Current Status, June 1998: Storage facility for maritime spent fuel

Publish date: May 28, 1998

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The four Western companies that joined to form an industrial group in 1997 are working on a project to supply the Mayak reprocessing plant with an interim storage facility for maritime spent nuclear fuel. The indications are the negotiations ran into difficulties at the last meeting between representatives of the group and the Ministry for Atomic Energy of Russia (Minatom), which operates Mayak.

This month’s Current Status focuses on the Mayak maritime spent fuel storage project, which might turn to another option – construction of an interim spent fuel storage facility on the Kola Peninsula.

In the beginning of 1997, SKB (Sweden), Kvaerner Maritime (Norway), BNFL (UK) and SGN (France) joined forces to form an industrial group with the purpose to find solutions for spent nuclear fuel management in north-west Russia.

The St. Petersburg Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Technology (VNIPIET), a Minatom-controlled organization, became the Russian partner of the group. An agreement was signed with the institute in spring 1997.

The institute has 50 years worth of experience in spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management. Among other things, VNIPIET was the chief designer of the storage facilities of the Northern Fleet, located in Andreeva Bay and Gremikha on the Kola Peninsula. Both storage facilities suffered accidents in the course of the 80’s and are currently taken out of operation. VNIPIET is also a chief designer of the Belyanka-class (pr. no 11510) transport vessels. Two vessels of this class have been built, to transport and process liquid radioactive waste. For the time being, the processing facilities on both of the vessels are out of service.

Project’s preconditions
According to the available estimates, it is expected that by the year 2000 the Northern Fleet will have some 280 reactor cores stored on board laid up nuclear-powered submarines and in the onshore storage facilities. Taking into consideration the current pace of fuel transportation to Mayak (3-4 railway trips a year), some 25 reactor cores will be actually shipped for reprocessing. The slow pace of shipments is due to the three main factors:

First of all, since 1994, the Navy has been supposed to pay for the transportation. Today the price tag is as high as 2 million USD for each shipment. Secondly, the fuel transport ships and fuel loading locations in the Northern Fleet are falling apart, and are unable to perform loading operations in time. They have been under permanent repair with scarce funding. Thirdly, there is only one TUK-18 set consisting of four railway cars and capable of moving 2,5 reactor cores at a time for the whole of Russia.

Under these circumstances, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry submitted a plan, inspired by Minatom, which calls for the construction of a ship for spent fuel transportation and a set of TUK-18 type railway cars to ship fuel to Mayak. Norway’s Kvaerner Maritime was put in charge of executing the project.

But Mayak reprocessing plant was suffering from problems of its own as well. The storage space for the maritime spent fuel was insufficient. Thus, a project aimed at providing Minatom with a new storage facility was launched. To implement this project, an industrial group consisting of the four Western companies mentioned above was established.

Proposed solution
The solution proposed was to ship spent nuclear fuel to the Mayak plant in Siberia (Chelyabinsk County) for interim storage and reprocessing. Since the existing on-site storage facilities at Mayak are overfilled and inadequate for long-term storage, the main intention of the industrial group was to provide Mayak with a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

Currently at Mayak, there is a partly built wet storage facility available that is to be upgraded in order to comply with modern design safety standards. However, the industrial group has evaluated several alternative solutions and came to the conclusion that the construction of a new dry storage facility is the most viable path to solve the issue.

No-go in negotiations
The negotiations between Mayak’s management and representatives of Minatom were held in Chelyabinsk in January and again in the end of April this year. At the last meeting, Minatom made it clear to the group that construction of a new dry storage facility is not an acceptable option. Instead, Minatom proposed to complete the available partly built wet storage facility. The argumentation of Minatom builds on the assumption that the wet storage facility has passed all the national safety expert evaluations and received a licence from the Russian State Nuclear Inspection (GAN). To license a new facility would take several years, according to Minatom.

This option, however, caused problems to the international industrial group. They believe the wet storage proposed by Minatom would never meet international safety standards, and thus will not be funded by the Western governments.

An alternative to the project
The main goal for the industrial group in their project was to solve the issue of maritime spent nuclear fuel handling in Russia’s north-west by shipping the fuel to Mayak for storage. But the apparent actual result of the project differs from the expectations.

According to one of the project participants, the group wanted to assure that the planned storage facility at Mayak accepts spent fuel from laid up subs rather than those still in operation, by limiting capacity to a certain amount of fuel. However, limited capacity provides no solid guarantee that the navy will not use the opportunity afforded by the additional storage space to refuel operational subs instead of defueling and scrapping those laid up at the Kola Peninsula. As a matter of fact, the fuel from operational subs could be given priority simply because it is less damaged than if it had been sitting in waiting for 10 to 15 years, and is thus easier to handle. The same goes for the accidental storage facility in Andreeva Bay and Gremikha, where most part of the fuel is stuck in cells of the onshore storage facilities. The Mayak plant, as is generally known, can not reprocess defective fuel.

In addition, Mayak cannot reprocess spent fuel from reactors with liquid metal as a coolant (Alfa-class submarines), nor fuel with zirconium cladding.

Official statistics claim that some 10% of the navy’s spent fuel cannot be reprocessed. In reality, this number could be at least twice as high, if the submarines laid up for 10-15 years with fuel inside and the storage facilities located in Andreeva Bay and Gremikha are taken into account.

The last factor is payment for the spent fuel shipments to Mayak for reprocessing. With 305 naval reactor cores to be shipped from north-west Russia, the price tag would amount to some 300 million USD. There are a great number of reasons to believe that this money will not be allocated in time, if at all. This will lead to significant delays in spent fuel shipment from the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk county, even if Norway builds a set of TUK-18 railway cars and a transport ship for spent nuclear fuel for Russia.

Minatom and Western industry partners are slowly coming to the conclusion that shipment to Mayak is not the best available option. In addition to the argumentation presented above, one has to consider the moral side of the issue: The area around Mayak reprocessing plant is considered the most radioactively contaminated place on Earth. Thus, shipping additional nuclear materials to the area would only worsen the situation there.

Moreover, the Mayak option does not support the main goal of the project: Most of the fuel will remain where it is stored today due to the plan’s shortcomings explained above. Therefore, the plan should be reconsidered. The difficulties experienced during the last round of negotiations between Minatom officials and representatives of the industrial group will very likely push the latter to consider an alternative option – an interim storage facility on the Kola Peninsula.