Leningrad NPP provokes criticism in Finland

Publish date: June 7, 2006

Written by: Rashid Alimov

ST. PETERSBURG―Heikki Reponen, an expert with STUK, Finland’s official Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, has called the reactors at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant unsafe for use in an interview with Bellona Web, while Finnish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Satu Hassi has called for closing the plant, which lies in Russia only 150 kilometres off Finland’s southern shores and some 70 kilometres west of St. Petersburg.

The current position of Reponen is especially interesting, as for the past decade he has insisted after several co-operative Finnish-Russian technical inspections that the LNPP is in fine working order and meets the safety class of western nuclear power plants. His turnabout, therefore, is both of technical and political significance.

The LNPP consists of four fatally flawed Chernobyl-type RBMK-1000 graphite moderated reactors. Each has an engineered lifespan of 30 years, but reactor bloc No. 1 was recently granted a 15-year extension on that life-span by Russian nuclear regulators, and block No. 2 is expected to be extended shortly.

“If we were trying to use such a reactor in Finland it would not be possible. It does not meet Finnish requirements as it has no containment,” Reponen, told Bellona Web, and who is the head of STUK’s Support to Eastern Europe Unit.

A containment buildingis a steel or concrete structure enclosing a nuclear reactor. It is designed to contain the escape of radiation in any emergency. In the Soviet Union it was normal practice not to build containment buildings. This, along with the unstable nature of RBMK reactors, led to the catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986.
The cooperation between STUK and Leningrad NPP, funded by Finnish government, has been in effect since 1992. It includes in-depth safety assessments, professional training, fire safety and physical protection improvements that the group recommends for the LNPP. STUK also supplies equipment for the LNPP and performs renovation works for the first and the second reactor blocs.

“The LNPP is the biggest recipient of the Finnish support programme for nuclear safety―we have EUR2 million for this programme and one third of it is for Leningrad nuclear plant,” said Reponen.

Yet STUK’s evaluations of the LNPP are invariably positive, largely because the LNPP provides a large percentage of southern Finland;s electricity via units sold from grids near St. Petersburg. The yearly evaluations by STUK of the LNPP are therefore based, according to critics, on so-called “Potemkin Village” tours for the plant―where STUK expers are shown only highlights and not the low lights―which, have in the past, guaranteed the approval of STUK, bufferomg the critisisms of other western entities that demand the plant be shut down.

The engineered life-span of the No.1 and 2 blocs expired in 2003 and 2005, but they were prolonged by the decision of the Russian State nuclear plant building monopoly Rosenergoatom, because of its state ownership, and its control by the government’s agency on nuclear energy, Rosatom. According to Rosatom plans, the units will operate that extra 15 years―something which has generated worldwide environmental concern.

According to Reponen, the renovation measures that have been taken before granting the license for the engineered life-span extensions of the LNPP’s No. 1 reactor “are really extensive.”

According to Rosenergoatom, some 70 percent of spending on modernisations for extending the reactor’s life-span were spent on bringing the reactor into line with current Russian safety norms and rules. Before the modernisation the reactors did not comply with these standards.

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The public in Finland stands for closing the LNPP and criticises the Finnish government for being reluctant about this question

“The European Commission (EC) has several times expressed that, for safety reasons, this power station should be closed. I very much agree with the European Commission,” MEP and former Finnish Minister of the Environment Hassi told Bellona Web.

“I think and I have proposed that Finland and Estonia, who are in biggest danger among the EU countries, should be active together with the EC to demand Russia’s closing of Sosnovy Bor the LNPP and to find ways to solve this energy gap,” said Hassi.

Hassi also said that is necessary to improve energy efficiency in the Northwest Russia because the potential for this “is really huge”.

Hassi claimed that no renovations and safety improvements can eliminate the design flaws of RBMK reactors in Sosnovy Bor: “At the Chernobyl +20 seminar we heard Professor Ian Fairlie, who has studied health consequences of Chernobyl to the Europeans and the world population, and he said that the main reason for the problems at the LNPP was the fact there was graphite in the reactor,” said Hassi.

“And the fire was extinguished only when the graphite ended―there was no more graphite in the reactor to be burned. And the same graphite is in Sosnovy Bor the LNPP. So the basic design of the Sosnovy Bor reactor is very dangerous, one of the most dangerous in the world”.

Spent fuel storage
In spite of the life-span extensions of the reactors, the problems with the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) management at LAES remain unsolved. The reprocessing of RBMK-1000 spent fuel was found to be unprofitable: The spent fuel rods―which contain plutonium―had been stored in the temporary storage facility at the LNPP since the plant came into operation.

Currently, entire spent fuel assemblies are held in leaky wet storage tanks in special sheaths that are submersed in water.

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“If something happens in the reactors it has long-lasting effects, but if some leakage happens with SNF, it would have just local effects,” said Reponen.

In 1996 Reponen, along with Russia’s then-nuclear oversight agency Gosatomnazor, and the administration of the LNPP, signed the minutes of a meeting which stated that “the technical condition of the storage facility and level of its use as a whole maintain safety during the storage of spent nuclear fuel.” This statement caused criticism among environmentalists as it was not based on any special environmental impact studies. In March of 1997, four months after the signing of the minutes, STUK faced the music of the falsely optimistic minutes, participating in eliminating leaks in the trenches of the cooling pools of the SNF storage building. In all 21 leaks were discovered of which only a fraction could be eradicated.

Rose coloured glasses
According to environmentalists, STUK constantly underestimates the threat of the wet storage facility at the LNPP, which contains 4000 tonnes of SNF in its pool, and stands a mere 90 metres from the Gulf of Finland.

The facility has been filled above capacity since 1995. In 1996 a decision was taken to condense the space taken up by the fuel rods in the overloaded facility by developing special suspension brackets that hold two fuel assemblies instead of one. This was a technological breach of as yet untold proportions.

“This condensed storage method can lead to an uncontrolled chain reaction which is followed by radioactive discharge,” said Alexander Nikitin, the head of Bellona St. Petersburg.

Such scenario should not be excluded, says Oleg Bodrov, the chairman of the “Green world” NGO in Sosnovy Bor. “The environmental assessment of the condensed storage method was not held and thus there is a potential environmental hazard.”

According to Bodrov, the possibility of radioactive leaks into the Finnish Gulf must be also taken into account. Such incidents had occurred in 1982 at the wet SNF storage in the Andreeva Bay. Huge amounts of radioactive water (up to 30 tonnes a day) made its way into the Barents Sea through the stream near the storage.

“If radionuclides get into the water it would be impossible to contain the consequences. The fish would eat radioactive plankton and transfer the contamination, and then everything depends on luck. If Reponen buys a fish it can turn out to be radioactive, said Nikitin.

According to experience, radionuclides can migrate long distances. For instance, radioactive discharges from reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Great Britain, are now traced in the Northern part if the Irish sea and in the Barents Sea up to the Norwegin island of Spitsbergen.

New dry spent fuel storage
As the old wet SNF facility is filled up, a new premise for a dry storage has been built close to this building. According to the plans, 24,000 spent uranium and plutonium rods, which are from 15 to 27-years-old, will be removed from the waste storage pools, sawed into pieces and then placed into the new dry storage. The rods themselves, several of which have been submerged in coolant for decades, are also severely corroded.

The environmental impact assessment of the project has not been carried out. “We started to construct these buildings before the law on environmental assessments was passed,” said the deputy chief engineer of the LNPP Alexander Epikhin to Bellona Web.

Yet, according to Bodrov, the document on funding the project was signed by the Federal energy commission only two years ago.

“Residents of Sosnovy Bor noticed the construction earlier, in 2002,” said Bodrov.

Claiming that the construction started before the law on environmental assessment came into power, nuclear authorities decided to hold the assessment post factum in March 2006 for some reason, though such cases are not covered by the law.

According to Russian law, environmental impact assessments are applied to some planned activity. Thus, in case a given project is already implemented there is no means to legalize it.

The public hearings on the new SNF storage facility were held in Sosnovy Bor on March 29. “It is forbidden to start the construction without environmental assessment. We are going to make a complaint to the prosecutor’s office in order to find these hearings invalid.” said Igor Babanin, Greenpeace St.-Petersburg.

At the hearings, the LNPP and federal officials praised the new storage facility, claiming it would be an interim facility until another storage facility is built in Krasnoyarsk. The environmentalists position was deemed by the chief engineer of the LNPP Oleg Chernikov as “right in form, but a mockery in the essence”.

“The main problem is that Russia has not ratified United Nations Espoo convention on trans-border environmental impact assessment of projects,” said Hassi.

The Espoo (EIA) Convention entered into force in 1997. It lays down the general obligation of States to notify and consult each other on all major projects under consideration that are likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact across borders.

“This Espoo convention is enforced, all EU countries including Finland have ratified it, and using this convention Russia demanded from Finland to present an international environmental impact assessment of several projects which have been planned on the Finnish side of the border. But Russia has refused to perform similar assessments, for example, for new oil harbors in the Russian coasts. I think this should be done also on this new nuclear fuel storage facility, because it is evident that it might have consequences over border.”

Another LNPP and power to Finland

Meanwhile, Rosatom is planning to build another nuclear power plant on the grounds of LNPP. Under this scheme, four new VVER-1000 units will gradually replace the old reactors of the current LNPP. The construction of new blocks for LNPP-2 is planned to start in 2007.

“We do not sell energy to Finland and will not do it in future,” claimed recently Rosatom’s head Sergei Kirienko, while being in Sosnovy Bor.

Yet in March, the Finnish company United Power―which a stakeholder in Rosengergoatom and has offered to set up an undersea cable to deliver electric power from Sosnovy Bor to Kotka, Finland. The capacity of the cable would be 1000 MWt―equal to the productivity of one LNPP reactor. According to United Power estimations, the project will cost EUR250m to 350m.

But Fingrid, the company that runs the Finnish national electricity grid, has advised the Finnish Ministry of Trade and Industry to reject United Power’s permit application. During his press-conference on April,10th, Fingrid executive Director Timo Toivonen claimed that the cost of the project is much more than EUR300m, as the project in fact stipulates modernization of the regional grid in the southeast of Finland that operates at maximum capacity, and could not handle the additional power that would cost another 1,7 bln euro.

“We are kind of between the wall and the wallpaper nowadays”, Benny Hasenson, senior adviser of confederation of Finnish Industries, told Bellona Web

“I am saying that it the cable costs very much and I am not sure that the Russians will not say it is cold winter and hold energy for themselves that had happened may be last winter. So there is that risk and… I mean otherwise we will have to build new nuclear power plant and such things.”

Finnish law stipulates that for construction of any nuclear reactor, a parliamentarian approval is needed.

“I have been very shocked by the fact that Finnish company United Power is planning electricity transmission cable directly from Sosnovy Bor to Finland. And I think this is really irresponsible, and this company does not even try to hide that this cable would mean directly buying electricity from Sosnovy Bor de facto supporting prolonged operation of the LNPP” said Hassi.