Comment: Lithuania’s shutdown nuclear power plant leaks 300 tonnes of radioactive sludge – could the accident repeat itself in Russia?

Publish date: November 10, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Witnesses say the leak of three hundred tonnes of radioactive sludge at Lithuania’s closed-down Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) last October 5 – the accident occurred during decommissioning works at this site, which used to operate Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors – led to radiation exposure suffered by cleanup personnel and severe contamination of the premises. Did management try to downplay the accident? And are accidents like this possible at RBMK-running NPPs in Russia?

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, an RBMK-running NPP built in the 1980s in Visaginas, Lithuania, when that country was still part of the Soviet Union, was finally shut down for good last New Year’s eve in order to comply with requirements of the European Union, and decommissioning projects are ongoing at the plant.

According to information on the plant’s website, a programme for decommissioning INPP’s Unit 1 was adopted back in 2001 – the reactor was shut down on December 31, 2004 – with provisions for decommissioning Unit 2 added in 2005.

Does 300 tonnes of leaked radioactive sludge constitute an accident?

A statement by Ignalina’s press secretary Daiva Rimasauskaite has been posted on Ignalina’s website (no English version is available) providing explanations about the accident:

“On October 5,” the statement said, “as decontamination works were in progress on the blowdown and cooling system and the system of bypass purification in the multiple forced circulation circuit, loss of seal occurred in one of the components, with the result that chemical reagents used in decontamination – 1% nitric acid and potassium permanganate – leaked outside the circuit.”

“Because strict safety measures are in place to implement the current [decommissioning] project and works are being performed in sealed-off areas equipped with special drainage systems, none of the chemical reagents or materials contaminated with radioactive nuclides spread outside [Ignalina] NPP’s control zone,” Rimasauskaite said in her statement.

Rimasauskaite further confirmed the official version that the leak does not pose any threat to the plant’s employees or the environment in a telephone conversation with Bellona. She also said all the 300 tonnes of the leaked radioactive decontamination solution was absorbed by the drainage system.

She denied, however, that the event could be considered an accident and said it was a non-significant, below-the-scale event.

According to the International Nuclear Event Scale – the classification was introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1990 to enable prompt communication of safety-related information during nuclear accidents – a leak may be considered a Level One incident (considerable spread of radioactivity on an NPP’s operations floor) or a Level Two incident (considerable spread of radioactivity exceeding allowable levels on an NPP’s operations floor).

If a discharge of radiation occurred with severe contamination on site, and subsequent population exposure, this kind of event is classified as a Level 3 event. Concealing information on such incidents is nothing short of a crime.

Was there personnel exposure?

A Russian-language publication in Lithuania called Litovsky Kurier (The Lithuanian Courier) initiated an investigation into the incident (in Russian), concluding that the event had to be regarded as an accident and suggesting that assurances coming from Ignalina’s press service “may not fully correspond to reality:”

“On October 5, 2010, an accident happened at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant,” the article said. “Works were being done in the area housing the main circulation pump connected with removing radioactive contamination from the equipment. As the reactor circuit of Reactor Unit 1 was being flushed, a rupture occurred in the circuit near the throttle regulator valve.”

“Around three hundred cubic metres of thick flushing material – a highly radioactively contaminated suspension containing nitric acid and potassium permanganate – leaked through the rupture into the technological area of Reactor Unit 1,” the story said.

“But this thick radioactive mass did not escape into the technological drain holes, as affirmed in the statement prepared by Ms. Rimasauskaite ,” the article continued. “According to unconfirmed information, this was the reason why a large number of plant employees were engaged in cleanup works after the accident. People were manually collecting the leaked radioactive suspension, which they were then removing from the technological area and ‘burying’ on site.”

“There is no doubt,” the story said, “that working with contaminated material led to these people’s exposure to radiation. But they are forced to take such risks out of fear of losing their jobs.”

That conclusion was supported in statements posted on a website hosting a forum for Visaginas-based nuclear workers, as well as on the website of the publication Delfi.Lt, which also provides a public discussion forum. 

These are just a few samples:

“Talk to the people who were cleaning up this solution. These were people working the first shift; covering that shift [for a colleague] was shift manager Lutkov, who I respect a lot; he, being a true hero, was the first one to enter the area with dispersed acidic [decontamination] solution. And I can’t but feel sorry for the millions of public money [lost], for the guys who were cleaning up this crap…because that dirt from the circuit, just beta radiation alone in it makes for up to two million [particles per square centimetre per second]. If my memory serves me right, a towel that we use to dry our hands with can have no more than 10 particles – just compare the scale of contamination.”

