Freezing air, just a few degrees above zero and white caps on the hills – last night the first snow had fallen – this is the city of Murmansk, far north in Russia. In the city centre of Murmansk one of the biggest halls in the city is rebuilt to accommodate the state run press centre for the journalists who cover the Kursk lifting operation. The failure of the Russian authorities to handle the media last year, when Kursk had sunk, was a lesson learned. The lifting operation coverage is now under the responsibility of the presidential department of public relations.
Bellona’s Nils Bohmer, Aleksandr Nikitin and Andrey Zolotkov arrived in Murmansk earlier this week. On September 27th at 10:00 a.m. Bellona was to hold a press conference on the new report – The Arctic Nuclear Challenge. However, when Bellona, the day before the press conference, learned that the presidential public relation service was making incredible efforts to divert journalists from participating Bellona’s presentation, the press conference was considered postponed.
First a TV-link with the head in charge of the Kursk lifting operation, Mikhail Motsak, was announced to take place at the Kursk press centre at exactly the same time as Bellona was to hold the press conference. The TV-link was to be followed by a press conference with Murmansk environmental officials, and finally, later the same day, a Northern Fleet speedboat was to take journalists to the place of the Kursk accident.
The TV-link failed, though, and Bellona’s press conference was held as planned, with the conference hall packed with journalists.The Arctic Nuclear Challenge
The report The Arctic Nuclear Challenge is the third in the series of Bellona publications on radioactive waste management in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk counties. The second report The Russian Northern Fleet provoked a fierce reaction from the Russian Security Police, or FSB, charging Aleksandr Nikitin, one of the co-authors, with high treason and disclosure of state secrets.
Bellona won the case against the successor to KGB, but the entire process took a full five years, from 1995 to 2000. In 2000 Bellona was back on track, starting the work on the new report.
The intention of the new report is not only to describe the existence of the problem, but rather to provide analyses in search for solutions. Since 1996, after the Northern Fleet report was published, there was a great deal of attention, both on national and international level, focusing on retired nuclear powered submarines and other issues on management of radioactive waste in the region. Today the management responsibility of the naval radioactive waste has been gradually transferred to the semi-civil Ministry for Atomic Energy, Minatom. The aim was to relieve the Navy of this burden and channel the funds and co-ordination of nuclear safety issues through one federal agency – Minatom.
Although the transfer has not been completed exhaustively, there is a substantial progress. The number of submarines being defuelled and decommissioned has increased over the past two years. The funding comes mainly from international sources, directly or indirectly. In the light of the recent terror attacks on the USA, Minatom has already voiced its concern that the funds from the United States will cease to continue. Washington has been the main contributor to the submarine decommissioning programmes.
Regional storage vs. reprocessing
One of the key issues discussed in the new report is the necessity to build an interim storage for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste on the Kola Peninsula. Today spent nuclear fuel from nuclear submarines and nuclear powered icebreakers, is shipped to the Mayak plant in the southern Ural for reprocessing. Bellona is confident that this type of management will not solve the problem of spent fuel accumulating in the region.
113 nuclear submarines have been taken out of service from the Northern Fleet. This resulted in the fact that there are 248 reactor cores currently stored onboard laid-up nuclear submarines, in the storage tanks of poorly maintained nuclear service ships and in the run-down storage facilities. To ship all the fuel to the Mayak plant, with only two nuclear transport trains available in Russia, will take at least 25 years.
The Mayak plant itself has neither the storage capacity nor the reprocessing capacity for such amounts of spent fuel. Bellona estimates that as much as 50% of the spent nuclear fuel in the region cannot be reprocessed. This estimate includes damaged fuel, fuel with zirconium cladding and fuel from liquid metal cooled reactors.
The environmental situation around the Mayak plant is appalling. The years of nuclear weapon production and spent fuel reprocessing have given Mayak the fame of being the most radioactively contaminated place on earth.
In Bellona’s opinion, the spent fuel management in the region can be effectively solved by the construction of an interim buffer storage with a life span of at least 50 years.
International co-operation stumbled
Although there was a certain progress in the international effort to aid Russia in removing her cold-war radioactive traces, there are still issues pending a solution. One of these is the nuclear liability insurance, which is one of the key problems within the multilateral relationship. So far each of the countries, wanting to partake in the nuclear waste management programmes in Russia, have had to sign an intergovernmental agreement. This is rather time consuming and requires a lot of effort. A couple of years ago Norway started an initiative called Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programmes in Russia (MNEPR). The intention was to create a standard agreement that would resolve all the juridical issues, including the nuclear liability insurance.
Bellona believes that the signing of MNEPR will remove the legal roadblocks. But how to remove the relational roadblocks between Russia and Western partners and how to come to a common agreement concerning what needs to be done – are also big issues. Minatom is sticking to its co-operative interests in all projects. And such co-operative interests of the ministry are rarely environmentally friendly.
It is clearly stated in the report that the sources of the currently low radioactivity in the Arctic seas is nuclear testing, the Chernobyl accident and the operations at Sellafield reprocessing plant in the United Kingdom, whereas the latter is the main contaminator. The Northern Fleet, nuclear icebreakers fleet and Kola nuclear power plant are generating waste which is very poorly managed, and consequently represent potential risks. To stop the risks developing into actual contamination, the right actions must be taken today.
Kursk eats up submarine decommissioning budget
Bellona has said before that even the worst-case scenario during the lifting of the Kursk submarine will not lead to an environmental disaster. The critical stage of the operation will be when the submarine is being set into the dry dock at Roslyakovo shipyard, five kilometres from Murmansk, and the eventual unloading of 22 cruise missiles from the submarine. All data gathered so far, points to the fact that the two reactors onboard Kursk are shut down and were not severely damaged by the explosions in the submarine’s torpedo section. The condition of these two reactors will however not be finally confirmed until the submarine is placed in the dry dock.
The Kursk lifting operation cannot be considered an environmental endeavour. The most likely reason to lift the Kursk at whatever costs, is the promise of the Russian president last year to do so. But the price tag to fulfil the promise is now approaching $130 million. In 2000, the full budget for decommissioning nuclear powered submarines, provided by the Russian government, amounted to $40 million, and this year it was expected to increase with $80 million. But Minatom officials have already expressed their fear of having to fund the Kursk decommissioning from their budget. The kursk decommissioning may cost as much as $60 million.
From the environmental point of view, Bellona believes that retired nuclear powered submarines and run down nuclear storage sites in the possession of the Northern Fleet, pose a far greater risks than Kursk at the bottom of the Barents Sea. Thus, funding for those issues should have been prioritised.