Sawdust at the the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant

Publish date: February 20, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG—Workers at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, or LNPP, located 80 kilometers west of St. Petersburg, have told Bellona that the plant’s turbine condensers—a key component in cooling the steam produced in the turbines of the plant’s aging Chernobyl-type RBMK-1000 reactors—are in an ever-worsening and dangerous state of repair.

A condenser consists of pipes via which cold sea water is transported. The LNPP itself is located some 70 meters from the shore of the Gulf of Finland, and thus the banks of the Baltic Sea. At the LNPP, the majority of condenser pipes are defective and have hairline cracks in them, two workers familiar with their condition said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“Seawater passes through leaky pipes into the cooling water of the reactor and this causes corrosion of the reactor’s channels. A corrosive process could lead to depressurization of the nuclear fuel.

The condensers do not, in fact, work—they can’t cool the system,” one LNPP worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Bellona Web.

“In order to fix the defective pipes, you have to lower the power of the reactor to about 100 to 200 Megawatts of the 1000 it usually puts out,” said another LNPP worker speaking to Bellona Web on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the plant administration.

“But this means a huge loss of electricity production. Aside from that, fluctuations in power impact negatively on the functioning of the equipment.”

“The fact that they clogged upsuch a quantity of pipes is the result of the ‘devil-may-care’ attitude of the workers. What happens is that incrustation and jelly builds up inside the pipes. The pipes, already defective, corroded and cracked, are cleaned, usually with simple pressurized water. Recently, someone told the cleaning team to use fittings like brushes. But the wrong size was chosen and scrubbed off a large layer of metal. Then three shifts of workers clotted up the defective pipes.”

Lowering the power output of the reactors happens often because of the worn out condensers. For example, on February 3rd 2004 reactor bloc No. 4 lowered its energy output to 100 Megawatts for condenser pipe repairs. The next day, the power output was restored. But on February 6th, the reactor’s power output was again lowered to repair the same condenser. This information was officially confirmed to Bellona Web by LNPP public relations officials.


“In order that the reactors’ power levels not be reduced and money on energy production be lost, LNPP personnel contrived not to stop up the condenser pipes,” said the second source. “To accomplish this, they spread sawdust in the seawater in the primary pump chamber, which funnels the water into the condensers. The sawdust then fills the hairline cracks in the condenser pipes.”

But the second source added that the sawdust is often dirty and filled with sand. “Sometimes wood chips in the sawdust simply clog the pipes,” he said. “When they clean out the pipes, the sawdust, which has been in contact with radioactive steam, is thrown into the Gulf of Finland where it simply rots.”

This “technology,” added the second source “is absent in the plant’s operational rules and instructions, that is, it is in essence illegal.”

Data show that the use of sawdust was prescribed by decree no. 14 on July 5th 2002 and signed by of the head of the turbine workshop. The decree is entitled “On the Organization of Work and Safety Measures During Activities for Lowering of Chlorine Levels in Condensers.”

According to the second anonymous source from the LNPP, “they have been using sawdust for 20 years already.”

“The sawdust is spread in conjunction with how much chlorine is discovered in the cooling water. In the second bloc the levels are higher.”

Both LNPP sources said that the two reactors of the first reactor bloc are using on average 300 to 500 kilograms of sawdust a month. At the second reactor bloc they are using up to 500 kilograms per eight hour working shift.

“It’s possible that there exists such an exotic and easy means,” the LNPP’s chief public relations official, Seregi Averyanov, told Bellona Web in a telephone interview about the use of the sawdust. He said that “the problem here is the impact of the water from the Gulf of Finland on the condensers, and not the impact of the reactor bloc on the Gulf of Finland.”

He added that, because the pipes are laid in a vacuum, it is possible that corrosive sea water, and even sawdust, can fall through the hairline cracks into the reactor circuit and radioactive steam coming from the turbine, but not visa-versa. Averyanov said that similar problems are found at common thermo-electric plants.

“Sometime, because a pipe simply breaks, sawdust falls into the reactor circuit,” said the second LNPP source.

If the sawdust with sand gets into the reactor circuit, it is even worse—at this point, we are talking about something dangerous, about damage to the equipment.”


Rot in the Gulf of Finland
“That part of the sawdust which hasn’t plugged up the holes gets sucked back by sea water into the Gulf of Finland,” the LNPP sources said.

“Aside from that, any sawdust coming into contact with radioactive steam during the operation of the condenser stays in the cracks. When the condenser is shut down, the sawdust can fall into the gulf,” the second LNPP source said. “It’s not a large amount, but the problem is that no one can really say how much it is.” He emphasized that a significant amount of corrupted sawdust had built up in the gulf over the years.

“In my opinion, there are so many reeds and various splinters in the Gulf of Finland, and the sawdust is unable to not affect it,” said the first LNPP source, and agreed that the sawdust can influence the purity of the color of the water in the gulf. He said that the biggest problem was worn out piping, not the technology to which they race in order to avoid reducing the power output of the reactor.

