Ecologists critical of Rosatom’s experimental small-capacity nuke plant on the Volga, urge to abandon project

Publish date: August 1, 2011

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

The Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom is eyeing the city of Dimitrovgrad, on the river Volga, for its plans to build a new experimental small-capacity nuclear power plant (NPP) – a liquid-metal-cooled modular fast reactor based on a converted naval design. This is alarming news to Russia’s environmentalists, who point to the less than perfect record this type of reactors had when operated on board of Soviet nuclear submarines. On the eve of the public hearing in Dimitrovgrad, where the project is to be presented on July 29, Russian NGOs prepared a critical statement on the official environmental impact assessment of the future plant.

The reactor in question, an SVBR-100, is based on a modular type of lead-cooled fast-neutron nuclear reactors (SVBR stands in Russian for lead-bismuth fast reactor) and is an evolved naval design with a power range of between 6 and 100 megawatts. Russia has indicated for some time that it was interested in further developing this design and taking it commercial.

Rosatom now intends to build a 100-megawatt nuclear power plant running on such a source near the Dimitrovgrad-based State Scientific Centre “Scientific Research Institute of Atomic Reactors” (NIIAR) in Ulyanovsk Region on the Volga.

But Russian environmental organisations are highly critical of the project and urge the government to refrain from its implementation.

Environmentalists point out that the original naval design proved highly unreliable and prone to accidents even as it was operated on board of Soviet Alpha-class nuclear submarines of the 1970s. Germany, France, and Japan, ecologists say, have toyed with the idea of running fast-neutron reactors on a commercial basis and abandoned it because of instability concerns and the high costs of construction and operation.  

A statement taking apart the official environmental impact assessment, which may signify the state’s endorsement of the project, was distributed on July 26 by the Dimitrovgrad-based Center for Assistance to Citizen Initiatives, Greenpeace Russia, and Bellona (please see the full text, in Russian, in an attachment to this report), and says, in particular:

“The information presented [in the environmental impact assessment report] does not allow one to conclude that the project is safe and ecologically acceptable for the following reasons:

·      No alternative options, including the “zero” option [of abandoning the project] have been considered;

·      The commercial necessity of developing the project has not been fully established;

·      The extremely poor experience of operating lead-bismuth-cooled reactors on nuclear submarines has not been taken into account;

·      The site suggested for the construction of the nuclear power plant in Dimitrovgrad is an undesirable location because of the presence in the area of a tectonic deformation, a liquid radioactive waste disposal site, and a cluster of Artesian wells;

·      There are no data detailing key indicators of the population health in Dimitrovgrad and other populated areas in the vicinity of NIIAR;

·      The risk of a beyond-design-basis accident has not been ruled out completely;

·      The parameters of a beyond-design-basis accident have been clearly underestimated;

·      No consideration has been given to an entire range of possible accidents associated with the management of [spent nuclear fuel at the site];

·      The argument that the construction and operation in Dimitrovgrad of a [power plant with a pilot commercial generating unit based on a SVBR-100 reactor plant] is not conducive to sustainable social and industrial development of the region has not been reflected in the report;

·      The decision to build an unaffiliated enterprise that the proposed nuclear power plant will be in the vicinity of the existing radiation-hazardous sites operated by NIIAR in the region is in violation of the legislation currently in force in the Russian Federation.

Putting forth these arguments and citing the Russian statute “On the environmental impact of proposed commercial or other activities in the Russian Federation,” the Center for Assistance to Citizen Initiatives, Greenpeace Russia, and Bellona urge the project owner to settle on the “zero” option – namely, abandon the project altogether.

The “innovative” project… over half a century old

The Dimitrovgrad project is being developed by the Experimental Design Organisation Gidropress, a Rosatom enterprise focused – according to the company’s profile on its website – “mainly on elaboration of [VVER] reactor plant designs.”

Gidropress touts its new brainchild as one in a series of six innovative reactor systems that comprise systems cooled by lead melts, underscoring that, as the “search for advanced reactor technologies of the XXI century is under way all over the world […] Russia offers an advantage of unique experience in designing and operation of lead-bismuth-cooled reactor plants for nuclear submarines.”

