Andreyeva Bay: The unanswered questions

Bellona Archive

Publish date: October 8, 2007

Written by: Alexander Nikitin

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

The problem of rehabilitation of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) storage facilities in Andreyeva Bay on Russia’s Kola Peninsula has long been a great concern for Bellona. In our opinion, this site remains the first-priority nuclear hazard in Russia’s North and requires most urgent remediation.

Because of a number of articles published recently in the magazine Atomnaya Energiya (Atomic Energy) that Bellona has deemed it necessary to revisit the Andreyeva Bay issue and to try to comprehend and shed light on what is really going on at this former naval maintenance base.

Last summer, Bellona hosted a press conference in Murmansk, which essentially morphed into a debate between Bellona’s experts and the representatives of SevRAO (Northern Enterprise for the Management of Radioactive Waste), a special structure created by Russia’s top nuclear authority to implement various works at Andreyeva Bay. A Bellona Web reporter also met three industry experts who authored the articles in Atomnaya Energiya (see Andreyeva Bay: How imminent is the catastrophe in sidebar) to talk to them about their views on the situation at Andreyeva Bay. Bellona appreciates the scientists’ willingness to share their position with us.

In their rather bold articles (Atomnaya Energiya, Vol. 101, Issue 1), these experts did not beat around the bush and openly offered their prognoses as to the potential nuclear threat brewing in Andreyeva Bay. Later at the meeting with Bellona Web and at Bellona’s press conference, however, both the interviewees and SevRAO representatives tried to smooth over the situation at the site and assuage the audience, saying that there is nothing – nor can there ever be anything – to fear. We took this change of heart with understanding, but what we learned during these meetings did nonetheless fall short of our expectations and left us with certain questions that remained unanswered.

The danger
None of the participants of these discussions doubted that the conditions of SNF storage at Andreyeva Bay were poor and that in view of such conditions, an accident followed by a spontaneous chain reaction could not completely be ruled out. At the same time, scientists have asserted that the probability of such an accident is, according to calculations, equal to 10 to the negative eighth power. Being so infinitesimal, such a probability value is apparently supposed to calm all possible fears associated with the site. We have nothing left to do but trust these estimations. However, Bellona still has doubts that it has been unsuccessful in dispelling and questions it has received no concrete answers for – mainly, with regard to the condition of the nuclear fuel contained in dry storage compartments and possible scenarios that could be expected to unfurl when that fuel undergoes evacuation from the site.

It was stated as plain fact in the Atomnaya Energiya articles that all of the compartments of Dry Storage Block 2B* are filled with water. Additionally, “…it has been registered with all certainty that alpha-emitting radionuclides are present in the water (in the compartments). For example, the specific radioactivity of [Cesium-137] at the bottom of Compartment 1147 is 8.9 x 107 [becquerels per litre], that of [Strontium-90] is 7.2 x 108 [becquerels per litre], and that of alpha-emitting nuclides is 5.4 х 104 [becquerels per litre]. This is evidence that there has been contact of the fuel and the water, as a consequence of which not only fission products, but actinide elements as well have been transported into the water.”

Block 3A is also filled with water of unknown origin. There has been no study conducted into the state of this storage block – or none, at least, that we have heard of. The condition of fuel rod assemblies in these blocks, therefore, remains open to speculation. The assertions of the scientists who have talked with Bellona Web that the claddings of these fuel assemblies have not been damaged, but only have slight cracks (microfissures) rely on guesswork and are substantiated by no solid proof. In point of fact, the sentences quoted above testify to rather significant defects in the assemblies’ claddings. Therefore, questions still arise regarding the condition of the fuel rods in storage.

There is likewise no certainty as to the nuclear safety standards being met when handling this fuel in the future. According to our information, calculations performed on the issue turned out not so hopeful as the interview would like us to believe. For instance, experts with the Nikolai Dollezhal Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering opted not to take the casks out of their compartments when examining Block 2A – which is not filled with water – as the calculation-based analysis of the probability of a spontaneous chain reaction that the institute refers us to did not confirm that this operation would be risk-free from the point of view of nuclear safety.

This is, at any rate, what it says in the official report on this examination.

What we have today is not precise and objective study data on the condition of fuel rod assemblies in all three dry storage blocks, but controversial theoretical assessments. The conservative estimations of nuclear safety that the scientists are talking about are optimistic enough but lack any material examination results to support them. Furthermore, there are no clear technological solutions to apply when the fuel assemblies are to be removed from their casks, or the casks from their compartments. Over 30 percent of compartments in Block 2A – which is in a far better condition than Blocks 2B and 3A – simply could not be opened. A jack with a half-a-tonne lifting capacity used for the operation failed to break through the resistance of the lid locked tight together with the compartment’s wall. Another example is one fuel rod assembly which, when examined during this study, was found stuck firmly to one of the walls of its cask through rusting or scale build-up. It is unclear how this assembly would be extracted, and it may in all likelihood turn out to be not the only one like that in storage. We have to be prepared to all kinds of surprises that may reveal themselves during the fuel’s evacuation.

SNF evacuation plan
Most troubling is the project for the unloading of spent nuclear fuel out of the dry storage blocks – or, to be more precise, a complete absence of such.

In the autumn of 2006, Murmansk hosted a set of hearings on the feasibility of investing into the SNF and radioactive waste management infrastructure on the territory of the temporary storage facility in Andreyeva Bay. An environmental risk assessment study developed as part of the investment feasibility analysis was presented there as well. Additionally, the public heard of suggestions with regard to the master plan for designing and building the various infrastructure at Andreyeva Bay. However, as of September 2007, there was yet to appear a plan for the very unloading of the SNF in storage and its further management. It also begs the question how authorities plan to start evacuating the SNF in 2008 when the master plan states that the construction’s overall timeframe is 51 months (almost four and a half years). At best, SNF unloading will probably start in five years. Such procrastination is astounding given that the real nuclear danger looming from the storage facility is increasing with each year. By the time the SNF will finally be prepared for evacuation, it will have spent in total 30 years in these deplorable conditions. It should also be kept in mind that two of the three dry storage blocks are inundated and that water in them freezes every winter and melts every spring, inflicting even more damage on the blocks, including the metallic constructions. Corrosion and freezing water make the future SNF extraction an extremely dangerous operation. For ten years since 1997, when it became possible to attract funds – including foreign aid – to solve the problem, no tangible measures have been taken to reduce the nuclear hazards in Andreyeva Bay.

Only now has work begun on developing the project for building the infrastructure needed to unload the SNF in storage, as admitted by the experts who talked to Bellona Web. No such project – nor any work on developing SNF extraction technologies to remove the fuel from dry storage blocks – was in progress until 2005. