Bellona hosts wide-ranging discussion on nuclear dangers in Russia’s Northwest

Publish date: December 2, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

As Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation beings to apply a stranglehold on information about the country’s nuclear energy programmes, the public is less and less likely to find out about how the Kola Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) is operating at 104 percent capacity on reactors that have outlived their perspective life-spans.

The are also less likely to know that it was advised by nuclear inspectors that these reactors never surpass 70 percent capacity, and that the current capacity they are running at could lead to Chernobyl – take two.

Further kept in the dark is the fact that the Kola Peninsula, home to Murmansk, has an energy surplus making it entirely unnecessary to run the Kola NPP’s second generation reactors – which have received 10 year engineering life span expansions – at such a volume, making the risks of a radiological catastrophe entirely avoidable.

The public of Northwest Russia is also lacking in the knowledge that there have been 53 radiologically hazardous incidents aboard nuclear powered surface ships since 2002 – though probably more as the government stopped access this kind of information.

And more generally, the public of Russia as a whole is most likely in the dark about the 15,000 plus tons of spent nuclear fuel that has filled Russia storage capacity to a seam-bursting 90-97 percent.

Such were just a fraction of some of the facts that were revealed at a seminar Bellona held yesterday in Oslo on radioactive and nuclear problems in Russia’s northwest.

This discouraging information was brought to light by a Bellona panel of Alexander Nikitin, chairman of Russia’s St. Petersburg offices, energy author and Bellona contributor Vladislav Larin, and Professor Vladimir Kuznetsov, a senior researcher at the Vavilov Institute of the History of Natural Sciences and Technology. He is also a former Russian nuclear regulatory inspector and member of Rosatom’s Public Council.

The were joined by Johnny Almsted of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and Ingar Amundsen of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority who participated in the debate portion of the seminar.

The fact that Bellona bore out point to a bleak picture for the future of Russian nuclear power and safety. Russia has no money of its own to either dismantle old plants or decommission other radiological hazards and leans heavily on Norway, Nikitin and Prof. Kuznetsov indicated.

Rosatom is meanwhile hell-bent on building two new nuclear power plants: The Baltic NPP, which exists now only in blueprints, and the Leningrad NPP 2, which is currently under construction near its older brother, the Leningrad NPP, 80 kilometres outside St. Petersburg.

Rosatom also has meanwhile evidently put several tens of millons of dollars into nuclear clean up under a Federal Target Programme – or extra budgetary expenditure – to grapople with its waste. But the programme is shrouded in secrecy, said Larin, and Rosatom officials have grown more and more opaque about where and why– and how much – of this money will continue to flow from Federal coffers.

The Federal Target programme
Larin has written a report on the Russian Federal Target Program 2008-2015, for which the costs are enormous – $60 billion over the state budget. But it is difficult to find out any information about the public project. Even the budget is secret. A new curtain has been erected around Rosatom over the past five years.

“Even if matters concern a public programme funded by the state, one is treated like a foreign spy if one begins to ask questions.  The enormous secrecy makes one think they are trying to hide something,” he told the seminar.

He continued that, “There does not exist either any implemented budget control or auditing reports for the programme, and what reports do exist are not verifiable,” he said.

“For example, no names for any reports that are undertaken are supplied and the say only this and that amount of money has been spent on, say, rehabilitation of contaminated land. But where? How?”
Nuclear power use in Russia
Prof. Kuznetsov spoke of the problems surrounding the use of both civilian and military nuclear power in Russia. Russia currently uses 10 civilian nuclear power plants, and a total of 31 reactors that produce 23,242 Megawatts of evergy, representing some 16 percent of the country’s electrical production.

Russia’s first nuclear power plant, the Kalinin NPP, was completed in June 1954. Russia is host to three generations of nuclear power stations – and 29 of the 31 reactors in the country are first or second generation. Kuznetsov pointed out that there are no principle safety difference between first and second generation reactors. Some 15,000 inhabited areas are located within the safety zones of these reactors, meaning they are especially susceptible in the event of an accident.

In 1989, Kuznetsov said he participated in an inspection of the KolaNP. The inspection concluded that the nuclear reactors should never run over 70 percent of thier generating capacity.  Instead, however, the plant’s two oldest reactors have been granted engineered lifespan extensions, and the plant experiments with the capacity of the reactors.

The aged reactors now run at 104 percent capacity.

” It was this kind of experimentation that led to the Chenobyl catastrophe,” said Kuznetsov Further, there is no need for the power that they produce as the Kola region boast an energy surplus. Kuznetsov recommended that these reactors cease operation and be decommissioned from of energy production.

Spent nuclear fuel
In 2005, there were some 14,500 tons of SNF stored onsite at Russia nuclear power or radiochemical plants. This figure increases by 850 tons annually in Russia  – and by some 11,000-12,000 tons worldwide, the Bellona panel said.

Storage capacity is meanwhile plummeting, and it is estimated that up to 97 percent of Russia SNF storage facilities are full. In another five to seven years they will be completely full. The Russian nuclear industry has always laid sanguine sentiments in the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Southern Urals – one of the most radioactively polluted areas on the planet – to reprocess the overflow of SNF. But Mayak can currently only handle some 100 tons of SNF a year.

The problem of radioactive waste is also growing at an enormous rate. The next five to seven years will generate more radioactive waste than the previous 50 beause so much old equipment must be decommissioned. And one can only wait and see what roll the financial crisis Russia is in will play, Larin noted.

Increased incidents aboard nuclear surface ships
Russia’s nuclear surface ship fleet consists of nine vessels powered by water to water pressurised reactors, and six nuclear icebreakers. There has been starling increase in the number of incidents aboard these ships. The number has been rising since 1994, when these figures were first made publicly available.

That year listed one incident. But Prof. Kuzetsov showed the audience a tabulation of incidents which began to rise starkly in 1998. On average, there were some 20 incidents annually aboard Russia’s nuclear surface vessels. In 2002, there were an alarming 29 incident. In 2005, there were 22. Then the government decided it was best not to advertise the figures at all, ‘and then the figures were again made secret, so we will have no idea how the situation stands now. Why the secrecy?” said Kuznetsov. 

“All of the technology is so outmoded, much of it from the ‘50 and ‘60s. If the technology is designed for 25,000 hours of use, it is hardly uncommon to find that it has actually been in use for some 150,000 hours – and such is the material accidents are made of,” they said.
There are also 248 nuclear submarines in the are of the Kola peninsula for a total of 441 reactors, which constitute, in Bellona;s words, a Chernobyl in slow motion.”

Rosatom’s Policies
State nuclear policy has been given a sweetheart pass by the government, and it is easy to question a number of the new nuclear projects under development today. Part of the problem behind this issue is that Rosatom has been reorganised from a ministry to a directorate to a state corporation.

In point of fact, Rosatom is not subject to the jurisdiction of Russia’s Auditor General. Rosatom has been opaque, and access to information is almost zero. Rosatom has begun to extend the engineered lifespan of reactors by 10 years – where the previous rule was to grant five years with stiff regulatory requirements to get another five – and additionally increasing their capacity, as witness the Kola NPP.

Andreyeva Bay
Bellona’s Nikitin gave a thoroughgoing account of the difficult situation at Andreyeva Bay for the audience, and how large the challenges are to solving it. There are some 23,000 fuel rods in storage at Anreyeva Bay, many of them in wretched condition. Andreyeva Bay also hosts 35 tons of pure uranium, as well as 18,000 tons of solid nuclear waste.

Nikitin also called for the shutdown of the Kola NPP, but acknowledged a critical lack of funding to do so.  

“To shut down a nuclear power plant is terribly expensive – nearly a third of what it cost to build. Russia does not have the money to do this,” he said.

The panel debate
During the panel discussions, Almestad and Amundsen gave an accounting of Norway’s involvement and investment in the nuclear action plan, which is some $95 million yearly. Nuclear submarine decommissioning work is almost complete and some 120 submarines have been dismantled by the funding of international donor countries.

Norway has also run an extremely successful programme with Russia in decommissioning Radioisotope Thermal Electric generators (RTGsP which operate on strontium 90 and power lighthouses and navigation beacons, and has helped Russia replace these radiological hazards with solar power to run lighthouses along the White Sea, they said.

A similar project has just been initiated in the Baltic Sea, with the help of Finland. Norway’s work on Andreyeva Bay will continue, said Amundsen and Almestead.  

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