“The innovative low-power SVBR-100 reactor plant is a result of conversion of a unique Russian technology of naval lead-bismuth-cooled reactors,” says Gidropress about the proposed Dimitrovgrad reactor in a description available on its website.

[picture1 { The SVBR-100 is an attempt to fit a mid-20th-century naval model into a 21th nuclear power plant.  }]

Just like it was originally with VVER reactors, the SVBR-100 was not initially planned for peaceful commercial application, but was designed for use on board of nuclear submarines. 

In the USSR, the first nuclear-powered submarine that was built with such a liquid-metal reactor with lead-bismuth coolant on board was the K-27, Project 645 (or November, by Western classification). Construction started in June 1958 and by October 1963 the submarine was put into operation. Later, a series of seven nuclear-powered submarines were also built to run on liquid-metal-cooled reactors – Project 705 Alphas and Project 705K Liras (please read more on the history and specifications of these and other Soviet nuclear submarines in Bellona’s report “Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination”).

Gidropress was also the entity that designed the liquid-metal reactors for these submarines and it is now the organisation that is attempting to retrofit the more-than-sixty-years-old models for use in what it is calling an “innovative” project of a new nuclear power plant in Dimitrovgrad.

Highly unreliable and prone to accidents

During operation on board of Soviet nuclear submarines, lead-bismuth cooling systems showed a pronounced lack of reliability and a proclivity to accidents. This is why a decision was made to discontinue their use on nuclear submarines. There is at present no submarine on the roster of the Russian Navy’s submarines in active combat duty that have a liquid-metal reactor on board. Furthermore, the reactors of Project 705 and 705K submarines could not be refuelled owing to a number of technological difficulties, which is why these models received the moniker of “disposable reactors.”

In a press release published on the website of Greenpeace Russia on July 27 (in Russian), retired Navy captain and head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg-based Ecological Rights Center Bellona Alexander Nikitin explains:

“Naval reactors with lead-bismuth coolant are more difficult in operation compared to pressurised water reactors. Polonium, which is produced when bismuth is irradiated, increases dramatically the activity levels of the coolant. Which is why when a loss of containment occurs, be it even a very slight one, it leads to grave consequences for humans and the surrounding environment in terms of radiation safety.”

Nikitin, who served on nuclear-powered submarines and later worked in submarine decommissioning programmes, said that at least three accidents are known to have happened on vessels with such reactors in the 80 reactor-years of their operation; loss of human life followed. This was, for instance, the case on May 24, 1968, when a reactor accident on the K-27, a test model of Project 645 with a pair of experimental VT-1 liquid-metal-cooled reactors, led to a release of radioactive gases and fatal exposure of nine of the crew on board.

“Judging by the experience of operating lead-bismuth-cooled reactors on nuclear submarines, and the frequency rate of accidents on them, it looks like at least two major nuclear accidents are ‘programmed’ to happen at Dimitrovgrad Nuclear Power Plant in the next sixty years,” said Greenpeace’s press release.

Official environmental impact report – not quite forthcoming

As may well have been expected, the environmental impact assessment report on the planned project – the document that is required to be presented at the public hearing and also submitted for consideration by state environmental protection officials – did not contain any mention of the disturbing facts of the operation of led-bismuth-cooled reactors on board of Soviet submarines.

The following, instead, is stated on the subject of past operation of such reactors in the report, authored by an entity called Energoproyekttekhnologiya: “The availability of the considerable experience in mastering this technology, including both the 80 reactor-years of operating the reactors of similar type on board of nuclear-powered submarines and operating test bench models with the given type of coolant, speaks to the significant depth of knowledge of the issues of managing this type of technology and preventing emergency situations, as well as to the absence of any principal problems with regard to technical or technological solutions associated with the given type of reactor plants.”

