More Bulgarian fuel to Mayak

Publish date: December 1, 1998

Written by: Igor Kudrik

A second shipment of 240 canisters with spent nuclear fuel from Kozloduy NPP to Russia for reprocessing is scheduled for the beginning of 1999. The price tag for reprocessing alone, excluding transportation and insurance expenses, amounts to $18.7 million.

Since 1979 and until 1988, Bulgaria sent 21 shipments of spent nuclear fuel to the Mayak plant in western Siberia for reprocessing. Until 1988, Russia handled the spent nuclear fuel on the so-called ‘zero-value’ principle, assuming that the value of the plutonium and uranium extracted from the fuel covered the reprocessing expenses. A few years later the Soviet Union collapsed, and from 1991 the Mayak plant started to demand money for reprocessing. Bulgaria then suspended its shipments to Mayak, but in November 1997 the country, faced with a shortage of on-site spent fuel storage facilities, was forced to return to such practices by renewing the contract with Russia.

Kozloduy NPP in Bulgaria operates four VVER-440 reactors and two VVER-1000 reactors commissioned in 1974, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1987, and 1991. Earlier, Bulgaria agreed to shut down the four VVER-440 reactor units by 2000. The Bulgarian government later reconsidered the plans, and granted permission to operate the units until 2005.

Transit countries less than thrilled
The first train consisting of 8 carriages and carrying 240 VVER-440 spent fuel assemblies sealed in containers left Kozloduy in mid September 1998, heading towards the Mayak plant. Bulgaria pays $640 per kg of fuel to be reprocessed at the Mayak plant; for a total of $18.7 million. Expenses for insurance and the transit through Moldova come in addition. Moreover, the Moldovan parliament went strongly against transit in summer this year. Permission was eventually granted, but only for one shipment.

At present, spent fuel assemblies from the Kozloduy reactors are kept in "wet" interim storage facilities located by the plant’s reactors. The storage facilities for VVER-440 reactors’ fuel are almost full, while the two VVER-1000 have some storage place left. Given no shipments to Russia, all the onsite storage facilities will be full by 2001.

The second train to be sent to Russia is scheduled for the beginning of 1999. Before that, Bulgaria has to make a final decision on which shipment route to choose. In addition to the problems with Moldova in summer this year, Bulgaria had to solve transit issues with the republic of Transdniestr (formally a part of Moldova, this region declared its independence in the early nineties). Today, Bulgaria is seeking ways to change the transport route, negotiating with Romania on this issue. The Romanian side has agreed in principle, although the question has to be finally settled in the Romanian parliament. The Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy, as an interested party to the whole story, plans to assemble representatives of the "transit countries" in Moscow on 7 December, in an attempt to work out a viable transport route.

Escalating prices
However, the transport route is not the only issue Bulgaria is facing. Recent statements made by Jevgeniy Adamov, Russian nuclear minister, suggest the price tag for reprocessing is going to be raised from $620 per kg till $1000 per kg. In addition, according to decree no. 733, dated 29 June 1995 and signed by the Russian President, Bulgaria has to take back the waste generated during reprocessing within a 30 year period after shipment.

Bulgaria is among the four countries continuing to ship spent fuel for reprocessing at the Mayak plant in western Siberia (the others are the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine). In 1995, Finland decided to build a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel generated at the Soviet-designed Lovisa Nuclear Power Plant. Hungary is likely to halt shipments as a new dry storage facility is under construction there. Unofficial returns, however, state that Hungary is planning to perform one last shipment, possibly next year.

By 31 March next year, the Bulgarian State Committee on Energy, together with the Bulgarian Academy of Science, has to prepare a national strategy for the safe management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. The strategy will cover a period of 30-50 years to come. Whether the reprocessing option will be a part of it, remains to be seen.