage systems.”
The Russian version of the same statement noted in particular that none of the chemical reagents or contaminated materials spread beyond the limits of the nuclear power plant’s control zone.
Issued by the plant’s spokeswoman Daiva Rimašauskaitė, the statement largely repeats an earlier press release from the plant, and the message remains unchanged: All is within permissible limits, nothing significant has happened. Basically, it’s our NPP – and it’s our 300 tonnes of radioactive sludge to leak or to collect.
It may well be so, but then again, it may not. As follows from messages posted on a web-based forum for the nuclear workers of Visaginas – the town where Ignalina is located – the scene was not a pretty picture, and witness accounts indicate cleaning up after the accident involved manual labour, as well as substantial personnel exposure. But there is no official confirmation of that.
Barking up Moscow’s tree – again?
The specific findings of the commission gathered to look into the accident – Ignalina NPP as the decommissioning project owner and Specialus Montažas, the contractor – are, of course, the meat of the story, but let’s put that aside for a moment.
What strikes the eye in the statement is the last paragraph in the commission’s brief report, highlighted in italics as a sort of a postscriptum:
“It should be added that according to the facts stated the following conclusion can be made: the contract for the project B12 implementation signed with the Contractor – an economic operators group acting on the basis of joint activity agreement – [Joint Stock Company] “Specialus Montažas-NTP” (Lithuania), Lithuanian Energy Institute (LEI), JSC “All-Russian Research Institute for NPP Operation” ([VNIIAES], Russia) on 12 January 2010, was signed without taking into consideration the fact that the Contractor did not comply with the requirements stated in the Technical Specifications of the tender.”
There is not much clarity offered in this fragment. If the commission was put together to study the technological aspects of what happened, why would it make conclusions on the legalities of the decommissioning works at the shut-down unit? If “the contractor did not comply with the requirements,” how come it only became obvious after the accident? And another question: If the contractor is essentially a consortium of three different organisations, why did the commission only include representatives of its Lithuanian member, Specialus Montažas? Why was no one from the Lithuanian Energy Institute or Russia’s VNIIAES called to join the commission?
The interesting conclusion is that if this is an indication that Ignalina’s management want to annul the contract and put the blame for what happened on the contractor, that will be tantamount to acknowledging the leak as an accident after all. But it has been repeatedly stated by the management that nothing exceeding safety limits happened at the plant. This dilemma could possibly be the reason to look for just such legal details that might help make the case against the contractor, should it come to that.
The wrong acid
But back to the technological side of the botched decontamination.
Ignalina’s statement on the commission’s findings quotes commission chairman and head of Ignalina NPP Technological Service Vigantas Galkauskas as saying: “The Commission has concluded that responsibility for this technological incident falls on Contractor implementing project B12. The project implementation technology proposed by the Contractor had some shortcomings which caused the incident.”
That was stating the obvious, of course. Seeing as the leak took place, it makes sense that the technology used was apparently not up to par, and the contractor, needless to say, is the party to bear the blame. Does it really have to take the effort of creating a special commission and dedicating a month’s work to say that the sky is blue?
“In opinion of the Commission Chairman the most essential is that neither [Ignalina] NPP employees nor the environment have suffered,” the statement continues. “Moreover, [Ignalina] NPP specialists have ascertained the causes of these malfunctions in the project implementation, so analogical technical problems shall not repeat while implementing a similar project in the future.
But further on, it’s all about Russia again – namely, the Russian NPP operator company, concern Rosenergoatom:
“The Contractor of the Project has proposed decontamination technologies based on the guideline documents of the operating company concern “Rosenergoatom” (RBMK-1000 type reactors [main circulation circuit] decontamination is performed using the solution which comprise of nitrogen acid ratio 75 [to] 100 [milligrams per cubic decimetre]). In the technology proposed by the Contractor the nitrogen acid concentration in solutions was 1% or 10,000 [milligrams per cubic decimetre].”
The following quote also makes a surprising reference to Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near St. Petersburg, Russia, which, too, runs RBMK reactors, but of a different model:
“The decontamination technology proposed by the Contractor was also based on the reports of [main circulation circuit] decontamination carried out [in 2006 and 2007] in Leningrad NPP Units: during Leningrad NPP Units decontamination the solution was composed only of oxalate acid and potassium nitrate.”
