Mayak spent fuel storage moves to Kola

Publish date: March 20, 2000

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

Minatom and the Industrial Group cancel the planed naval spent fuel storage at Mayak - regional storage sites at the Kola Peninsula are to be built instead.

The long-planned new storage for naval spent nuclear fuel at the Mayak plant in the southern Ural will not be built. That was the result of the latest meeting in Moscow between Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy (Minatom) officials and leaders from the international Industrial Group set up to build the storage. The storage was thought to receive spent fuel from decommissioned submarines in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk counties. Minatom has asked the Industrial Group to help with the construction of a similar storage at the Kola Peninsula instead.

Dry storage unacceptable for Minatom

In 1997, an international Industrial Group was created with the aim to work on nuclear waste projects in Russia, among them the spent fuel storage at Mayak. The group was composed of SKB (Sweden), BNFL (United Kingdom), Kvaerner Maritime (Norway) and SGN (France). The Industrial Group completed a study, which concluded that it would be most viable to build a new dry storage facility for naval spent fuel at Mayak. Such facility could be built at a cost of 50 million Euro and was supposed to be financed by the Nordic countries and the EU. But Minatom, which operates Mayak, stated clearly that a dry storage was not on its agenda and that it would rather complete a partially built wet storage instead. Disagreement between Minatom and the Industrial Group on technology led to a halt of the spent fuel storage project in 1998.


Wet storage unacceptable for Industrial Group

“We concluded that a new dry storage would be the only safe way to keep the spent naval fuel at Mayak. The completion of the water-pool storage, proposed by Minatom, would never meet the international safety standards, and it would be even more expensive than our proposal,” Bo Gustafsson said in a telephone interview from Stockholm. Gustafsson represents SKB and is a chairman of the Industrial Group.

At the February meeting in Moscow, Minatom seemed to realise that there would be no western funding for the wet storage, but at the same time it underlined that a new dry storage at Mayak could not be built, mainly due to the local resistance in the Chelyabinsk County. The partially built wet storage was granted a licence many years ago. To get a licence for a dry storage would, if at all possible, take several years.

Interviewed by Bellona Web last autumn, Vice-Governor Gennady Podtyosov of Chelyabinsk said: “This plan has never been presented for the Governor before. We are strongly against the construction of such new interim storage for spent naval fuel at Mayak.” The environmental groups from all over Russia also argued that Mayak had no need for extra nuclear waste. The waste accumulated at Mayak during 40 years of plutonium production for nuclear weapons is more than enough, the groups say.


100,000 spent fuel elements by 2010

The first train with spent nuclear fuel from the Northern Fleet left Murmansk for Mayak in 1973. Since then, around 20,000 spent fuel elements have been transported to the Mayak reprocessing plant. Spent nuclear fuel from nuclear icebreakers based in Murmansk is also sent to Mayak. The last train left Atomflot on March 7 this year. The price for transportation, storage and reprocessing per trainload is estimated to be at least $500,000. Today, more than 32,000 naval spent fuel elements are stored at the Kola Peninsula, in land-based storage sites and onboard storage vessels. Additional 32,000 fuel elements are still onboard inactive submarines. The total amount of the fuel elements will increase to as much as 100,000 over the course of the next decade. That will include spent fuel from submarines still in operation, submarines earmarked for retirement and the civilian nuclear powered icebreakers in Murmansk.

One of the main arguments for Minatom to build an interim storage at Kola is the absence of spare buffer storage capacity and insufficient reprocessing capacity at the Mayak reprocessing plant.


Bellona welcomes the breakthrough

The Industry Group have argued with Minatom for the last three years over the fact that it would be much better to build a new intermediate storage at the Kola Peninsula, where the most part the maritime spent fuel is located today. Bellona considers the decision to build a large regional storage at Kola as a breakthrough after years of arguing in Russia and among western countries, who provide financial aid to nuclear safety. Bellona was the first to propose this solution in 1994. The most prominent environmental groups in Russia supported the plan in a recent letter to the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs in February this year. Finally, Minatom has agreed to take this option as viable as well.

“This decision is very positive, it is the solution we have wanted all the time. Both from an environmental and economical point of view, it is the only logical step,” says Nils Bohmer, a nuclear physicist at the Bellona Foundation. Several reports and nuclear waste management studies from Bellona have highlighted the need for creation of a new environmentally safe interim spent fuel storage at Kola.


Federal Environmental Spent Fuel Store

The concept is named Federal Environmental Spent Fuel Store in Northwest Russia. According to the information Bellona Web has, most of the blueprints from the now cancelled dry storage at Mayak can be used for construction of the new storage at Kola. It is still unclear where on the Kola Peninsula such new module-based storage will be placed. The nuclear engineering companies in the Industrial Group are now to sit down and prepare both the technical assignment and the project implementation plan for the storage. This first step towards a regional storage at Kola is to be financed by the Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom and the EU. A question mark remains in terms of Norway’s position. Even if it has never been said officially, it is clear that Norwegian officials are not very happy with the change of Minatom’s position. Under the lines, Norway’s agenda has been to get the nuclear waste as far away from the Norwegian boarder as possible. In addition, Norway may be embarrassed by the fact that the cancellation of the Mayak storage option comes at the same time as the Norway-sponsored railway cars for transportation of spent fuel from Kola to Mayak are constructed, though their delivering has been postponed. The price tag for the construction of the railway cars was more than $2 million.

