Andreyeva Bay: How imminent is the catastrophe?


Publish date: October 8, 2007

Written by: Victoria Kopeikina

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - Bellona asked several industry experts to comment on the critical situation that has developed in the nuclear materials storage facility in Andreyeva Bay, where spent nuclear fuel (SNF) generated in reactors of Russian nuclear-powered submarines is contained.

Bellona was first to bring to notice the dangers of the former onshore maintenance base built in Andreyeva Bay to service Russia’s Northern Fleet when it published its report titled “The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination” as long as 12 years ago. Nonetheless, problems of SNF storage in the bay have as yet to be solved and ecologists fear it is not long before they evolve into a looming disaster.

In the beginning, there was water

In 1982, radioactive water was found leaking from a cooling pool in one of the buildings of Andreyeva Bay’s SNF storage facility. This water was seeping into the ground on which the building stood and into a creek that was flowing underneath. The creek was spreading the leaking water further into Andreyeva Bay and the Motovsky Gulf, carrying with it high concentrations of caesium and strontium.

A decision was made to evacuate the SNF stored in the pool into three large tanks at a dry storage facility. The main requirement for the new storage policy was a total absence of water in the tanks. The SNF was loaded into steel tubes and accommodated in the tanks, with all spaces between the tubes filled with concrete. The plan was that the relocated SNF would be stored in these conditions temporarily – for a period of three to four years – and not for 25 years as it eventually happened. There are now in total 3,059 casks with SNF in dry storage at Andreyeva Bay.

Last year, the Russian industry journal Atomnaya Energiya (Atomic Energy) published an article authored by researchers from the Dollezhal Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Nuclear Safety Institute and the Igor Kurchatov Scientific Centre. The factual material for the article came from the results of a study undertaken as part of the Strategic Master Plan for the decommissioning and taking out of operation of submarines and other nuclear-powered vessels of the Russian Navy in Russia’s Northwest.

The article reveals the threatening state that the SNF storage facility is in, reports that there is water in it, and warns that there exists a hypothetical possibility of a spontaneous chain reaction in the bay – in other words, a nuclear explosion – which, in Bellona’s opinion, could lead to mass-scale radioactive contamination of the area. The facts stated in the article caused deep concern among environmentalists, who demand speeding up SNF removal from the defective storage facility, using the safest methods possible.

Bellona meets with industry experts

Vice Admiral Ashot Sarkisov: Russian academician and adviser with the Russian Academy of Sciences; has supervised the scientific development of the Russian Navy’s Strategic Submarine Decommissioning Master Plan.

Albert Vasiliyev:
Director of the International Centre for Environmental Safety of the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Rosatom), deputy department head at the Dollezhal Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering.

Valentin Vysotsky:
Laboratory head at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Nuclear Safety Institute; has developed the Decommissioning Master Plan’s radioactive and toxic wastes management projects.

Bellona Web: The SNF in storage at Andreyeva Bay, how safely kept is it?

Sarkisov: The conditions of storage there are, of course, unsatisfactory, from the point of view of technological requirements. This is exactly the reason why we are planning and already realising a number of projects aimed at the urgent removal of (spent nuclear) fuel from the territory of this former onshore maintenance base. Removing SNF from the storage facility in Andreyeva Bay is undoubtedly one of the tasks with the highest priority today. At the same time, I have to point out that at present, this storage facility does not have any real negative impact on the environment. However, we understand that further long-term storage of SNF in such conditions is unacceptable, which is why measures are being taken to speed up the work already in progress there in order to create an infrastructure that would ensure that removal of SNF from the territory of the base starts already in 2008.

Bellona Web: So the so-called “corrosion coat” in the compartments in between the pipes will, in your opinion, have no negative impact either?

Sarkisov: No, not on the environment outside the storage facility. All of this impact is localised within the confines of the storage blocks.

Vasiliyev: Everything will remain within the bounds of the compartments. Even if all of the fuel turns into flakes because of the corrosion resulting from the water, and crumbles to the bottom of the casks and compartments, there is no chance of any explosions.
Bellona Web: Twice in the article (in Atomnaya Energiya) you mention fuel degradation. What exactly does this process entail?