“Three hundred cubic metres (SIX railway tank cars!) of radioactively contaminated nitric acid with potassium permanganate getting smeared all over – other than that, it’s all great. Everything’s just dandy!”
[picture1 left]“The target of the programme was to reduce the levels of radioactivity emitted by the [multiple forced circulation circuit] equipment, and decontamination ratio was expected to be 20 (in simple terms, radioactivity was supposed to be reduced by 20 times). As can be seen from the photo, they achieved the target fully, but didn’t take one small hitch into consideration – which is that 5% nitric acid, [heated to a temperature] of 90 degrees, plus with 1.5% sodium permanganate (this method is known as the CORD method), plus the hydraulic effect created by the [main circulation pumps], will easily eat stainless steel… But when there’s money at stake, there’s no time to analyse safety issues, and the result is right out there, on the construction elements, with all the radionuclides from the [multiple forced circulation circuit].”

The pictures of the leak in this report, all taken from the Visaginas forum, speak for themselves. The thick radioactive slurry can be seen gushing from a rust-eaten pipe, and doubts persist that it all took care of itself by escaping into the technological drain holes, that no manual cleanup was required, or that personnel exposure was avoided. Even if that was the case, someone will still have to clean the concrete floor of the NPP’s operations premises, contaminated as a result of the leak.

Ignalina’s official website affirms that “after the incident, radiation control was implemented in the areas where works had been in progress, as well as in adjacent areas. It has been established that in the areas where personnel had been at work, background radiation levels did not exceed allowable limits.”

“Decontamination of the areas has been implemented, and all other necessary safety measures undertaken,” the official statement read. “It has been established that the health of the personnel engaged in works in those areas on October 5 and 6 did not suffer any harmful effects and that the employees were not exposed to any extra radiation doses. No excessive discharges of radionuclides into the surrounding atmosphere were registered on October 4 through 7.”

The logic of that statement remains unclear: If background radiation levels remained within the norm, why decontaminate the premises? Is it just a matter of sloppy language? The employees working in “those areas” did not sustain any excessive exposure – but what are “those” areas exactly, and what about other areas? “No excessive discharges of radionuclides into the surrounding atmosphere were registered” – were there any discharges at all?

Were there radiation discharges?

When an accident of any scale happens at a nuclear power plant, the main question is always: “Was there a release of radionuclides into the surrounding environment?”

As the October 5 accident goes, the assumption must be made that such a release was indeed possible through the ventilation system of the reactor unit. Imagine three hundred tonnes of a hot radioactive solution pouring out of a rusty pipeline right out onto the operations area of the plant. Chemical reactions continue to take place in that solution, as well as nuclear decay reactions. Their products may very well escape into the air inside the premises of the reactor unit, and from there, through the ventilation pipes, outside into the surrounding atmosphere…

It is also conceivable that a discharge of radiation did indeed take place, but within the allowable limits – set per 24 hours? a year? – established for an NPP in ongoing operation. According to certain information, northbound winds were prevalent in the area around Ignalina on October 5, and if a release of radionuclides took place, it could have reached the city of Daugavpils, seventy kilometres away from the plant, in neighbouring Latvia.

Was there a cover-up attempt?

Ignalina press service says the information about the incident was posted in a timely fashion on the plant’s website. At this point, this is nearly impossible to verify. But it has been established with certainty that none of the closest neighbouring countries – Ignalina is located near the borders with Belarus and Latvia – have been informed of the incident.

Sources in the Ministry of Energy and Ministry of the Environment of Belarus confirmed that the only information they had received on the incident was from the Internet, but no reports had been sent to them from Lithuania via official channels. Speaking with Bellona on the telephone, Ignalina’s press secretary Rimasauskaite said she did not considere such notices necessary since no threat to radiation safety was observed beyond the plant’s premises.

Still, both the population of Lithuania and those of neighbouring states deserved to be informed of what had happened at Ignalina. This is a point made clearly in the story in Litovsky Kurier:

“In fact, we are within our rights to make the conclusion that the authorities have wilfully concealed the fact of the accident at [Ignalina] NPP from the public, by presenting it simply as an insignificant ‘loss of seal in one of the components.’ As regards the ‘limits of the control zone of [Ignalina] NPP,’ this position is plain indefensible. Ignalina NPP has a surveillance area of several hectares. Chernobyl NPP had a control zone of an analogous size – but the consequences of the catastrophe at [Chernobyl] NPP were multiple times as wide-reaching as that.

