Current Status (2), June 1998: Agreement between Russia and Norway: Nuclear Waste Cleanup to start

Publish date: June 6, 1998

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

An agreement signed in late May between Norway and Russia clears the political hurdles that have delayed Norwegian efforts to participate in the cleanup of the Russian Northern fleets leaking storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel in Andreeva Bay at the Kola Peninsula. More than 90 nuclear powered submarines taken out of service are rusting away near the different naval bases. Most of them still have highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel inside their reactors. The Norwegian- Russian agreement is the first step for international co-operation to clean up the mess left behind by Russia's decaying nuclear navy. Norway has granted $60 million for the first projects and more could be found if the program is successful.

This Current Status focuses on the agreement between Norway and Russia on environmental co-operation in connection with the dismantlement of Russian nuclear-powered submarines decommissioned from active service and the enhancement of nuclear and radiation safety.

The agreement signed on May 26 removes the two major obstacles that for several years had been stalling cleanup efforts. First, it waives the participating parties’ liability in case of an accident. Second, it exempts foreign assistance from taxes and custom tariffs. This exemption applies to equipment brought into Russia from Norway or other countries participating in the Norwegian projects covered by the bilateral agreement. For example, when it comes to the "Lepse" project, Norway, the European Union and France have provided $10 million for robotics to remove the 634 hazardous damaged spent fuel elements from the ship "Lepse" in Murmansk. But the robots from the French company SGN could not be imported into Russia because they would have faced as much as 50 percent taxes on their market value. Dismantling the "Lepse" is a pilot project of significant importance, since for the first time both Norway and European Union are co-operating with Russia on a nuclear waste cleanup operation.

As many as 21.000 spent fuel elements, equivalent to 90 reactor cores, are stored in three dilapidated tanks in Andreeva Bay some 45 kilometres from the Norwegian border. The tanks are filled to capacity and in very poor condition. Due to funding constraints in the Russian defence budget, radiation safety problems are becoming increasingly precarious. Both the Russian navy and the Atomic Energy Ministry admitted earlier this spring that radiation leaks had reached serious levels. Measurements by the Murmansk Marinebiological Institute show increased levels of the isotopes Cesium-137 and Plutonium-239 in the sediments in the Litsa Fjord in the vicinity of the storage tanks. The top priority in the Norwegian-Russian agreement is to initiate the process of emptying and decommissioning the storage tanks in Andreeva Bay. The main challenge is to find a location to build new storage facilities for the spent nuclear fuel.

Disagreement between Moscow and Oslo persists over whether to store the fuel elements close to their current location at Kola or to transport them to the Mayak reprocessing plant in the South Ural. Norway is the main donor to a consortium of Western engineering companies to conduct a feasibility study for a new spent fuel dry storage in Mayak. But officials from the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry doubt the wisdom of building a brand new dry storage facility when a wet storage pool is already one-third constructed in Mayak. The construction of the water-cooled storage facility has been halted for several years due to financial problems.

According to the Western experts who visited Mayak, this half-built storage tank is based on outdated technology and will never meet international safety standards. Secondly, it is not clear who would to finance the transport of the spent fuel elements from the Kola Peninsula to Mayak, some 3.000 kilometres away. Shipping all the spent fuel from the Northern Fleet’s submarines to Mayak will cost some $300-400 million (with current prices) and might take as long as 15 years.

The alternative option is to build an intermediate storage facility on the Kola Peninsula where the spent fuel elements are presently kept. These fuel elements are stored not only in Andreeva Bay, but also in the reactors of the retired submarines and even on several ageing floating storage boats.

The advantages of a local storage facility option include proximity to the present storage and the associated cost reduction, and a significantly accelerated time frame for safe handling. Various technical solutions for an intermediate spent fuel storage at the Kola Peninsula exist and are supported by different environmental organisations in both Russia and Norway.

The agreement does not clarify the question whether Russia will be able to use the newly constructed facilities to store spent fuel from operational submarines after refuelling, a key question for possible U.S. financial support. The Norwegian Parliament has also stated that it will not provide any financial support nuclear cleanup in the Russian Arctic if the money could be used to support the operational Russian nuclear navy.

Under separate agreements, Norway will have the right to verify that equipment, technology and financial means provided on a grant-basis are used in accordance with the terms of the agreement. The procedures for this verification regime are not yet established.

One of the main problems today is that the storage for spent fuel in Andreeva Bay belongs to the Northern Fleet. The Russian military has stated repeatedly that no foreign experts will be allowed onto the site. Mayak is also considered to be closed, and not even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is permitted to conduct inspections. Mayak was the main production plant for plutonium for the Soviet nuclear weapons programme, and the area is today heavily radioactive contaminated. Leaks from Mayak have contaminated the Arctic seas via the Ob river system.

Besides the problems with spent nuclear fuel, the agreement calls for a series of projects regarding the storage and handling of solid radioactive waste as well as for the construction of a processing facility for liquid radioactive waste. The commissioning of a temporary storage facility for solid radioactive waste at Andreeva Bay is dealt with under a separate project. This is urgent because all existing storage facilities for radioactive waste at Kola are filled to capacity, and at many locations large quantities of hazardous waste is stored outdoors without any kind of protection from the Arctic climate. More than 20.000 cubic metros of solid radioactive waste are stored at 10 different naval bases and shipyards on Kola. The amount of radioactive waste grows rapidly as a result of the decommissioning of old nuclear-powered submarines.

Officials from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said after the agreement was signed that the hope is that other countries, like the U.S. and the European Union, will provide more financial and technical support for the important work to remove the leftovers from the nuclear arms race in the Russian Arctic. This support has already been promised. When the Barents Council held its summit meeting in Luleo in Sweden, both the E.U. Commissioner Hans van der Broek and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott stated that nuclear safety and cleanup in the Russian Arctic region will figure on top of their priority lists.

Increased co-operation to ensure safety at the Kola nuclear power plant is also covered by the new agreement. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry has recently stated that the two oldest reactors at Kola will receive licenses for another five to seven years after the year 2000. These two reactors (VVER-440/230) are considered to be some of the most dangerous operational civilian reactors in the world today.

The projects listed in the agreement are:

  1. The Parties (Norway and Russia) shall co-operate in order to promote the realisation of the following projects:
    • Emptying and decommissioning of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from Russian nuclear-powered submarines in Andreeva Bay (Murmansk Blast), and the development of methods for the management of this fuel;
    • Establishment of an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from ship’s reactors at the production association "Mayak" (Chelyabinsk Oblast);
    • Design, construction and commissioning of a temporary storage facility for solid radioactive waste at Andreeva Bay (Murmansk Oblast);
    • Design, construction and commissioning of a specialised self-propelled vessel for the transport of containers with spent nuclear fuel;
    • Modernisation and commissioning of an interim storage facility for liquid radioactive waste at the "Zvezdochka" shipyard (Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk Oblast);
    • Delivery of a mobile facility for treatment of liquid radioactive waste (Murmansk),
    • Dismantling of the floating technical base "Lepse" (Murmansk);
    • Modernisation of the facility for treatment of liquid radioactivewaste at the repair and technical enterprise "Atomflot" (Murmansk);
    • Enhancement of operational safety at the Kola nuclear power plant(Polyarnye Zori).
  2. If the Parties so agree, other projects may also be added to thoselisted in paragraph 1 of this article.