In order to dispel the myth of “the absence of any principal problems with regard to technical or technological solutions associated with the given type of reactor plants,” environmentalists counter with a list of accidents that took place on vessels that were powered by reactors with lead-bismuth coolant in the Soviet Union:

·      May 1968: Severe radiation accident on board of the K-27 led to the death of nine crew members. After thirteen years spent laid up in reserve, the submarine was submerged in the Kara Sea;

·      1973: Reactor accident on board of the K-64, Project 705 (Alpha Class); reactor failure attributed to coolant freezing. The submarine was decommissioned in 1974;

·      April 1982: Reactor accident on board of the K-123, Project 705 (Alpha Class) in the Barents Sea; accident followed by a release of liquid metal into the reactor compartment.

Accident scenarios beyond the frame of consideration

Providing an assessment of how a potential accident and its consequences could impact the health of the population living near a nuclear power plant, the surrounding environment, and the economy of the country and the given region, is one of the most important issues that arise with construction of a new station. It is especially so when the future plant is an experimental one, planned, as it is, to be built just eight kilometres away from the residential districts of the city of Dimitrovgrad.

However, the authors of the environmental impact report left no space in their study at all to any consideration of severe accident scenarios at the future site, saying that no examination is done in the assessment with regard to design-basis and beyond-design-basis accidents “such as similar to the Chernobyl accident, the accident at Japan’s Fukushima, and the accident at the US plant Three Mile Island.” (Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Page 596).

Even more disturbingly, the report acknowledges further: “No potential accident scenarios have been developed for the fast-neutron lead-bismuth-cooled reactor of a nuclear plant with an experimental-industrial generating unit with the SVBR-100 reactor plant.” (Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Page 596).

Environmentalists are alarmed that a public hearing is being convened absent of any attention first given to the experience running similar reactors on nuclear submarines or development of relevant accident scenarios and procedure for personnel to follow should they be called to handle an emergency event at the plant. Likewise, the project is to be presented to the public without any assessment made as to the expected spread of contamination or other consequences in the event of an accident – something environmentalists deem tantamount to misinforming the public and decision-makers about the potential dangers of the future plant.

Downplaying accident impact

In a hurry to push the new project through, Rosatom seems to be following the same well-worn path of underestimating the consequences of potential accidents when presenting environmental impact reports of new stations to the public. Ecological organisations earlier voiced their criticism of such tactics when the projects of Baltic NPP, in Russia’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad Region, or Ostrovets NPP, a station Russia has negotiated building in Belarus, were undergoing their rounds of public hearings.

Environmentalists point to what they see as attempts in the Dimitrovgrad NPP environmental impact report to downrate both the likelihood of potential severe accidents and their consequences for human health and the environment. For instance, when assessing beyond-design-basis accidents – excluding those similar to Fukushima and Chernobyl – the report asserts: “During such an accident, radionuclides of the following activity levels are expected to be released through the ventilation pipe: 0.139 [terabecquerels of Iodine-131], 2.78 [terabecquerels of Caesium-134], 9.21 [terabecquerels of Caesium-137].” (Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Page 603).

These figures may have little to do with the actual impact should an accident occur at the plant. Still, as the report’s authors themselves admit, the resulting fallout cloud could stretch as far as a hundred kilometres even if the radioactivity levels of the accidental release conform to these limited projections.

The report goes on to make the following conclusion, based on the proposed figures of a radioactivity release during an accident: “Even in the case of a beyond-design-basis accident, potential exposure doses for the population within a period of ten days will be approximately one to three orders of magnitude smaller than those that require protective measures of any kind. This conclusion concerns both exposures of the thyroid in both children and adults and external radiation exposure of the body.” (Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Page 603).   

In other words, the authors suggest that if a grave accident occurs at the plant and a significant amount of radioactivity is released into the atmosphere, there will still be no need for emergency response services in Dimitrovgrad to have plans of either iodine treatment or evacuation in place to protect the people who will happen to live near the experimental nuclear station.

Exposure levels may be forty times as high

Yet, the report admits all the same that “the maximum value of the effective dose is 40 times higher than the least significant dose of 10 [microsieverts] per year. Consequently, a beyond-design-basis accident should be considered when providing measures of radiation safety for the population.” (Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Page 603). 