In and of themselves, these facts cannot but cause indignation. The scale of the accident practically does not matter in this situation. An emergency at a nuclear site is a serious event, and concealing it is not just unacceptable, it is simply criminal.”

Was there Moscow’s hand in all this?

A certain piquancy was added to the situation by the fact that the first report to be published by a major media outlet was one that appeared on October 26 – or twenty days after the accident – on the website of the Russian online publication REGNUM (in Russian):

“In early October, an accident took place at the shutdown Ignalina NPP, which Lithuania’s responsible services only reported in a one-line message, painting the incident as a run-of-the-mill occurrence. A REGNUM News source at Ignalina NPP said today, October 26, that the accident had taken place in the area housing the main circulation pumps, where works were in progress connected with disposal of radioactive contamination from the equipment.”

The story caused a storm in the media, triggering “response” articles on the incident in the Lithuanian press as well, but none of those reports acknowledged the event as an accident. One publication, at Diena.Lt, called the event “an insignificant technical incident.” Ignalina NPP representatives further stated that the event was not “so dramatic or dangerous as the Russian media have presented it,” and allegations were sounded on REGNUM’s possible ties with the Russian special services…
[picture2 left]

Yet, no one denied that the leak had indeed occurred.

“After the accident was cleaned up, it was possible to see in the spot where the loss of seal had happened that the section [of the pipe] through which the contaminated substance leaked out had simply rusted through over time and finally burst,” one Lithuanian report said.

Russia’s rusty nuclear power plants

Ignalina’s Reactor 1 was commissioned in January 1984 and stopped on December 31, 2004, to meet demands imposed by the European Union as Lithunia was preparing to become a member nation. On December 30, 2009, works to remove nuclear fuel from the reactor core were completed, but reactor components, pipelines, and other structural elements remained contaminated and had to be cleaned – which is what prompted the botched decontamination last October.

The reactor was in operation twenty-one out of the thirty useful-life years it was designed to remain online. Presumably, both the plant and its pipeline systems should be in a fine enough condition. But the accident revealed severe corrosion in the pipes of the multiple forced circulation circuit – the same pipes that pump radioactive steam-and-water mixture through the reactor core when the plant is in operation – which finally resulted in a rupture when the pipes were undergoing decontamination. It is frightening to think of what might have happened if the pipeline burst when the reactor was still online…

Lithuania indeed made the right choice to stop the old and dangerous reactors when it did – keeping in mind that Ignalina’s reactors are of the Soviet RBMK design. But reactors of the same design are still in operation at Russian nuclear power plants – Leningrad, Kursk, and Smolensk NPPs. The operational life spans of some of these reactors have been extended beyond the engineered limits, and extensions are projected for the rest. The multiple forced circulation circuits may well be in a better condition at these plants – but maybe not.

It is certainly disconcerting to read in a 2009 report issued by the Russian industrial oversight agency, the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological, and Atomic Supervision (Rostekhnadzor), that there are problems with assessing the integrity and durability of pipelines at Russian NPPs, or that not all of them are in fact under due control:

“As regards the weld seams in the […] austenitic pipelines of RMBK-1000 reactors, the issue of reliability of maintenance control must be differentiated depending on the method of maintenance control and location of the weld seams (some of them are not subject to control). On the whole, the reliability of defect monitoring, as dependent on the method of maintenance control, can be assessed to range between 64% and 90%, which also attests to the urgency of the problem of substantiating assessments of integrity and strength of […] welded austenitic pipelines.”

In plainer language, the danger is there that the pipelines in use at the RBMK-running NPPs in Russia may burst at any given moment. Whether this is as big a threat as another Chernobyl depends on many factors, but one should certainly not dismiss the risks.

On cleanup costs

Quite a lot has been known about the dangers of decommissioning works at old NPPs. The following is an extract on contaminated pipelines from a textbook entitled “Decommissioning sites of application of atomic energy” and issued by the Institute of Natural Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

“While performing dismantling works at a [nuclear power plant] with an RBMK reactor, radiation safety is most compromised in the areas where the [multiple forced circulation circuit] equipment is located. Experience shows that levels of radiation in these areas are determined by radioactive products of corrosion created as a result of activation by neutrons of the corroded construction materials in the main technological circuit.”

