Northern Sea Route may keep RTGs

RTGs contained inside typical assemblies.

Publish date: July 4, 2006

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Peter Morley

The Navy Institute is proposing to extend the service life of more than 150 RTGs located on the Northern Sea Route, according to an unexpected statement by the head of the Institute’s nuclear fleet department, Valery Yarosh, at a conference in St. Petersburg.

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) are a source of electricity that contain radioactive strontium. In the Soviet Union they were installed in uninhabited locations and were used as power sources for lighthouses, but today this situation is unacceptable, given that strontium could easily fall into the hands of terrorists. Russia, with help from Western countries, is decommissioning these devices.

“But there is the option of prolonging the service life of RTGs, and this question was discussed at a working meeting with Rosatom representatives. The working life of RTGs may be extended without any safety dangers,” Yarosh said at a press conference at Rosatom’s Regional Centre dedicated to the accounting and control system for radioactive substances and radioactive waste.

Yarosh said that it had been suggested to leave in place 80-150 RTGs that had outlived their service life and were due for recycling along the Northern Sea Route.

The main argument Yarosh used to justify the decision was the lack of an alternative to RTGs in the raw conditions of Russia’s Far North.

“There is no doubt that there is a whole range of alternatives to RTGs. In the raw conditions of Russia’s Far North RTGs at lighthouses are being replaced with solar-powered batteries, and these lighthouses are successfully overseeing navigation,” a Bellona source said.

“Very little is impossible, but it is quite another question as to how much it costs. The way out is to switch as quickly as possible to digital maps, install these maps on all boats, and then we’ll be able to take down lots of lighthouses and not spend money on them and not use dangerous energy sources,” said Sergei Gubernatorov, general director of C-MAP Petersburg, which designs the electronic cards.

Gubernatorov said that GPS can be used along the whole length of the Northern Sea Route.

“State Hydrographic Service are actively developing digital maps. They are putting a lot of effort into it, and have covered almost the whole region. All that is left to do is for the ship owners to buy the equipment and install it on the boats, because it is not obligatory. It is possible to leave only those lighthouses that are necessary not for navigation but for orientation, in case GPS is down,” Gubernatorov said.

RTG vulnerabilities

“In itself, the RTG is not usable even for terrorist attacks,” Yarosh said. “The metallic capsule holding the radioactive heat source is impossible to hide without special equipment, and the source itself is very hard.”

Most RTGs (130 of 163) planned to be left on the Northern Sea Route are the vulnerable Beta-M type, which has no welds and, as the experience of the last 15 years has shown, can be dismantled in situ using simple metalworking equipment.

Naval Academy extreme scenario: numbers of extended-life RTGs on the Northern Sea Route in January 2011 (The 1st column: localities, the upper row: RTG types)










































Nikolai Kuzelev, general director of the institute that designed the RTGs, wrote in Atomic Strategy magazine in 2003 that “there are vulnerability problems with the RTG regarding terrorist attacks with targeted use of radioactive materials contained in an RTG.”

In addition, it is known that radioactive substances can escape into the environment if the RTG’s protective case is damaged. In 2003, for example, on the Navarin Cape in Chukotka, in Russia’s Far East, an emergency RTG was discovered that had apparently been hit by landrover of a reindeer breeder group that had visited the site in 1999. Closer investigation should that the strontium had started to leak from the RTG into the environment, as a result of “unknown thermal-physical processes.” This thereby contradicted the thesis – held for years by the RTG’s designers – that the strontium capsule was virtually invulnerable.

Several cases of hunters dismantling RTGs for nonferrous metals led to the theft of a capsule: in 1999, a capsule with radiation level of over 1,000 R/HR (at 20 cm distance) was found at a bus stop in the Leningrad Oblast town of Kingisepp. Doses of above 100 R can give people radiation poisoning, and a one-time dose of over 600 R is considered fatal. When the capsule was taken out of the RTG, it poses a health hazard and can possibly be fatal to people and animals nearby (within 500 m).

Nevertheless, in connection with numerous cases in which hunters destroyed RTGs for nonferrous metals, Yarosh noted that “we have people who throw themselves under the metro train as well.”

The same opinion was expressed by Sergei Brykin, head of the central information and analytical centre for state accounting and control of radioactive substances and radioactive waste.

“If you count the number of RTGs and the number of cases of illegal dismantling and compare that with tragedies on the roads, in the metro, or even with medicines – the RTG will appear much safer,” he said.

Moreover, Yarosh said, the danger of RTGs can be seen as a plus, and not a minus. “RTGs are already protected by the fact that they’re dangerous. People will steal alternative sources of nonferrous metals.”

RTG decommissioning programme

The Soviet Union produced around 1,500 RTGs, mainly as independent fuel for lighthouses on uninhabited coasts. Today, all of them are long past their shelf life. Most of them are unguarded, or at best checked once a year.

Previously, Rosatom repeatedly said it had plans to decommission all RTGs by 2011.

Work on decommissioning the RTGs is carried out with support from Norway and the United States, and talks are ongoing with Germany, Canada, and France. In Russia’s northwest with financial support from Norway RTGs in lighthouses are being replaced by solar batteries, and a plan has been agreed on this up to 2008. From the start of 2001 to the end of 2005, 295 RTGs were replaced along the Northern Sea Route, and 214 of them were dismantled

According to Yarosh, 303 RTGs were left along the Northern Sea Route as of January 1.

A “master plan” is also being developed for decommissioning RTGs. The aim of the master plan is to coordinate the work of Western donors, set priorities and remove previous opacity in spending of funds.

“We have now entered the industrial stage of decommissioning RTGs,” Brykin said. “We have the capacity and the infrastructure to decommission 10-20 RTGs every year.” All of this is going on even though “decommissioning RTGs is a very complicated process, and replacing them is economically unsound.”

St. Petersburg conference

At the conference in St. Petersburg data were announced on the condition of Russia’s systems for handling radioactive substances and radioactive waste. Following government resolution 1298 of October 1997, the system should have been in place by January 1, 2001.

Resolution 1298 delegated to regional executive bodies authority for accounting for and controlling radioactive substances and radioactive waste on their territories. In the 85 of Russia’s total 88 regions that have radiation-dangerous facilities, regional information and analytical centres should be set up.

But, Brykin said, currently such centres have been set up and functioning in 66 regions (78%).

In 2004, the number of the functioning centers was 39 (45%).

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