Here is some food for thought, indeed. Lithuania is trying to safeguard two shut-down twenty-some-year-old reactors of the Soviet design RBMK-1500. But Rosenergoatom does not have – and never had – any experience decommissioning RBMK-1500s simply for the reason that there are no such reactors in Russia. Similarly, it has no experience decommissioning RBMK-1000s: Russia has eleven reactors of this model, but all are still in operation.
Nodding back to Rosenergoatom or to the experience of Leningrad NPP would be completely out of place. Leningrad’s reactors are of a different type and decontamination flushing of the main circulation circuit takes place there for entirely different purposes and with the use of entirely different chemicals.
It will hardly escape the reader’s attention that where Leningrad NPP uses oxalate acid and potassium nitrate, Ignalina has used nitric acid and potassium permanganate. Furthermore, the commission acknowledges that the solution decided on at Ignalina was of a concentration a 100 times stronger than that used at Leningrad NPP.
It doesn’t take a chemistry professor to realise the technology used in Lithuania was seriously different from the one used in Russia. The very attempt to present the situation as one where the Lithuanians, in their naiveté, have been taken advantage of by the sly Russians, falls flat on its face. For one, how about using their own gray matter before doing something? And, not to be repetitive, but the Russian nuclear industry does not have technologies to offer for the decommissioning of RBMK reactors – it just doesn’t, and that’s the end of it.
The restless corpse
To figure out the odds and ends of this mess, the author of this comment called the Moscow-based VNIIAES – the institute mentioned by Ignalina’s press service as one of the contractors performing the decontamination works at the plant. Being the only Russian participant in the project it would supposedly also be the one bearing responsibility for the deficiencies of the failed “Russian method” – so it deserved a chance to have a say on the matter.
I spoke with VNIIAES’s first deputy general director Leonid Voronin. In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union, and both Russia and Lithuania were two of the fifteen republics comprising that state, Voronin was first deputy to the Soviet minister of atomic energy. To my surprise, Leonid Mikhailovich knew nothing of the accident in Lithuania and asked me to call again the next day while he was making inquiries into what had happened.
“Before you called, I didn’t know anything about it. It’s a different state. We haven’t worked at their NPP. I don’t visit their website,” he said, but promised to look for what information he could find.
During my next call, Voronin used some very vivid phraseology as he described, in his own words, what he understood happened at Ignalina:
“The reactor there is shut down, the fuel has been removed. The plant is a corpse, in the process of being buried. Nothing serious can happen to a corpse. Other than that maybe some soil spilled into the grave…”
Fair enough. A restless corpse – what a fitting image for a nuclear power plant under decommissioning. A corpse whose funeral must be a very careful affair indeed: Some are cantankerous enough they won’t go quietly into the grave and you’ll have to build a whole sarcophagus instead. Like in Chernobyl…
There is no avoiding accidents
Then Voronin took a more serious tone.
“NPP decommissioning generates large amounts of radioactive waste. It is impossible to forestall all accidents or incidents. [The Lithuanians’] problems were of their own creation: They failed to [handle] the throttle valves correctly, didn’t take the hydraulics, the pressure created by the [main circulation pump] into consideration – think of the very power of these pumps,” Voronin said. “The idea was to [shave a layer of] 0.8 millimetres off the walls of the pipes with the flushing solution. But they themselves chose the concentration and the decontamination mode.”
If they were decontaminating the circuit, all leaks there would be inside sealed premises, and no problems are supposed to arise with any radiation release, Voronin said, adding: “The leaks were going into the sump and back into the floor drain tanks – this is what you call circulation flushing.”
Voronin also confirmed that his institute never took any part in any decisions regarding the approval of technologies used during the decontamination at Ignalina, nor in the actual decommissioning works. Likewise, his employees were not part of the commission investigating the accident at the plant.
“Some sort of commission was at work there. But we were not invited, no one gave us any materials. True, no one voiced any grievances on our account either,” Voronin said. “We were only engaged there to give recommendations, the technology was not discussed with us. We don’t do any business with the plant itself. We were only consulting their [engineering firms].
It’s funny – all the while they were blaming the “Russian technologies,” Ignalina’s management failed to say anything about them to the supposed co-authors of the wrong method that they had used.
“There are no issues taken here with us, no reports have been received by either us or concern [Rosenergoatom]. They botched it all on their own – but there are no problems there!” Voronin said.
The commission’s conclusions
Let’s see what it was they botched there after all.