“It is not clear yet if Norway is going to be one of the sponsors for the new storage at Kola. This is a political question, but we will of course look into the plan,” says Thorbjorn Norendal in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Back in 1996, Norway and Russia signed a protocol stipulating financial aid, among other projects, to building of a new storage for naval spent nuclear fuel at Mayak. The project’s aim was to speed up the process of submarine decommissioning and securing of nuclear waste. Due to the lack of sufficient spent fuel storage capacity in the north, much of it still remains in the reactors onboard submarines taken out of operation long time ago. Norway also pledged to help Russia build four new railway cars for the transportation of the spent fuel from Murmansk to Mayak, a distance of 3,500 kilometres. The railway cars, built at a factory in Tver, were to be handed over to the respective Russian body on March 3 this year, but there are still some unanswered questions about who will get the responsibility for the operation of the cars.


40 and 80 ton casks storage

In addition to the new module-designed dry storage, several local storage pads are to be created along the cost of the Kola Peninsula. As it looks today, at least three storage sites for spent fuel casks are to be built at the Kola Peninsula, and one new onshore site might be built in Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk County. The newly developed 40-ton metal-concrete cask for naval spent fuel may be put into serial production for use in several of the on-going projects to secure spent nuclear fuel, both from submarines and icebreakers. Already 12 of the 40-ton casks are to be manufactured at the Izhora plant near St. Petersburg, ordered by Co-operative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. Minatom has also said it will pay for another 88 of the 40-ton casks. The prototype cask was presented in late October last year. Each cask has a price tag of $150,000.

The second model is the 80-ton cask, aimed for onsite storage. The storage pads for these casks will serve as intermediate buffer storage for a period of up till 25 years. The storage period may be extended to become as long as 40-50 years. The 80-ton casks will most likely be used for the first time at Atomflot base in Murmansk for storage of fuel derived from icebreakers operation.



The 80-ton casks will be placed at a storage pad at the nuclear powered icebreaker base Atomflot in Murmansk. The pad is to be built onshore in the vicinity of the harbour facilities in the northern part of Atomflot. The pad would be able to hold a maximum of 50 casks. The casks will be primarily used to secure the spent fuel stored today onboard the service vessels, such as Lotta and Lepse, and can take non-standard size cylinders in order to store damaged fuel from service ship Lepse. The cost for an 80-ton cask is estimated to be $320,000. The obstacle to this project is the local resistance in Murmansk where the Mayor has expressed strong opposition to any long-term interim spent fuel storage within the city boarders.


Nuklid, a subject to Minatom established to co-ordinate the western assistance to nuclear waste safety projects in Northwest Russia, has suggested to build a storage pad for spent fuel casks at Shipyard no. 10 in Polyarny. The shipyard has equipment for unloading spent nuclear fuel from submarine reactors, and one of the Northern Fleet’s rundown storage barges for spent nuclear fuel (326M type) is located there. Seven laid up submarines are anchored at the piers in Polyarny; all of them still are holding spent nuclear fuel in their reactors. Back in the glorious days of the Northern Fleet, plans existed to create spent fuel storage inside a tunnel at the Polyarny shipyard. The shipyard itself has stated that it wants to grab a share of the decommissioning work on nuclear submarines, so far only one submarine has been dismantled at the yard.


The third location of spent fuel casks storage at Kola is the Gremikha naval base, the eastern part of the Kola Peninsula. Gremikha has no operational submarines, the fact that makes Minatom to assume it would be easier to get access to Gremikha than other submarine bases at the Kola Peninsula. Murmansk County Governor Yuri Yevdokimov also supports the creation of a facility in Gremikha to handle the spent fuel already stored there. Today, 17 laid up submarines are stationed in Gremikha, all of them are holding spent nuclear fuel, in addition to the existing run-down onshore storage. Some 100 old casks with spent fuel from first generation submarines are stored outdoors without any kind of protection. Fearing that the submarines may sink, the Northern Fleet does not dare to tow them away for decommissioning. Gremikha is a likely location for construction of the 80-ton cask storage pad.


The naval shipyards in Severodvinsk are also in a desperate need for extra storage capacity for spent nuclear fuel to be removed from the submarines undergoing decommissioning. The American CTR program has contracted decommissioning of 31 strategic submarines until the year 2002. These are 25 Delta-class, one Yankee-class and five Typhoon-class submarines. Since the submarine decommissioning has been delayed due to the limited storage room for spent nuclear fuel and transport means to ship it to Mayak, CTR program has opened up for financial aid to handle spent fuel as well. CTR has received permission to fund transportation to Mayak and reprocessing of the spent fuel there from 15 strategic submarines, totally 30 reactor cores, while the spent fuel from the remaining 16 submarines are to be stored in the 40-ton casks. Some pads for the 40-ton casks will be built at the Zvezdochka yard in Severodvinsk.

Minatom has set a specific target of defuelling 18 submarines in 2000. But few, if any, believe that this extremely tight plan can be fulfilled in the remaining 9 months of this year. Such plan requires construction of pads, casks, and renovation of the existing equipment for refuelling at the various shipyards, both in Northwest Russia and in the Far East.

CTR also gives financial support for the decommissioning work underway at the Nerpa shipyard at Kola. So far, it is not finally decided how many casks are to be placed in Severodvinsk and how many are to be stored at the Nerpa shipyard at Kola. Discussions have been underway regarding the need for a storage pad at Nerpa, but it may be unlikely, given the Polyarny shipyard gets one. Polyarny is in the neighbour bay to Nerpa.

At the same time, Nerpa is considered to be one of the most suitable locations for the new modular dry storage, or the so-called Federal Environmental Spent Fuel Store. Nerpa has much of the needed infrastructure, such as good harbour and equipment for removal of spent fuel from submarine reactors and service vessels. And, perhaps the most important, Nerpa has many employees with knowledge of nuclear safety and experience in handling spent nuclear fuel.