GAN says 40-ton casks unsafe

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GAN officials call the newly developed 40-ton casks for storage and transportation of naval spent nuclear fuel, derived from laid-up nuclear submarines, unsafe. The prototype of the metal-concrete cask was presented to American, Russian and Norwegian officials at the Izhora plant near St. Petersburg in October 1999. The Pentagon sponsors the development and construction of the casks, referring to the project as the most prestige under the AMEC program. AMEC is the acronym for the Arctic Military Environmental Co-operation, a program established in 1996 by the Defence Ministers of Norway, Russia and the United States.

The 40-ton cask project is run by Ministry of Nuclear Energy (Minatom) and Defence Ministry on the Russian side.

But the prototype cask may not reflect the safety standards for the casks under serial production at the Izhora plant.

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“The first 40-tons cask was made with special care to secure that it passes all the safety tests and gets licensed,” says Aleksandr Dmitriev, Deputy Chairman of GAN. Once this became clear for GAN, it decided to withhold from the participation in the project.

“We doubt that the casks under serial production can pass the same tests as the prototype. This means they do not meet the safety requirements needed to be approved before being taken into use,” Dmitriev says.

The test included exposure to fire, drop-tests, exposure to water etc. in order to make sure that the highly radioactive spent fuel inside the six canisters in the cask would remain intact whatever happens.

The lack of a GAN’s representative signature during the testing is a clear violation of the requirements drawn in the Russian normative safety documents and will, according to the law, mean that the casks are not certified and their use is illegal. The same regulations must be applied even if the casks will be transferred to the military domain.

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GAN has been struggling for years with the Defence Ministry to get access and carry out control over naval nuclear sites, such as the nuclear waste sites at the bases of the Northern Fleet and shipyards at the Kola Peninsula. According to Dmitriev, Minatom is also trying to strip Gosatomnadzor of influence on the matters related to regulating nuclear safety both at their own enterprises and sites subjected to the Defence Ministry.

Taking decision to ignore the tests of the prototype cask, GAN said it could not be a part of the process that disregards safety regulations, thus making the agency responsible should anything happen when the casks are taken in use.

In late March, AMEC had a meeting in Moscow where this situation was the very subject for discussion. Sources within the U.S. AMEC delegation say they invited GAN to take part in the meeting, but it seemed like representatives of the Russian Defence Ministry and Minatom gave another message to the agency that said the American invitation was not to be considered as valid. The Moscow meeting went on without civilian nuclear regulatory present. Instead, Dmitriev participated at a NGO conference on nuclear safety arranged by Social Ecological Union in Moscow, where he expressed his concern.

“We had a AMEC meeting in Moscow on certification of our cask where we where told that the Defence Ministry’s nuclear regulatory authorities and Ministry of Health would certify our cask,” says Captain Dieter Rudolph, AMEC program manager. “The question of the civilian nuclear regulatory jurisdiction came up and we plan to resolve it by letting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs adjudicate between the various agencies and provide us with the official Russian Government position,” Captain Rudolph added.

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During the coming year the Izhora plant will produce one hundred 40-tons casks, the first 12 are to be paid by the Americans from the budget of the Co-operative Treat Reduction program (CTR). These casks will, according to the plans, hold spent nuclear fuel from strategical submarines under decommissioning at the naval yards in Severodvinsk and at the Nerpa shipyard at the Kola Peninsula. Each cask has a price tag of $150.000 and a lifetime of 50 years.

The idea is to create a cask suitable for both local storage and transportation of the spent fuel to the Mayak reprocessing plant in the South Ural. The 40-ton cask will accommodate both damaged and normal fuel, and is patterned on the old Russian TUK-18 cask so that it will fit the Northern Fleets existing support and transportation infrastructure.

Provided GAN is right in its claim that only the prototype cask meets the required safety standards, the U.S. CTR program can be forced to cancel its order of these casks. The cask contracts have been separated into small batches, so should the Izhora plant fail to live up to the safety standards manufacturing the first batch, it would diminish likelihood that the plant receives any future contracts. On the other side, Minatom says it also will pay for the 40-ton casks, seemingly ignoring the objections filed by GAN.

The safety issue of the casks for spent nuclear fuel may end up to be an illustration of the on-going fight between civilian and military regulatory authorities inside Russia. In addition, it clearly shows the core of the long-time discussed nuclear liability issue between Western companies and governments on the one side and Russian authorities on the other. Western companies want to have the liability issue sorted out, in order not to be made economically responsible for any damage caused by a nuclear accident involving any equipment either produced or financed by them.

“Whether or not the allegation of quality problems with the spent fuel casks are true, this situation illustrates why nuclear liability issue is such an important question to the West,” says Steven Sawhill, researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo. Sawhill has followed the AMEC program closely for years.