[picture2 { Even as it downplays potential accident consequences, the environmental impact assessment report drawn up on the future plant admits that in case of a severe accident, the resulting radioactive cloud could spread for a hundred kilometres and cover the city of Dimitrovgrad.}]

But even as they acknowledge the risks, the environmental impact report’s authors only suggest placing limitations on consumption of local food: “According to the estimations, limitations on consumption of locally produced foods are possible within the distance of up to 100 kilometres off the site of NIIAR where the spread of the accidental release is traced following a beyond-design-basis accident.” (Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Page 603).

In all, it would seem that in order for the developers of this environmental impact assessment report to prove it acceptable to build an experimental nuclear power plant in the close vicinity of a big city they would have to exclude severe beyond-design-basis accidents such as the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters completely from consideration. Of course, no tsunami could rationally be anticipated on the Volga, but the roster of natural or man-made catastrophes is sadly not limited to earthquakes and tsunamis – and such precursor events as personnel’s errors, a terrorist act, or the crash of a large jet liner could lead to just as disastrous consequences, while the new NPP is not protected against such risks.иви d an experimental nuclear power plant in the close vicinity of a big city they would have to exclude severe beyond-0pulation

World disenchanted with fast neutrons

The now cooled, now rekindled love affair with fast reactors with liquid-metal coolant, also called “breeder” reactors, feeds on the nuclear industry’s dream of a “closed nuclear fuel cycle” – a time when the development of nuclear energy will cease to be impeded by such constraints as the gigantic amounts of nuclear waste amassed in spent nuclear fuel storage facilities and the ever increasing headache of figuring out what to do with it.

In fast reactors, under particular operating conditions, more plutonium could be generated than the amounts of uranium burned. This plutonium can later be extracted from the spent nuclear fuel and reprocessed to produce fresh nuclear fuel ready to burn in reactors. But this is the theory. The practical reality is that plutonium extraction is associated with extremely high costs and leads to the generation of enormous amounts of liquid radioactive waste.

The toll this practice takes on the environment is no less significant. Western experience extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, at reprocessing sites such as Britain’s Sellafield or France’s La Hague, includes dumping the resulting liquid radioactive waste – which contains alpha and beta radiation – into the Atlantic.

In Russia, the reprocessing facility Mayak has for decades disposed of liquid radioactive waste at the nearby Lake Karachai, from where the contamination spread to the local river Techa. The area surrounding this enterprise figures prominently on the list of Russia’s – and possibly, the world’s – worst environmental woes. In Dimitrovgrad, as pointed out by environmentalists in their statement on the official environmental impact assessment report, as well as at reprocessing facilities in Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, radioactive waste is simply pumped underground, into subterranean water-bearing strata.

But this is not the reason that fast breeders have seen a decline in their popularity in the world – but rather the lack of reliability in their operation, proneness to accidents, and dismal commercial performance. The French sodium-cooled Superphénix, put into operation in 1986, stopped running already in ten years, in 1996. Lionel Jospin, France’s prime minister of 1997 to 2002, said the main reason for the reactor’s closure was the exorbitant costs of operation.

An in a more recent example, a tentative decision to suspend further operation of a prototype fast breeder reactor was announced in Japan. According to mid-July news reports, that country’s Science Minister Yoshiaki Takaki said Japan was considering halting the development of its 280-megawatt, sodium-cooled Monju reactor, which idled in shutdown for 14 years following a sodium coolant leak, only repaired in May 2010. Last June, technicians also finally retrieved a 3.3-tonne refuelling machine that had fallen into the reactor. Whether the plant will be restarted is not a certainty as the Japanese government seems to think it best to refrain from future operation because of safety concerns.

But where Western countries, tired of seeing safety risks remain unabated while investment money continues to vanish in a pipe dream, give up on fast breeders, Rosatom is still trying to pass off the precarious 60-year-old technology as a promising scientific advance, putting both population and the environment at risk.