But Kharitonov says the problem is serious.

“This is adding a new kind of pollution of the ecosystem to thermal pollution,” he said.

The second LNPP source stressed that the use of sawdust “is some kind of primitive Russian folk method whose use at a nuclear power plant is absurd.”

Kharitonov added that the Finnish nuclear regulatory body STUK, which regularly inspects the LNPP and always issues it a clean bill of safety, knows about the use of “this old Slavic know-how” at the plant.

“At the end of the 90s, STUK tried to help the LNPP solve the problem with the condensers, but the problem remains,” Kharitonov said.

The Bellona Report
Kharitonov authored Bellona’s extensive report on the LNPP’s defects and violations. The report was released on January 21—to general public shock—and later that month Kharitonov — invited by the head of the environmental commettee of the Finnish parliament Satu Hassi — presented it to the Finnish parliamentarians and journalists.

Bellona Web has earlier written about STUK’s reaction to Kharitonov’s report and published documents contradicting STUK’s protestations.

In a recent issue of Nucleonics Week (5/2004), STUK Director Jukka Laaksonen told reporter Ariane Sains that “Kharitonov has personal problems. Any organization with 3,000 people has some people like this, who are not satisfied with their work The storage unit is as safe, as any spent fuel storage at any western plant. It doesn’t look so nice from the outside, but it does its job.”

Indeed, STUK has annually contributed EUR 7m since 1992 for safety improvements at the LNPP, Laaksonen said in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times. Likewise, TACIS has contributed more that EUR 20m for safety improvements at the plant since 1994, according to the European Commision.

But Laaksonen accused Bellona of spreading rumors about radioactive leaks at the LNPP in 1996 that were reaching the Gulf of Finland and that this scared a number of people. In fact, it was St. Petersburg’s English-language St. Petersburg Times, among others, that documented the leaks—which were not “rumors” at all—in a series of investigative articles in which Kharitonov, prior to taking a job with Bellona, was a chief source.

Bellona, for its part, was entirely engaged in 1996 in the defence of Alexander Nikitin, who was imprisoned by Russia’s secret services for allegedly divulging state secrets in a report about nuclear contamination in Russia’s Northern Nuclear Fleet. The organization was therefore far too busy to spread any so-called rumors—which, in any case, were established fact—about the LNPP at that time. Nikitin was eventually fully acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court in January 2000 and is now Chairman of the Environmental and Human Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg.

At STUK, Laaksonen said that subsequent inspections by Finnish companies using equipment not available in Russia showed 15 leak points and six possible points in the storage pools, but that all were plain water containing no radioactivity.”

An official act in Bellona Web’s possession, however, shows that the water was contaminated with the radioactive isotope caesium-137. This act was signed in March of 1996 by the LNPP’s then-chief engineer and current director Valery Lebedev.

“Measurements were not taken for other elements aside from caesium-137. The water from the spent nuclear fuel or SNF pond may contain plutonium and other radioactive elements,” Kharitonov said.

In October of 1996, STUK jointly signed a document with the LNPP and the Russian nuclear regulatory agency, Gosatomnazor, or GAN, which stated that “the technical condition of the SNF storage facility, and the level of its operation in general, maintain safety during the storage of spent nuclear fuel.”

Meanwhile, the volume of leaks from the SNF storage facility during the period from February to August 1996 rose from 12 to 144 litres a day—and by February of 1997 had reached 360 litres a day.

Reaction from the European Commission
Finland’s Members of European Parliament, or MEP, Matti Vuori and Uma Aaltonen sent an official inquiry to the European Commission after the publication of Kharitonov’s report and presentation before Finnish Parliament. Their inquiry asked, in part: “Does the European Commission plan to hold negotiations with Russia over the shut-down of this dangerous nuclear power plant? What has the Commission done to minimize the risk? Has safety of the LNPP been discussed with Russia in the framework of the energy dialogue between the EC and Russia?”

Thursday, Bellona received the answer from the EC to Aaltonen’s inquiry (see companion publication to this article).

In its answer, the EC underscores its position: Dangerous first generation reactor blocs must be shut down. This especially concerns those reactor blocs that have reached its engineered service allotment of 30 years of use—the exact age the LNPP’s first reactor bloc attained in December, 2003.

At present, the birthday-bloc is under repair. LNPP management plans to complete repairs and modernization by summer and then receive a license from GAN granting the reactor an extended operational period. Presumably, after recent management reshuffles at GAN—which have placed former Minatom brass in regulatory positions—the LNPP will have little trouble obtaining the license.

The hunt for whistle-blowers
According to a recent publication by the LNPP’s press service, published February 6th in the Vestnik LAES newspaper, the plant’s management is troubled “by the intensifying activities of various ‘greens’ directed against the operational extension of the first energy bloc.”

The LNPP said that it has begun observation of personnel in its units, and that management insists that personnel not distribute information to outsiders about life within the confines of the plant. Plant administration, the LNPP statment indicates, plans to carry out internal investigations and root out informers.

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