CEG meeting focuses on tightening safety practices for Russia’s nuclear remediation

Publish date: October 19, 2004

Written by: Charles Digges

MOSCOW—In opening statements at last week’s IAEA Contact Expert Group meeting, and in later interviews here with its chairman, Alan Heyes, the group gave indications that funding for nuclear remediation projects was being put to safer and more organized use by its constituent countries.

The CEG also seems to be pursuing a policy of greater openness. Where past meetings have excluded the presence of non-governmental organisations and journalists at all but the more preliminary and specially tailored introductory sessions, Bellona was this time invited for the CEG’s opening session and was able to meet with CEG Chairman Alan Heyes—who was reelected to his post during the October 13th to 15th meeting.

“Our goal at this meeting was to promote best practice,” said Heyes in an interview on Thursday, following the last sessions of the CEG meeting.

Prior concerns of CEG meetings had been focused on channeling the floodgates of funding for nuclear dismantlement projects that had opened after the signing in 2003 of the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR, accord. The signing of this agreement made available several million dollars for nuclear clean-up projects in Russia’s Northwest through the Northern Dimensions Environmental Partnership, or NDEP, a fund held by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, or EBRD.

With the endorsement of MNEPR by many European nations, NDEP coffers have swelled and bilateral nuclear submarine dismantlement agreements between Russia and other nations have blossomed.

In Murmansk last November, the CEG’s 17th meeting focused on improving submarine dismantlement efforts. This CEG gathering, its 18th meeting, reported progress not only in that area, but on how to make such efforts, as well as other nuclear remediation projects in Russia, safer.


Canada’s progress

Perhaps the best news coming out of the 18th CEG meeting here in Moscow was Canada’s progress in submarine dismantlement and infrastructure support since the 17th CEG meeting in Murmansk in November, 2003. During the October 2004 meeting of the Group of Eight industrialised nations at Sea Island in the US state of Georgia, Russia and Canada forged a $100m bilateral agreement to dismantle three problematic Northern Fleet submarines—project numbers 608, 643 and 645. According to Canadian CEG representatives, their plan calls for removing 49 fuel assemblies from hull 608, the safe towing of hulls 645 and 648, and the dismantlement of 12 submarine total.

What’s more is that Canada carried out environmental impact studies for the towing and dismantlement of each submarine during a two month investigation carried out over the summer—following the example of the UK and Norway in their respective dismantlement projects. Bellona has long pressed for the practice of environmental assessments for nuclear remediation projects before they begin.

Norway is currently dismantling two Victor II submarines from Russia’s Northern fleet and the UK is dismantling two Oscar class subs. According to Canadian representatives present here in Moscow, hulls, 645 is scheduled to be towed to their dismantlement points sometime this week, said Canadian officials.

Sergei Antipov, deputy to Rosatom head Alexander Rumyantsev, added that pontoons developed by the Arctic Military Environmental Programme, a US Defence Department-run nuclear safety programme, would make the transport of the Canadian and other vessels safer.

Prioritising the work to come

At this CEG meeting, there was greater emphasis on prioritising those nuclear remediation projects that require the most urgent attention, according to CEG representatives Bellona Web spoke to at the conference.

“Seventy percent of the documentation submitted [at CEG sessions held between October 13th and 15th] were site specific,” said CEG Executive Secretary Sergei Bocharov in an interview with Bellona Web, indicating that countries are submitting proposals to have their programmes more effectively organised.

What has been pledged and what is being spent?

Some three years after an initial $20 billion in funding pledges were made at the Kananaskis summit of the G-8, more countries and groups were kicking in their own share, said Vladimir Akhunov, the head of Rosatom’s department of ecology and nuclear installation decommissioning. He showed a preliminary list of pledged contributions, signed contracts, and money already received by Russian contractors. Heyes indicated that some funding would also be coming from the CEG, but was unable to say how much.

According to Akhunov’s figures some $198m in foreign contracts—out of $15.6 billion pledged over about the next decade—have already been signed, plus another $201 in Russian contracts. Of this contracted funding, some $79.9 million in foreign financing and $ 157m in Russian funding had already been received by Russian contractors.

Akhunov cautioned, though, that some $72 m of foreign contracts constituted US-guided Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, contracts. Bocharov also warned that the figures Akhunov presented were, at best, preliminary and that a comprehensive list of contract pledges and contracts received would be available in several weeks.