Sarkisov: It means that fuel pin claddings suffer defects caused by corrosion, they become prone to leaks, the fuel turns into a powder-like mass, and part of that powder deposits, like sediment, at the bottom of the fuel assembly.

Vasiliyev: But the claddings are made of stainless steel, and if there ever are any cracks in them, then they are small ones.

Sarkisov: Still, I will emphasise it once again that one has to treat fuel storage conditions with utmost attention and ultimate responsibility, because a concentration of a large quantity of fissile material implies the presence of a radiation danger, and, theoretically, a potential nuclear hazard as well. It is all the more true if the fuel is defective and is furthermore stored in inappropriate conditions. This is why, in all our work and research, we come to the conclusion that a removal of SNF from Andreyeva Bay has to start as soon as possible.

Chain reaction – possible, but not probable?

Bellona Web: Is there a possibility that a spontaneous chain reaction can occur in the dry storage blocks?

Sarkisov: Everything that was written in that article about the potential possibility of a spontaneous chain reaction – provided that a number of conditions are fulfilled – is correct, and we stand by every word of it. So why did this issue arise anyway? The reason is that to assess the projects within the comprehensive decommissioning programme from the point of view of priority, we had to consider all possible incidents associated with radiation or nuclear risks, including even unlikely ones. This is why our study included a theoretical analysis of the possibility of a critical ensemble occurring as a result of such fuel damage that can lead to the appearance of physical conditions (prompting) the start of a spontaneous chain reaction. Both British scientists, who have performed such assessments, and our specialists have concluded that when added one upon another simultaneously, certain circumstances – be they very unlikely in and of themselves – imply that theoretically, it cannot be ruled out that a critical mass can be created that would result in a nuclear eruption of a local scale.

Vysotsky: Meaning, in a thermal explosion.

Sarkisov: But this conclusion is the result of conceding a number of highly conservative assumptions. Here are some of them. It is a known fact that the storage blocks contain spent fuel with different levels of initial enrichment and of different, mostly high, degrees of burn-up. But the premise for the calculations was that all of the fuel in the casks was fresh – i.e., with the highest danger potential. The second assumption comes from the use in the calculations of data on those reactor cores where fuel was used which had the highest level of initial enrichment – over 20 percent. Finally, it was allowed that the material from which the claddings of all the fuel rods were made was zirconium, which, as is well known, is a metal least preventing the development of a spontaneous chain reaction as it is a weak neutron absorber. That said, even if all of the fuel contained in the seven fuel rod assemblies crumbles into fine particles and falls to the bottom of the cask, then the system – even if all of the fuel from all of the fuel rod assemblies pours down to the bottom – will still be extremely subcritical, the neutron multiplication factor being less than 1 and equal to 0.41633±0.00084. However, if the storage block were to get a jolt and the fuel were to be tossed up from the bottom, the situation would be changed. A number of scenarios have been considered for the differing heights of the fuel/water column and it was determined that the optimal level at which a maximum neutron multiplication factor could be reached is around 70 centimetres.

However, this could only be the result of a very powerful external impact force, such as the shock effect of an explosion, an earthquake or an airplane crash.

These are the only circumstances that make possible a spontaneous chain reaction with consequences such as what we have calculated. The external radiation exposure from the cloud that would be formed as a result of the nuclear eruption (thermal explosion) can at the distance of 2 to 3 kilometres reach around 50 microsieverts (by the standards of the Radiation Safety Regulations, the acceptable radiation level for personnel is 99 microsieverts), and around 1 microsieverts (a level acceptable for the general population) at the distance of 20 kilometres. Therefore, the explosion’s effect on the environment would be of a rather limited scale, and comparing the consequences of such an incident with those of the Chernobyl catastrophe is simply wrong.

In our studies we have given a qualitative assessment of the probability of all of the emergency incidents considered in the research. In particular, the probability of occurrence of a spontaneous chain reaction was estimated at 10 to the negative eighth power. In nuclear energy science, such a probability is deemed as negligibly small. One could be reminded that new nuclear power plants are built with calculations based on the probability of a beyond-design-basis accident taken at 10 to the negative sixth power, meaning that the probability of such an accident acceptable for a nuclear power plant is greater by two orders of magnitude than the same estimated for a spontaneous chain reaction in the storage blocks at Andreyeva Bay. By the way, all of these data were also published in another article of ours, which appeared in the same issue of Atomnaya Energiya, but unfortunately, went unnoticed by Bellona’s experts.

So that the very possibility of such an incident could be fully and deterministically ruled out, we joined forces with partners in Great Britain to develop a special technology for channel-by-channel SNF discharge from the storage blocks.

It should be noted that all of the articles from the cited issue of Atomnaya Energiya provide a coverage of the results of the first stage of the Strategic Master Plan development. These results were at one point reviewed by a group of international specialists who were assessing the possible impact of the envisioned measures on the environment. Public hearings have also been organised in Moscow, Severodvinsk and Murmansk, where representatives of your esteemed organisation were among the participants. In all these cases, our principal conclusions and recommendations worked out for the Strategic Master Plan received a positive feedback, and a special notice was made of the unprecedented openness of this work to the press and the public. I, for one, was pleased to learn of the positive evaluation of this work on the part of my pupil, Alexander Nikitin.

By no means does anything that was said above mean that there are no hazards in Andreyeva Bay. I – just like the notorious historical figure who concluded all of his speeches with the statement “Carthage must be destroyed!” – will never tire of repeating that storing spent nuclear fuel in such conditions that have developed there is absolutely unacceptable. Which is why those of our organisations that are responsible for tackling these issues, as well as international aid, must be concentrated on solving the problems accumulated at Andreyeva Bay as urgently as possible.

A safer SNF discharge method is chosen – but timeframes remain the same
Bellona Web: Is there water in the storage blocks?

Vasiliyev: There is water in two of the three storage tanks, the third one is still all dry. The fuel rod assemblies there are dry, but they are not suspended, they stand on top of the bottom, so they cannot, by definition, fall until they are lifted. As for radiolysis, release of hydrogen caused by corrosion and the possibility of a powerful hydrogen explosion, all of which was described in the article “Worse than Chernobyl: ‘dirty timebomb’ ticking in a rusting Russian nuclear dump threatens Europe,” published by Britain’s The Independent on June 10th – that is some nonsense, really. Have you been to Sellafield? Sellafield is an open-air facility right on the seashore, seagulls’ droppings and all, the fuel assemblies lie at the bottom and fresh fuel is placed there as well, so there are acute radiolysis levels there, but no one has yet raised the issue of hydrogen blowing up.

Bellona Web:
But our storage facility is considered a unique one. Can the two really be compared?

It is unique, but in a good way. (At Sellafield) all that is taking place in huge amounts of water, whereas we have small narrow compartments, where there is very little water and a whole lot of metal, it’s the compartment’s carcass that readily absorbs hydrogen, if any is released at all. So it’s beyond comprehension how anything of that sort could be even thought up (by The Independent).

Bellona Web: What can you say about Rosatom’s SNF removal project and the environmental impact study that was done on that project?

The environmental risks evaluation was prepared as part of an overall feasibility study. Later, when the project undergoes further development, another big volume will be put together – the safety substantiation study, which will include safety considerations for the personnel, the population, and the environment. All this is very serious work that is being reviewed under a state-commissioned environmental risks assessment procedure. Already now, after experts reviewed the feasibility study (and gave their approval of it), certain approaches have been changed, including changes made to the discharge technology. A decision was made to extend the implementation timeframes, which would also rule out completely any possibility of an accident.

When the various fuel management options were being considered, the choice of preference was unloading each cask in bulk. The Brits were first to sound the alarm bells. (Environmentalists, too, voiced their sharp criticism over this discharge method. – Bellona Web). A different discharge method has been chosen now which does not involve lifting the cask. All of the water down to the lid is first pumped out, then the lid is opened and fuel rod assemblies are removed one by one. As long as one or two assemblies are already taken out, nothing is supposed to explode even if the whole cask is removed. Any probability of an accident is ruled out, deterministically. In short, there is no “ticking time bomb” at Andreyeva Bay, no “smouldering fuse,” of which Nikitin has been talking about.

Bellona Web:
What is your comment on the timeframes for the SNF discharge – 15 years? Don’t you think this might be too long?

All depends here on how smooth the funding will be. If financing were regular, on target and stable, and if contract preparation were to move faster, we wouldn’t need 15 years. I am an optimist: We could do it within a shorter period of time.

Sarkisov: With ideal financing, we would need 10 years, because this is a large amount of work. Anyway, the point is that it requires time, this is not a job that could be done in an instant.

Vasiliyev: The further we delay this process, the more difficult it will be to work at the final stages.

Bellona Web:
What exactly is the problem, then?

Vasiliyev: The wharf is not ready yet, and the ship has still not been completed. In other words, everything hangs onto the funding.

Bellona Web: What is the overall volume of funding that comes annually from the Russian federal budget for all projects in progress at all the sites in Andreyeva Bay? Can you name the average yearly figure and the precise figure for next year?

Sarkisov: In recent years, between RUR 150m ($6m) and RUR 160m has been appropriated from the federal budget annually for various works in Andreyeva Bay, and that figure is gradually updated as inflation is taken into account. The funding that comes from international aid changes from year to year, it fluctuates, but on average, it is in the same order as funds earmarked from the federal budget. The share of budget financing is expected to increase consistently in the coming years.

The regional monitoring system
Bellona Web: Are there any particular approaches worked out for ensuring nuclear safety at Andreyeva Bay?

Sarkisov: All this has been worked through in detail as part of the development of the Strategic Master Plan, which has just recently been completed. All relevant information is stated in the full version of the Plan, which was put together for use by experts and will not be circulated openly among the public. At the same time, a brief version of the Master Plan has also been drawn up (about 100 pages), and that report will be made available for general audiences.

I would like to note that among all the factors under consideration both as part of all the research studies and when providing substantiation of project prioritisation methods in particular, the factors of nuclear and radiation safety were given special attention as having utmost importance and determinant quality. This is why the measures that we have proposed on the basis of this research are aimed, first and foremost, at eliminating or minimising all real or potential risks associated with radiation and nuclear incidents.

Bellona Web: Still, what kind of measures are planned?

Vasiliyev: Dosimetry equipment has been installed that will monitor radiation conditions at the personnel’s workplace, and sanitary and decontamination areas (have been arranged), where staff can change work clothes and which are also used as security checkpoints. An SNF management project is now entering a development stage, the British are financing this work; this project will take every bit of detail into account. Regular meetings are under way at the moment, where specific safety issues are being solved: what to use for unloading, how to unload, where to move, what kind of protection will be supplied for the personnel, which equipment has to be purchased.

Sarkisov: The main thing in the problem that we are discussing here is removing the very source of the danger, namely, evacuating the fuel. The Comprehensive Decommissioning Programme, which is a part of the Strategic Master Plan, envisions the implementation of 48 projects in all in Andreyeva Bay that total EUR 550m combined. These projects are aimed at removing the SNF as soon as possible and at a further remediation of the base’s territory to the level of a so-called “brownfield” (i.e., a nuclear repository – Bellona Web). I will put a special emphasis on saying that problems in Andreyeva Bay are not being solved locally, but as an integral part of a whole complex of problems related to decommissioning and environmental rehabilitation in the region.

Vasiliyev: In order to start unloading the fuel, water, heat and electricity supply have to be provided. That has been assigned to Norway, while Sweden and Italy are tackling the issue of radioactive waste, as the SNF management will generate that, too.

Sarkisov: At the moment, planned works are under way at the former onshore maintenance base in Andreyeva Bay with all necessary protection measures being organised for the maintenance personnel, the population and the environment. A regional monitoring and emergency response system has been created in Murmansk region, with access provided not only to Rosatom, but to regional and any other interested persons or organisations as well, environmental ones being no exception. The system monitors radiation conditions in the region, including all main sites involved in decommissioning and environmental remediation. There is also an emergency centre, which has been created to work out recommendations for the appropriate decision-making and organising a response when non-standard situations arise.

