Novaya Zemlya repository plan scrapped

Publish date: November 29, 2002

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russia abandons the project to build a radwaste repository at Novaya Zemlya. This fact suggests that Russia is considering the resumption of nuclear testing at the archipelago in line with recent US plans.

Aleksandr Rumyantsev, Russia’s minister for nuclear energy, said Friday that it is inexpedient to build a repository for low and medium radioactive waste at the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Russian Arctic.

The minister said that “in one hundred years there will be a swamp instead of permafrost [at Novaya Zemlya] and the earth temperature will rise five degrees” as scientists predict. Mr Rumayntsev also said that construction of a repository is not economically viable, as the project’s price tag will exceed $700m.

Instead, the minister said that the Kola Peninsula in north-west Russia is a better place since there are many granite and rock beds more suitable for creating the repository.

In addition, the minister suspected that once a repository is opened at Novaya Zemlya there would be crowds of international experts interested to visit it. “In reality their interest will focus on the nuclear testing site [at Novaya Zemlya],” Mr Rumayntsev claimed.

Novaya Zemlya hosts Russia’s only nuclear test site. From 1957 to 1962, 79 atmospheric nuclear explosions were conducted at Novaya Zemlya, including the most powerful in Russia’s history — a 58-mega tonne yield — conducted in 1961. The last underground nuclear testing was performed in 1990. Since then, only sub-critical tests have been conducted at Novaya Zemlya. The tests are carried out to ensure the reliability of old nuclear warheads and for developing new nuclear devices. Various physical-modelling experiments follow the sub-critical tests.

Since 1990 Russia’s Ministry of Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, has been working on repository research for Novaya Zemlya. A 2001 report of more than 200 pages by nuclear experts from Norway, the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Great Britain declared Novaya Zemlya ecologically sound for the storage and burial of low and medium level waste, even in the presence of the sub-critical nuclear explosions.

But having spent so much time and effort, Minatom has finally declared the Novaya Zemlya repository inexpedient.

For many years, Bellona has been advocating the need to have several prospect repository locations studied, but Minatom stubbornly predisposed towards Novaya Zemlya. As it stands today, many years of research and additional resources will be needed to come up with a project for the Kola Peninsula.

The whole situation may also frustrate western donors, who have contributed resources into studying the Novaya Zemlya option and now all their efforts are declared good for nothing.

The arguments that Mr Rumyantsev has presented against Novaya Zemlya are so obvious that one may wonder why those arguments have not been considered before. It may be that Russia, looking to the USA where the resumption of nuclear testing is on the agenda, has decided to reserve Novaya Zemlya for the same purposes. The November 2002 Defense Authorisation Bill made explicit the requirement that the US increase its testing readiness. The time frames, given for the resumption of nuclear tests, range from 6 months to 24 months.

In the meantime, tonnes of solid radioactive waste accumulated in northwest Russia will continue to rest in dilapidated storage facilities waiting for better co-ordination in radioactive waste management projects from Minatom — the ministry which is directly responsible for that.

Novaya Zemlya is the northern extension of the Ural Mountains, which divide the European and Asian continents. Novaya Zemlya consists of two islands divided by the Matochkin Strait. The two islands are 900 kilometres long in and cover approximately 82,179 square kilometres. There are a number of other small islands covering a surface of approximately 1,000 square kilometres. Most of the northern — and parts of the southern island — is covered by glaciers. The permafrost extends 300 to 600 metres into the ground. The rock of Novaya Zemlya is brittle and has deep crevices. The highest mountain of Novaya Zemlya is 1,547 metres above sea level. The closest area of settlement with any significance on the mainland is the town of Amderma, 280 kilometres east.