Minatom releases sub decommissioning figures and admits to problems reprocessing naval fuel

Publish date: November 18, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Victor Akhunov, head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy's Department of Ecology and Nuclear Installation Decommissioning, released Tuesday the most up-to-date figures yet on decommissioned submarines that are awaiting dismantlement with their nuclear fuel still on board, how many had already been destroyed, and said that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel at the Urals Mayak Chemical Combine is becoming problematic.

According to Akhunov, who was speaking at the 17th meeting of the Contact Expert Group, or CEG, of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, Russia has 200 tonnes of spent naval fuel that it has scant chance of being reprocessed, calling the apparent backlog Minatom’s "most difficult current challenge." The CEG conference began Tuesday in this far northern city and will run through Thursday.

In his statement at the meeting of the CEG—a 17-country group formed by the IAEA to coordinate nuclear waste management efforts in Russia—Akhunov seemed to be opening the door to an interim spent nuclear fuel storage facility on the Kola Peninsula, an idea advocated by Bellona and other environmental groups for years.

Akhunov said that the cask method of storage for spent naval fuel on a temporary basis would be best and looked to cask pads at Atomflot—Murmansk’s nuclear icebreaker service and repair company—and Severodvinsk as the most likely candidates. The casks and pads are a system whereby spent nuclear fuel is kept in specially designed casks that are then set on specially designed pads that monitor the casks for radiation leakage. Akhunov also said a cask and pad system in the Far East, for Russia’s even more dilapidated Pacific Fleet could also be used for temporary spent fuel storage while submarines in that area were dismantled.

As for the sheer number of submarines that have been decommissioned from the Soviet-era figure of 250, Akhunov said that 192 have been taken out of service, 116 of those in the Northern Fleet. Overall, 91 submarines have been dismantled, 58 of those being Northern Fleet submarines.

Seventy-one submarines that have been taken out of active service await dismantlement with their spent fuel still on board. Of those, 36 are located in the Northern Fleet in bases on the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk region.

According to figures compiled by Bellona, Akhunov’s figures are accurate.

"Taking into account the situation the first time we met, we have achieved all of this with your help," said Akhunov to the assembled members of the CEG on Tuesday.

"I hope this meeting will provide impetus to continue work with these countries."

The scope of the current—and coming—nuclear pile up
In the same optimistic note, Akhunov said that "sooner or later, Gremikha and Andreyeva bay will be taken away." He was referring to the Kola Peninsula’s two notorious nuclear waste dumps, which are both littered with spent nuclear fuel, and solid and liquid radioactive waste. Andreyeva Bay, where spent nuclear fuel assemblies from submarines are kept, is the site of a notorious 1983 leak, when the site’s building No5 was issuing some 30 tonnes of radioactive water a day. It is located some 60 kilometres east of the Norwegian border.

Gremikha Naval Base, lies on the eastern shore of the Kola Peninsula and is used as a storage site for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel produced by Russia’s Northern Fleet. The base made international headlines on August 30th when one of its rust-bucket subs, the K-159, sank in the Barents Sea while being towed to the Polyarny shipyard near Murmansk, killing nine of the 10 crew members on board. The sub, which was still loaded with spent nuclear fuel, sank in 240 metres of water.

Located 350 kilometres from the Kola Inlet near Murmansk, Gremikha is not connected to the rest of the peninsula by roads, leaving boats and air travel as the only means to reach it. Gremikha houses some 800 spent fuel assemblies containing some 1.4 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel rods, as well as six reactor cores with liquid metal coolant that were taken out of Alpha class nuclear submarines. In addition to this, there are still two nuclear submarines containing their spent nuclear fuel moored at Gremikha’s piers.

Akhunov stressed that an effective storage for solid radioactive waste is hindered by technological shortfalls and proposed that the next CEG meeting be devoted exclusively to developing waste storage know-how and machinery. It is not yet known when the CEG will next meet.

"There will be more subs coming out of service and waste builds up," he said. "That’s why we are talking about compacting [solid radwaste]." According to Akhunov, this is a project—which would literally crush radwaste like a car in a junk-yard—that would be carried out with the assistance of Germany, which just signed off on a €300m deal to clean up Saida Bay—where more than 50 submarine reactor compartments filled with radioactive waste are stored afloat.

Prior to the German contribution, said Akhunov, Minatom "had no hope of dealing with loose reactor compartments" that are in Saida Bay.

Other items on the CEG agenda
Alexander Ruzankin, first deputy economic director of the Murmansk Regional Administration, echoed this sentiment in his opening statements to the CEG gathering.

"We have come together to see how we can put this group into contact with other groups," he said. He pointed to the May signing of the Multilateral Nuclear and Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR—of which 10 European countries, two pan-European entities and the United States are signatories—as an example of effecting more bilateral and multilateral nuclear cleanup efforts in Russia.

Ruzankin also drew attention to an underlying question about MNEPR that has lingered since its inception: Who will decide the spending priorities of the programme? With the signing of MNEPR some €62m was made available within the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership, or NDEP,fund for nuclear cleanup in Northwest Russia under this European programme’s "nuclear window." Since the signing of MNEPR, donations have flowed in and the current total available for nuclear cleanup projects now tops €140m.

A primary task of the three-day conference, said Ruzankin, is to reach a consensus on creating an oversight group for that money and establishing funding and project priorities.

Who to let in
But regardless of the money that Europe is currently showering on the nuclear safety problem in Northwest Russia, Moscow and donor states will still face the dilemma of access, said Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Sergei Antipov.

"It’s one of out biggest problems," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference’s opening. He said the Russian Ministry of Defence has to decide whether it is better to let donor nations into sensitive sites or not.

Antipov boiled the dilema down to a simple, black and white choice.

"If we let them in, we get the money," he said. "If we don’t let them in, we don’t get the money."

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