Bellona is publishing its detailed position paper on the possibility of an uncontrollable chain reaction – or simply said, a small nuclear explosion – at the storage facility for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel at Andreyeva Bay on the Kola Peninsula, urges President Putin to take the situation under personal control.
Representatives of Russia’s top atomic authority Rosatom show diametrically different reactions to Bellona’s reports on the situation at Andreyeva Bay, the former naval base of the Russian Northern Fleet and the largest site of storage for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in Europe, located just 100 kilometres from Murmansk and 45 kilometres from the Russian-Norwegian border.
On the one hand, Andrei Gagarinsky, deputy director of the famous Russian Igor Kurchatov Scientific Centre, which took part in the research performed at Andreyeva Bay, said in an interview to the Russian daily Noviye Ivestiya: “The problem with nuclear waste storage at Andreyeva Bay has remained unsolved for a very long time for a number of objective reasons… Bellona’s statement that a threat of a new Chernobyl is imminent is essentially correct.”
On the other hand, several Rosatom representatives accused Bellona of indulging in provocations and wild speculations.
In light of such polarised reactions, Bellona is publishing a PDF version of the report on the research carried out at Andreyeva Bay by Russian scientists, experts with the Dollezhal Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Nuclear Safety Institute and the Kurchatov Centre. This study was conducted with the support of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority and the account of the survey was made public in the magazine Atomnaya Energiya (Atomic Energy, Vol. 101, Issue 1, July 2006) – an official Rosatom publication, issued, no less, with taxpayer money.
“It is indeed a pity that Rosatom representatives are not familiar with research published by their own official media outlet,” said Rashid Alimov, editor of Bellona’s Russian-language website.
The possibility of an uncontrollable chain reaction at Andreyeva Bay is described on Page 52 of the report (third paragraph from the end), where the study’s authors say that under the impact of salt-containing water, the fuel in the storage tanks is undergoing degradation and “shedding” into small particles: “As calculations show, the formation of a homogeneous mixture of water with these particles can lead to a spontaneous chain reaction.”
In its Position Paper titled “Andreyeva Bay: Time to avert a catastrophe,” Bellona presents its own evaluation of the scientists’ study along with recommendations concerning a project that Rosatom made public in October 2006, in which the agency proposes measures of environmental rehabilitation of the site that remains in a clear state of crisis.
Rosatom’s project and Bellona’s recommendations
In 1982, an accident took place in the pool-type storage facility (Building 5) at Andreyeva Bay. As a result of this accident, some 3,000 cubic metres of radioactive cooling water leaked outside the pool. The spent nuclear fuel in storage at the site was moved to a dry storage block. After a period of time, water was found in the dry storage facility.
In Bellona’s opinion, the site’s administration is underestimating the danger of the situation and is failing to take measures to curb it.
In view of the extreme complexity of the project of SNF removal from the hazardous site and the severe danger that the site now poses, Frederic Hauge, President of the Bellona Foundation, addresses the President of the Russian Federation – who bears the responsibility of making decisions relating to the safety of the application of atomic energy in accordance with the Russian law “On the Use of Atomic Energy” – with a request to take the situation with the nuclear hazards at Andreyeva Bay under his control.
Furthermore, our organisation will continue to insist that Russia and the international community strengthen their efforts to ensure safety at the storage site.
In their report published in Atomnaya Energiya, scientists have for the first time openly warned that a spontaneous nuclear chain reaction can occur in some of the compartments where cases with spent nuclear fuel are stored.
In an evaluation of the potential environmental impact of an accident performed by Rosatom, this situation is dubbed as a “beyond design basis accident.” In the case of such an accident, the maximum effective radiation dose expected to hit the area’s population at the boundary of the sanitary protection zone of 100 metres – with the worst imaginable weather conditions taken into account – will not exceed 40 microsieverts in the first year after the accident. This dose is only two times as high as the acceptable contamination level.
But according to Bellona, these estimations are so optimistic as to qualify for criminal negligence.
“One has to take it into consideration that one explosion in one storage compartment can trigger explosions in neighbouring compartments,” said Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s branch in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Altogether, there are 3,059 cases with spent nuclear fuel in storage in tanks at Andreyeva Bay. Therefore, no less than some 20 million curies will be discharged into the atmosphere as a result of such an accident.
Considering that most of the SNF at Andreyeva Bay has been stored there for over 25 years, its margin of safety – and consequently, of time left before its full degradation – is practically impossible to determine with any degree of precision.
In Bellona’s view, the situation in Andreyeva Bay warrants more urgent actions that those proposed by Rosatom. Bellona suggests that the option of pumping the leaked water out of the dry storage block be researched to buy some time while long-term measures are developed.
Bellona believes that the project of SNF removal from the storage site as envisioned by Rosatom “risks prolongation, has implicit commercial underpinnings and is not aimed at ensuring safety of the stored SNF as urgently as the current circumstances require.” Our organisation further points out that no tender was announced to carry out the project as the Rosatom plan was under development.
It is also Bellona’s opinion that Rosatom’s project fails to present clear information on how the half-destroyed cases with SNF would be extracted from their storage compartments, or how the ongoing “shedding” of the fuel and the further formation of the explosive homogeneous mixture would be prevented. It is likewise unclear how and to which destination the damaged SNF removed from its storage will consequently be transported.
Finally, the project makes no reference as to whether the infrastructure planned to manage the damaged SNF outside Andreyeva Bay – containers, transport means or other storage sites – is ready to accept the load, or whether there is relevant legislative or normative basis to support this operation to begin with.