Explosion at Sosnovy Bor’s Ekomet-S plant

Foto: Bellona

Publish date: December 16, 2005

Written by: Vera Ponomareva, Charles Digges, Rashid Alimov

ST. PETERSBURG―Three people were taken to intensive care―one of whom died from his injuries―after 95 percent of their bodies were burned during a smelting kiln explosion at the Ekoment-S company on the territory of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in Sosnovy Bor, 70 kilometres west of St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG―Three people were taken to intensive care―one of whom died from his injuries―after 95 percent of their bodies were burned during a smelting kiln explosion at the Ekoment-S company on the territory of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in Sosnovy Bor, 70 kilometers west of St. Petersburg.

The victims were 22-year-old Maksim Kuzmin, 32-year-old Vitaly Ognyov and 33-year old Vitaly Lambozo. Though reports yesterday from the city of Sosnovy Bor indicated that one of the men had died in hospital, it was not clear from Russian news outlets this morning if anyone had perished in the explosion. It was still not apparent Friday morning which of the workers had died and authorities refused to release his name.

Two separate Russian news services, however, indicated that one 32-year old was killed in the explosion. This was the Regnum news Agency. reported that a 33-year old died. So the perished worker is a toss up between Ognyov or Lambozo.

Yesterday’’s explosion represents the second of three accidents the plant has had in three years. In 2002, boiling metal that was being smelted spilled and severely burned two workers.

Ecologists have demanded for many years that the Ekomet-S plant, which smelts low level radioactive metals into metal suitable for household products, be shut down. They have also said, and the plant has acknowledged, that it has been working without the necessary state environmental impact studies required by Russian law.

The plant was, however, operating with the blessing of Russian state nuclear regulatory officials. The regulatory license would have stipulated that Ekomet-S had emergency plans, guidelines about how high their emissions into the atmosphere could be and other rules for extreme situations. But documents discovered by Greenpeace and Bellona indicated that no such emergency plans existed.

A violation in the technical process guiding the operation of equipment was the apparent cause of the explosion, which occurred at 3:20 p.m. on Thursday. According to Sosnovy Bor’’s chief ecologist, Nataly Malevannaya, the error occurred while metal was being prepared for smelting: before metal is loaded into the oven, it is cut up so that no air cavities remain, which, during heating, could explode.

Because of this error, said Malevannaya, hot metal burst through an observation window on the kiln, burning the workers, whose conditions are still unknown.

Yet, officials were in high gear Friday of denying the accident took place at all.

During a UN conference in Geneva entitled “Energy for stable development—Achievements, Tendencies Problems,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Stanislav Pokorvky declared that the accident at Ekomet-S had never occurred.

““We don’t need to believe rumours spread by irresponsible non-government organisations,”” he said during the plenary session of the forum.

According to the Leningrad NPP, the radiation level at Ekomet-S and within the city itself has remained steady at the normal level of 16 microroentgens an hour.

However, rumours of radiation danger have already crept into the city. In all likelihood, this is false panic, Malevannaya indicated.

Comment from Ekomet-S on the explosion
Panic among Sosnovy Bor’’s population is also arising as a result of a complete lack of independent information about what happened.

“Unfortunately, there are no independent dosimeters on the territory of the plant,” Oleg Bodrov, chairman of the Sosnovy Bor-based environmental organisation Green World.
It was hoped that by yesterday evening, Green World would be able to take its own measurements.

Northwest Russia’’s Ministry of Emergency Affairs (MChS) spokesman, Alexander Chuprin told reporters that the emission of the metal was an error at the industry. But Dmitry Boitsov, a representative of Ekomet-S, contradicted this information Friday, saying: “The MChS just doesn’’t understand the situation.”

He added that the reasons behind the incident will be revealed by an investigation that is not yet complete. Boitsov suggested, for instance, that the accident occurred due to lack of adequate supervision of personnel.

At the moment, all work at Ekomet-S has been halted and the prosecutors’’ office is carrying out an investigation on the reasons behind the incident.

Other incidents at Ekomet-S
“This is not the first incident to occur at the plant,” Malevannaya told Bellona Web. In 2002, boiling metal burst from the oven pavilion, severely burning two workers.

In 2003, another incident occurred as a result of defects in measuring equipment.

What the Ekomet-S plant does
Ekomet-S, which is located on the territory of the Leningrad NPP, has been engaged since 1994 in reworking low level radioactive metal taken from the Leningrad NPP. The metal components consist mostly of metals resulting from reactor repairs and other metals that have had low exposure to radiation. Ekomet-S produces some 5 tonnes of metal per year for sale on the open market.

Included in the complex for reprocessing and dismantling metallic radioactive waste (MRW) are the three fundamental sections: the section for receiving MRW, the sections were the metal fragments are deactivated, and the smelting and refining section.

In the documents submitted to the Sosnovy Bor administration, it was indicated that Ekomet-S is a complex “for reprocessing of MRW from the Leningrad NPP.” However, the factual designation of the complex turned out to be different―MRW from other parts of the country are already being taken here, and the plant is already earing money on reprocessing this metal and selling it as well.

Furthermore, as Ekomet-S representative Pyotr Cheremicin explained at an ecological seminar in Sosnovy Bor on November 18th, no one controls what kind of products will be produced from re-smelted metal in the future.


Ekomet-S built without necessary ecological impact documentation
The Ekomet-S plant was built in secret from the public and without a state ecological impact study, preliminary conclusions of which are required by the Russia law “On ecological impact studies” of 1995.

Beyond this, the mere fact that Ekomet-S was built on the territory of the Leningrad NPP should be considered a violation of Russian law.

The main contractor for Ekomet-S’s’ construction was Minatom (the predecessor organisation to Rosatom) and fuel monopolies that were counting on commercial reprocessing of MRW at other enterprises within Russia’’s nuclear fuel cycle in the future. Gazprom-bank, ties to Russia’s oil and natural gas monopoly Gazprom, invested $50m in Ekomet-S’’s construction.

On February 19th 2002 Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Valery Lebedev signed the act that brought Ekomet-S into operation, knowing fully that the governmental ecological impact study did not exist.

The management of Ekomet-S in a previous telephone interview with Bellona Web acknowledged the necessity of their firm receiving the governmental ecological impact study.

“”Our documents are all being worked on by our lawyers in order that by the end of 2003 we will obtain all the necessary conclusions,”” said then-director of Ekomet-S, Mikail Voronkov, in 2003. However, the documents have still not been received.

“”Apparently, working under the wing of the regimented and secretive control of the Leningrad NPP, the management of Ekomet-S considers fulfilling the demands of Russia legislation non-obligatory,”” said Dmitry Artamonov, Greenpeace’s leader in St. Petersburg.

Ecologists long have stood up for the closure of the dangerous and illegal Ekomet-S.

In May 2002, representatives of the municipal organisation City of Sosnovy Bor, and two residents of Sosnovy Bor  – Bodrov representing Green World and Bellona  – took the case to court with the demand that Ekomet-S be shut down. But on December 20th 2004, the court tossed the case out.

A year and a half ago, Greenpeace turned to the prosecutors’’ office of Sosnovy Bor with the demand that the illegal activities of Ekomet-S be stopped. However, the deputy of the city prosecutor, while acknowledging that a state ecological impact study had not been carried out, answered that “a foundation for the prosecutors’ reaction is not constituted.”

At that time, Ecologists’ worries about Ekomet-S seemed radical, but with the passage of time, it has become apparent that the closure of the facility is the only adequate measure.

Ponomareva reported from St. Petersburg, and Digges and Alimov reported from Oslo.