Storage of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel constitute a major environmental and social challenges in the Murmansk and Archangelsk County. Spent nuclear fuel from the nuclear submarines in the Northern Fleet and the civilian nuclear icebreaker fleet has been stored in temporary storage facilities on land or on board various vessels since the early 1960s.
The Northern fleet are at present storing close to 60.000 spent fuel assemblies, 26.000 of this in on-shore dry-storage and over 30.000 in laid-up submarines. From the nuclear powered icebreakers, Murmansk Shipping Company are storing about 9.000 assemblies. By 2007 there will be an increase with 20.000, mainly from laid-up submarines.
Less than half of the spent nuclear fuel which has accumulated over the years from naval reactors in the region has been transported to the Mayak reprocessing facility. This transport has of a variety of reasons, been dramatically decreased lately. Even with the growing international attention the latest years, the situation has so far not improved. Not only are standard safety measures routinely neglected, but also has a firm lid of secrecy blocked any constructive approaches for solving the problems. The consequences are particularly apparent on the Kola Peninsula; indeed there is no other place in the world where such large amounts of spent nuclear fuel are so improperly stored as at the Kola naval bases.
A number of the proposals for securing nuclear fuel and radioactive waste are co-operative ventures in which various countries contribute both economically and with technical expertise. The momentum for some of these projects has been slowed, mostly due to unresolved questions of responsibility on the Russian side, and the lack of a overall plan of action.
Russian closed fuel cycle
In accordance with Russia’s “closed fuel cycle” policy, spent nuclear fuel from VVER-440 reactors as well as submarine- and icebreaker reactors should be reprocessed. However, this option causes a number of political, economic and environmental problems.
First and foremost, Mayak is unsafe. During its operation, the Mayak Chemical Combine has experienced several accidents and releases of radioactivity into the environment. But even disregarding the environmental problems at Mayak, the idea of transporting spent nuclear fuel across the entire European part of Russia and across the Ural mountains is fraught with troubles.
One of the most obvious problems is the sheer length of time it takes to transport the large amounts of spent fuel away from the Kola Peninsula and Severodvinsk. At the present rate of transportation it will take between 50 to 60 years to ship the spent fuel from the Kola region to Mayak.
Even if the transport problems were to be solved, the Northern Fleet still has to pay for delivering its spent fuel to Mayak. Beginning January 1, 1991, Mayak Chemical Combine required full coverage of its expenses. The cost in 1999 of handling one train loaded with spent nuclear fuel was 500.00 USD; the Russian Navy lacks the funds to pay for the reprocessing at Mayak, and this is one of the reason for the drop in the rate at which spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed.
In addition to this there is a lack of a safe storage for spent nuclear fuel in Mayak, and if transportation of spent nuclear fuel takes place, a new storage has to be constructed.
There has also been raised concerns about nuclear fuel that the Mayak Chemical Combine cannot reprocess. This includes fuel from liquid-metal cooled reactors and fuel with circonium cladding, as well as defective and damaged fuel assemblies. The latest information from Russian experts is that about 30 % of the fuel at the Northern Fleet and other shipyards cannot be reprocessed.
There is also strong local opposition against more spent fuel being transported to Mayak, both from the administration in the Chelyabinsk county and environmental organisations. Internationally there has also been raised strong scepticism against reprocessing since it creates more plutonium an uran that might be used in nuclear weapons.
Solution to the nuclear waste problem
In view of the serious problems that Russia faces with respect to the storage of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, immediate measures are needed in order to secure the situation. Bellona propose the construction of a intermediate storage facilities on the Kola Peninsula, in the area where the waste keeps accumulating. Locating the facilities at Kola as opposed to Mayak would have the effect of saving money and time spent on transportation to a distant intermediate storage facility, reduce the risk associated with transportation and eliminate the risks of proliferation that might arise from reprocessing. Since a location on Kola would be close to the probable location of any final repository, the Bellona recommendation also significantly reduces the costs and risks of transportation from a temporary to final storage site.
A treatment facility for spent nuclear fuel will consist of a receiving facility where the spent fuel is removed from submarines or transport containers. Here, any damaged fuel is repackaged into new containers.
The spent nuclear fuel is stored in a modular dry storage, with a natural air cooling system, which should be located in the immediate vicinity of the receiving facility. Spent fuel from liquid metal cooled reactors and badly damaged fuel will probably have to be transported and stored in specifically designated containers. These containers are stored on a specially adapted concrete pad. The design of the storage should provide safe storage for the next 50 years.
A large fraction of the spent nuclear fuel is in poor condition as a result of its having been improperly stored for such a long time or from accidentals reactors. It will be necessary to encapsulate the majority of the spent fuel in new, approved and specially modified containers.
The new storage facility must not only have the capacity to accept the amount of spent nuclear fuel that is already in the region, but it must also be dimensioned so as to receive the spent nuclear fuel that will be added in the future as more and more inactive nuclear submarines and icebreakers are decommissioned. Estimates shows that a minimum of 74,000 spent fuel assemblies from naval reactors must be properly stored over the course of the next decade. As of today, this spent nuclear fuel may be found in filled up land-based storage, aboard unseaworthy storage ships or inactive naval vessels.
Also for the vast amount of radioactive waste in the region, a central treatment facility and temporary storage will be an important element. In addition to this temporary solution, the basis for a permanent repository must also be established.
Russian officials have made available only limited technical descriptions of the different storage facilities and storage ships for spent nuclear fuel. Information on the actual condition of the spent nuclear fuel is also lacking. Consequently, any suggestion for establishing a new temporary storage facility must necessarily carry a number of provisos.
Based on best available knowledge and data, the best solution to the nuclear waste problems on the Kola Peninsula is to construct a regional, central handling facility. This would ensure both a rapid temporary solution as well as an emphasis on the most effective use of resources.
The central handling facility for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel should be constructed according to several criteria such as the need for civilian monitoring and Russian/international safety requirements. The storage should have an operational life of 50 years and should be a dry storage. The location would depend on the potential to utilise existing infrastructure, distance from civilian population and technical experts, transport requirement and the size of the storage. These criteria would ensure selection of the best possible location and would guarantee independent inspection and monitoring of the facilities. A closer study of these criteria suggests two potential locations:
Zapadnaya Litsa is Russia’s largest and most important base for nuclear-powered submarines. The base is located in the Litsa Fjord westernmost on the Kola Peninsula, 45 km from the Norwegian border. The base’s residential town is known as Zaozersk and has just short of 30,000 inhabitants. Andreeva Bay in Zapadnaya Litsa is now the Northern Fleet’s largest storage facility for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.
The naval shipyard Nerpa lies in innermost Olenya Bay, a few kilometres west of Polyarny. At this time, Nerpa falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Economy and thus lies outside the authority of the Northern Fleet. The naval yard’s main task has been repair and maintenance work on second generation nuclear submarines, although earlier on, the yard was also responsible for removal of control rods and for preparing reactors for the loading of new nuclear fuel. Nowadays, the yard is utilised for dismantling second generation submarines. A new land-based dry dock utilising special equipment for dismantling submarines is now under construction at Nerpa naval yard.
Gremikha is the easternmost base of the Northern Fleet naval bases on the Kola peninsula. Today, there are a few operational subamrines based here plus another 15 that have been taken out of service. There is a storage for spent nuclear fuel, mostly which is damaged. There is also a storage for solid and liquid waste here.
We have so far no preferences for either of these sites, and there could also be some other candidates in the region. But there should be no doubt that the best economical and environmental solution will be to construct an intermediate storage for the spent nuclear fuel in the region, and this should be done as quick as possible.