Norway concerned about possible nuclear explosion at Andreyeva Bay

Publish date: June 1, 2007

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Translated by: Charles Digges

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg plans to discuss in his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week about the dangers of a nuclear chain reaction at Andreyeva Bay, the Russian Navy’s prime dumping ground in Northwest Russia for radioactive waste.

Andreyeva Bay – a long-time radioactive hazard and environmental headache for Russia and surrounding European nations – is located just 40 kilometres from the Norwegian border.

Stoltenberg’s assistant Friday told Bellona Web that the agenda of next week’s economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia will include a host of questions regarding nuclear and radiation safety.

Russia scientists confirm danger
According to an investigation launched last year by several Russian nuclear institutes, a nuclear chain reaction is possible within Andreyeva Bay’s spent nuclear fuel (SNF) containers, which contain more that 21,000 fuel assemblies.

Of special danger are three storage tanks at Andreyeva Bay holding old and damaged submarine SNF. Recent surveys of these tanks conducted by Russian nuclear research institutes concluded that they have been contaminated by salt water.

It had been assumed previously that the tanks were dry and unaffected by seawater. Salt water drastically accelerates he corrosion of the fuel assemblies held inside these tanks, which could lead to an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.

“The ongoing degradation [of the fuel in the concrete tanks] leads to splitting of the fuel into small (20 to 200 micro-meter) granules. Calculations show that the creation of a homogeneous mixture of these particles with water could lead to uncontrolled chain reaction,” bluntly stated the study conducted by the Russian institutes, which published in the scientific journal Atomic Energy.

“The most dangerous concentration is 5 to 10 percent of fuel particles in the water. Such a concentration could be reached if particles fall into the water in the (fuel) rods which themselves hold fuel when the fuel elements are being lifted, for example."

Possible effect of a chain reaction

A chain reaction and explosion or a series of explosions would cause radioactive contamination to both the surrounding territory as well as the Barents Sea. A former naval base for Russia’s Northern Fleet, Andreyeva Bay is located just 40 kilometres from the Norwegian border and 100 kilometres from the Northern Russia city of Murmansk.

Bellona published the first data on Andreyeva Bay and the hazards it poses in 1993. Since that time, a number of cosmetic improvements have been undertaken but the main problems remains unsolved and each passing year makes the situation more and more dangerous.

“ For the 14 years since information has been made public about Andreyeva Bay, we are still sitting on a powder keg with a burning fuse,” said Alexander Nikitin, director of Bellona’s offices in St. Petersburg.

“And we can only guess about the length of the fuse.”

Russia mishandling nuclear funding
The cost of the ecological rehabilitation of Andreyeva bay is currently estimated at $15 billion. But instead of taking steps toward deal with problem, the Russia’s Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, Rosatom, apparently prefers to pour funding into projects like building floating nuclear power plants.

Bellona will bring suit again Rosatom
In light of the complexity of the conditions at Andreyeva Bay and the inaction of Russian authorities responsible for taking these decisions, Bellona is studying the possibility of suing the concerned bodies of Rosatom, whose mandate is the safety of the Andreyeva Bay installation.

The administration of Bellona considers court to be the only alternative to force Russian authorities to undertake quick and effective action to normalise conditions at Andreyeva Bay.

“In Norway there has been much talk of the necessity of cutting off funding to Russia in environmental projects, but we consider that, in today’s conditions, these problems will not be solved without western help, “ said Igor Kudrik, a researcher and nuclear submarine specialist with Bellona.

“Without (western help) money will be spent (by Russia) on new and dangerous projects, like floating nuclear power plants.”

Anatomy of a chain reaction

As a consequence of the concentration of salt in the water (some 1500 milligrams per litre) and chloride (some 400 milligrams per litre) holding the spent fuel elements at Andreyeva Bay, the fuel itself is degrading into small granules and particles.

According to the scientists who wrote the report, a chain reaction will occur when the concentration of fuel particles reaches 5 to 10 percent.

The shedding of fuel particles in stationary conditions occurs slowly. However when fuel casings are unloaded, the shedding can drastically increase. The time it take for a mixture of particles to reach 5 to 10 percent the total volume of fuel waste held in a container is not able to be calculated, meaning it could happen very slowly or very quickly – a literal game of Russian Roulette.

Andreyeva Bay is by far the largest storage site for nuclear waste in Europe. It was created some 40 years ago on the banks of the Motovsky Gulf as a temporary storage facility under the aegis of the Ministry of Defense.