The best radioactive dump in Russia

Publish date: June 12, 2002

Written by: Andrey Mikhailov

Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy says leaking submarine radwaste storage site in Arkhangelsk region is the safest in Russia.

A leaking radioactive storage facility filled with the submarine shipyard’s Sevmash radioactive waste is located just 12 kilometres south from Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk region. Russian Energy for Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, claims the facility is the best among other 26 sites in Russia.

Citizens of the Arkhangelsk region consider this area superstitiously dangerous, those fears trace back to ancient times. Going to the Mironova Heights could bring bad luck. Despite that dachas were flourishing in the area, and only ten years ago, people did not even realise that they were growing their carrots and potatoes next to a radioactive dump. This site — a top secret object in the Soviet times and an abandoned dump in the turbulent times of the Perestroika — gave birth to many legends and horrible rumours.

Nuclear technologies were being developed in the early 1960s, and there were a lot of misunderstood and unclear things around radioactive wastes. The site for constructing a complex of buildings to store radwaste from nuclear submarines was selected in September 1957, 12 kilometres south of the city of Severodvinsk. Such location would never be approved nowadays by the nuclear regulatory — it should be at least 50 to 70 kilometres away from a nearest settlement.

The storage was designed with use of the latest know-how of that time. The construction, however, lacked most part of the innovations — fire fighting systems, ventilation, water drainage and other systems have never been completed. The site was being put into operation in two stages: in December 1961 and in October 1962. The facility was filling up with radioactive waste very fast until 1968. The operation of the facility was allegedly stopped at the end of 1968, but the construction of nuclear submarines continued, and more waste kept arriving until 1979.


The storage site was off the agenda until 1990. That year a geological exploration found spots of increased levels of gamma radiation in that area. When the storage was unsealed in 1991, water was found inside. If the water penetrated into the storage facility, then there must be a way out as well — radiation has been leaking out every spring with underground water.

In 1992, Sevmash was forced to take the responsibility for the storage site again. In 1994, Sevmash engineers carried out examination of the site and a contract was signed with a research institute in St Petersburg to develop technical solutions to decommission the storage.

Radio Liberty shocked the world with its message in 1995: "Mushroom pickers found a secret deposit of nuclear wastes. The storage is in a dilapidated condition; its future is uncertain." After that, the site was provided with extra security: its "roof" was covered with another layer of asphalt, and radiation monitoring was performed on regular basis.

Today the storage site holds 1,840 cubic meters of low- and medium-level radioactive waste. Minatom says that there are 26 similar storage sites in Russia, and Mironova Heights is one of the most secure.

Minatom earmarked six million roubles ($200,000) to Sevmash shipyard in 2002. The storage will be equipped with additional system of isolation and improved protection. Solid waste will be unloaded and put into container, whereas liquid waste will be drained out and processed. The soil will be decontaminated, grass will be planted, fences with threatening signs will be removed — that is the big plan. Given funding is in place, it will take three years to fulfil remediation of the site.

In the meantime, leakages of cesium-137 and cobalt-60 continue in spring time. It is also unclear how much soil will have to be removed and how much it would cost.

In the long run, all the waste removed will have to be placed into a repository. Current Minatom’s plans suggest such repository will be built in the permafrost of Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Russian Arctic. Minatom even says the repository will be built in 36 months — again given funding is in place.