The following radionuclides are especially dangerous: Chromium 51, Cobalt 58, Manganese 54, Iron 59, and Cobalt 60 (gamma radiation), and Iron 55, Nickel 59, and Nickel 63 (beta radiation).

Three hundred cubic metres of decontamination solution have leaked onto the floor and, through cracks in the metal lining, may well have made their way into the concrete slabs below and penetrate further down, to a depth of several centimetres. The Lithuanians are concerned how much public money cleaning up the results of this decontamination operation will end up costing…

Some assessments have already been ventured by participants of the Visaginas forum at – up to half a billion dollars:

“Counting up all that, we get – considering that the acid was spilled at the marker of +10 and found at the marker of -7.2 – contaminated concrete to the tune of between 10,000 and 100,000 cubic metres, depending on how and how much acid was leaking. Cleaning up the consequences will, in the best-case scenario, cost over $80 million, and in the worst case, over $500 million.”

Ignalina’s official website is trying to dissuade the fears:

“The event did not require any special expenses on cleanup procedures, since the works were conducted in closed-off areas equipped with special drainage systems,” the website said. “[…] The implementation of the project of decontaminating the blowdown and cooling system and the system of bypass purification of the multiple forced circulation circuit is being financed with funds [from the European Union] earmarked for decommissioning projects. We again ask all of our readers to consider that decommissioning projects financed by the [European Union] do not bear any influence on energy prices.”

The Internet community only has a sarcastic answer to offer in response:

“But people still don’t understand the peculiarities of this washing process – was that cleaning up pipes or laundering money..? I mean, they wanted the pipes clean, right?… Or rather, to launder the money, one needs first to try to clean up the pipes. With this cleaning technology, all they did was make the pipes dirty – but the money’s clean alright!”

Who will pay for decommissioning Ignalina?

The financing question is actually one of the pivotal in this story. Because it was the European Union that insisted that the dangerous RBMK reactors were taken offline and the plant closed down, it is the same entity that provides the bulk of the money to safeguard the shutdown site.

This is what Ignalina’s General Director Osvaldas Ciuksys said on the subject during a press conference last September:

“Collecting funds to shut down the power plant in the National Fund for Decommissioning the State Enterprise Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant started in 1995. But after the decision to shut the power plant down ahead of schedule, and based on the agreement on Lithuania’s ascension to the [European Union], additional funds have been earmarked by the European Union and donor nations: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. These funds are transferred to the International Fund for the Support of Decommissioning Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, created by the donor nations and managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Altogether, the funds earmarked for decommissioning [Ignalina] NPP for the period of between 1999 and 2013 total EUR 1,588.5 million. The funds held in the National Fund for Decommissioning the State Enterprise Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant [of the Lithuanian Republic] total just EUR 188.6 million.”

The conclusion is simple: Lithuania got its hands on a golden ticket. This small Baltic nation only contributed less than 12 percent of the entire pot with a billion and a half euros gathered so far to get rid of the old nuclear power plant. And it is hoping more is in the coming.

Between November 30 and December 2, Ciuksys is expected to take part in a conference of donor nations contributing to the International Fund for the Support of Decommissioning Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, to take place in London. It is possible the recent accident will prompt the donors to send even more money Lithuania’s way.

But what will happen when Russia finally starts closing down its aged nuclear power plants? Can the European Union be counted on to help finance the decommissioning projects? Unlikely.

Decommissioning as an Achilles’s heel of nuclear energy

Decommissioning is the final destination point of every nuclear power plant in service, and there are no exceptions. But to do it right, one needs solid experience and enough money. A lack in either of the two will lead to accidents. If such a fully European nation as Lithuania could not avoid running into an accident while decommissioning an old reactor, what could be said about Russia’s prospects?

According to Ignalina’s head Ciuksys: “Our aim is to become world-acknowledged leaders and experts in safe and efficient decommissioning of nuclear power reactor units with reactors of the RBMK type. No one in the world has done this before us, so [Ignalina] NPP’s employees will gain a unique, extremely valuable experience and expertise, which they will be able to apply at other sites of nuclear energy.”

Part of the experience the workers will now have on their resumes will be the “unique experience” of scrubbing, scooping up, and burying three hundred tonnes of radioactive slurry…

Investigation is still on

Ignalina NPP has promised soon to publish a report with findings of an investigation that has been started into the decontamination accident. Bellona will keep a close watch on the developments.