Two surprise additional donors, according to observers at the conference, were Australia, which has contributed $7m that will be managed by Japan, and Italy, which did not sign the MNPER accord, but nonetheless pledged $1.2 billion toward nuclear remediation efforts in Russia.

Because of this windfall in funding, Heyes acknowledged in a separate interview at the conference that prioritising decommissioning and dismantlement issues was a hot topic during the CEG’s closed-door discussions.


For instance, Heyes noted that the United Kingdom, or UK, and many other nations were interested in working to solve solid nuclear waste problems in Andreyeva Bay, a site less than 70 kilometers from the Norwegian border that has long been home to spent naval reactor fuel carelessly discarded in the open by the Russian Northern Fleet.

Heyes noted that—for various technical reasons such as how energy needs would be met in order to run machinery—no countries had made any firm commitments to working in Andreyeva Bay—but that many were interested. The UK is tipped as being one of the first among them.

“Certainly there is the danger that many countries will want to work on the same project, but this will open up a dialogue between them and Russia and this is undoubtedly a good thing,” Heyes said.

Project bottlenecks and transparency

But many different countries wanting to work on the same projects is precisely the sort of headache Rosatom’s Akhunov is trying to avoid, he said during the opening meetings of the CEG conference.

“Every day we are getting new requests to visit Andreyeva Bay,” said Akhunov, “And this is interfering with delegations from Great Britain—the sheer number of people interesting in helping Andreyeva Bay is making things even more complex. Akhunov has historically been prickly about delegations to Andreyeva Bay. He snarled that Minatom—Rosatom’s precursor—was “not engaged in nuclear tourism” when question during a press conference at the CEG’s last meeting in Murmansk about NGO and media access to the site.

Akhunov also complained that too many potential donor nations were asking for too much information about potential dismantlement sites before concluding the appropriate bi- or multi-lateral agreements with Russia.

“We don’t know who is giving what money when,” Akhunov told the delegates. “As a general rule, funding has to be planned a year in advance.”

He pointed to the bilateral agreement that Rosatom maintains with Japan on submarine dismantlement which contains a protocol on information exchange. Japanese officials, however, have often accused the Russians of being less than candid in their reporting.

Nonetheless, Heyes noted that “the Russians have been very supportive” amidst all this new international interest in dismantling the Cold War legacy.

Akhunov set a goal of dismantling all 195 of Russia’s decommissioned submarines—at the rate of 18 per year—that would have all of them off the water by 2010. He offered no suggestions as to where the money beyond to say it would have to come from foreign donors.

Planned workshops

If Akhunov is counting on foreign dollars, then plenty were discussed at the CEG meeting—though many are being designated for programmes beyond submarine dismantlement, said Heyes in his interview with Bellona Web.

This spring, said Heyes, the CEG intends to hold a workshop for it member countries on dismantling technical service vessels, or TSVs—those aged vessels within the Russian Northern Fleet that fuel nuclear submarines. Where the workshop will be held has not yet decided.

The Norwegian delegation, said Heyes, would be exploring the problem of ridding Russia of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs, which are nuclear batteries based on strontium-90 used primarily for maritime navigation. There are several hundred of these devices, nearly abandoned and in terrible disrepair, littering the Arctic Sea route. Germany, said Heyes, would also be lending expertise in this area.

CEG member country programmes

France is planning on improving security at the retired Gremikha naval base on the Kola Peninsula, where several laid up nuclear submarines, some with their spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, still on board. Germany has also climbed on board at Gremikha to help rid the port of its ailing submarines by 2007.

France also presented plans, said Heyes, toward plutonium disposition in Russia—the only other country to do so besides Japan, which offered some $100m toward the stalled effort. Plutonium disposition has fallen by the wayside last summer as the US State Department allowed several technical agreements for researching weapons-grade plutonium destruction lapse.

Japan has also pledged another approximately $100m toward non-strategic submarine dismantlement in the Russian Far East, where Tokyo is currently engaged in dismantling a Victor III class submarine.

Italy presented plans to research and develop better plans for storing radioactive waste, and Sweden will join it in this effort. Italy also pledged some EUR360 to the NDEP nuclear window fund—a division of the NDEP programme that deals exclusively with nuclear and radioactive environmental problems in Northwest Russia.

Aside from its joint activities with Italy, Sweden will also be contributing to researching ways to clean up Andreyeva Bay.

The European Commission, said Heyes, will contribute $40m to NDEP to help facilitate various TACIS programmes now underway in Russia.