A great deal of attention is given to the security of nuclear materials so as to rule out their unsanctioned removal or loss or any probability that these materials may be used for terrorist purposes.

Vasiliyev: A monitoring system, of course, is very important for the public’s emotional peace, but our task is to make sure that it confirms the safety (of works under implementation), so that nothing happens during SNF unloading, nor when it is being prepared for evacuation, nor during its transfer.

A surgeon’s approach
Bellona Web: The Dollezhal Institute is known to have worked out its own approach to unloading the SNF, is that correct?

Vasiliyev: A work group was put together from specialists of the Dollezhal Institute and the Obninsk Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, then the Brits decided to have an expert evaluation of our work, and experts from the Kurchatov Centre fully confirmed our findings. All in all, a fuel discharge technology was finally chosen that would deterministically rule out any possibility of an accident. In the near future (September, most likely), a digest of the journal Atomnaya Energiya will publish a most detailed article written by Dollezhal specialists on this issue. That said, not all of the parameters used in our work can be made public: in particular, assembly designs, fuel composition etc.

Regarding the management of the SNF, it has also been suggested to use the approach invented by the surgeon (Nikolai) Pirogov (famed, among other things, for his career as a military surgeon): First evacuate those suffering from minor injuries and then the rest of the wounded. It’s like that here, too: First goes all the fuel that can be easily removed, that’s most (of the fuel in storage) and it can be transferred fast, and then we start dealing, in parallel, with what is harder to tackle.

Andreyeva Bay and its Master Plan
The development of the Strategic Master Plan was initiated under the aegis of the so-called Global Partnership programme devised by the Group of Eight industrialised nations in order to secure and clean up Russia’s huge nuclear legacy amassed during the years of the Cold War and the arms race. The G-8 countries pledged to contribute to these purposes $10 billion over a period of 10 years. When the commitment was agreed on, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which was responsible for the allocation of the funds, set forth a requirement that a comprehensive study be first conducted to prioritise the projects in need of financing before the cash could start flowing freely into the programme. According to Sarkisov, the first stage of the Strategic Master Plan, which had been worked out and published in 2004 precisely for that purpose, has a few noteworthy features: Firstly, it prescribes remediation projects not only for nuclear-powered submarines, but for the commercial nuclear-powered fleet as well. Secondly, the plan targets not the current pressing problems, but aims for an effective end result. And thirdly, all of the sites envisaged for decommissioning and environmental rehabilitation are regarded under the Master Plan as an integral system with special notice paid to how complex, diverse and multi-layered are the technological, production-related, transport and other interconnections making up this system. Finally, another important characteristic of the Master Plan is that it has been worked out in close contact with Rosatom, a broad circle of experts from leading Russian scientific institutes, and with participation of an international consulting body.

According to Sarkisov, it follows from the Master Plan developed under his guidance that Andreyeva Bay is a site of “foremost priority” because of the sheer amount of problems accumulated there and the complexity of solutions needed to cope with them. “There are no underestimations of what is going on there,” the academician said at the beginning of his interview to Bellona Web.

The participants of the conversation noted that Norway became the first country to offer a helping hand to Russia when the hazardous fuel had first been in need of evacuation to a dry storage facility after an accident in 1982 and when a radioactive leak had to be stopped to prevent the stream beneath the defected storage facility from carrying the radioactive water to sea. Norway further advanced its assistance when in 1998 the Russian government made a decision to transfer the then-military base of Andreyeva Bay and the Russian Navy’s three other bases in the area into the purview of the then-Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), later transformed into the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy. Norway was in subsequent years joined by the Swedish International Nuclear Safety Project, as well as the governments of Great Britain and Italy, and in 2002 the international partners in Andreyeva Bay rehabilitation efforts divided the various tasks at hand into several distinct areas of responsibility. Great Britain took SNF management, Norwegians applied themselves to installing and building infrastructure, Sweden got involved in tackling radioactive waste, and Italy volunteered for works related to submarine decommissioning.