Here are the conclusions the commission made on the October accident (quoted here verbatim):
“According to the Commission, sealing failure of one of the components of [the main circulation circuit] during decontamination could be conditioned by the following factors:
• Chemical corrosion of [the main circulation circuit’s] internal surfaces which occurred due to the impact of the chemical agents used for decontamination.
• Erosion of [the main circulation circuit’s] internal surfaces which was caused by the chemical agent used for decontamination and [consisted] of insoluble sludge particles having an intensive impact.
• Electrochemical corrosion in electrolyte medium of various metals contact areas.
• While preparing the program, the total impact of all factors (solution composition, decontamination temperature, flows rate, time of impact, corrosive elements concentration) on [the main circulation circuit] equipment was not taken into account by the Contractor.
• [The main circulation circuit’s] sealing failure […] occurred during Unit 1 Main Circulation Circuit decontamination due to the shortcomings of the decontamination technology proposed by the Contractor.
• The technology proposed by the Contractor was in fact not tested in nuclear industry enterprises before. It contradicts the Technical Specification regulations of the Public Procurement Tender for the implementation of this project.”
Summing up the above, it deserves to be repeated that the main problem of decommissioning nuclear power plants is that these works are highly complicated and there are no tested technologies to back them.
The irony is that today’s advances in engineering make it possible to build and operate a nuclear power plant – but to close one down and get rid of it safely, no one has invented such technologies yet.
All for a ‘brownfield’ and European Union money
There is one factor that makes the situation at Ignalina an even more complicated one: Lithuania has adopted a concept of “immediate dismantlement,” which gives the whole affair a certain urgency. Here is what Ignalina’s General Director Osvaldas Čiukšys told journalists last September:
“The final decommissioning plan was adopted on July 4, 2005, by an order of the Minister of Economy of the Lithuanian Republic. The plan included an immediate dismantlement strategy (a method that implies dismantling the equipment practically right after the reactor is taken out of operation and radioactive materials are removed from the equipment) in order to clean up the environment in the area around [Ignalina] NPP to reclaim the territory, while preserving the buildings and infrastructure needed for further use (in order to bring it to a ‘brownfield’ stage).”
A brownfield site is an abandoned industrial area available for reclamation once environmental damage has been rectified. But there is another way, actually.
The dismantlement of highly radioactively contaminated equipment does not have to start right away after the nuclear reactors have been taken offline and their fuel unloaded. If you wait 30 or even 50 years, the short-lived radioactive isotopes will have decayed and radioactivity levels around the equipment will be reduced by dozens of times. Then it will be easier, cheaper, and safer to dismantle the reactors and bury them.
But that’s where the snag is: Lithuania cannot wait. Ignalina NPP, which operated its two highly dangerous RBMK reactors for some twenty years only – they were taken offline on December 31, 2004 and December 31, 2009 – had to be shut down in order to comply with the demand of the European Union, which was one of the conditions for Lithuania’s ascension to the union. And now it is the European Union that Lithuania receives the funds from to finance the decommissioning works. If Lithuania postpones the works for fifty years, will it then find a sponsor to resume the dismantlement?
The European Union has already contributed EUR 1,588.5 million to the effort and is likely to give more. In a way, the October leak did not just happen at Europe’s expense, but, to a certain extent, to keep the money flowing.
Russian nuclear power plants employ altogether eleven RBMK reactors, of the RBMK-1000 type (the same that were in operation in Chernobyl): four at Leningrad and Kursk NPPs each, and another three at Smolensk NPP. All of the eleven units are in continued operation, including Reactor Units 1, 2 and 3 of Leningrad NPP and Reactor Units 1 and 2 of Kursk NPP – even though the 30-year operational life spans of these reactors have already run out. Russia for now chooses to extend operational licenses of its aged nuclear power units, but sooner or later the Russians, too, will face the urgency of decommissioning these eleven reactors – and the problem of decontaminating and dismantling them safely.
Because it is unlikely that a generous outside sponsor like the European Union will come to Russia’s aid, the quick dismantlement scheme will probably not be adopted in Russia – and “delayed dismantlement” will be chosen instead: The reactors will be taken offline, the nuclear fuel will be unloaded, and the site mothballed for about 50 years. Works similar to those in progress at Ignalina will likely only start after 2070.
Just how and using which technologies and with what money this will be done remains an open question. What is clear is that the generations to come after us will be hard-pressed to find a kind word to remember us by, those who have left them this dangerous legacy. And rightly so.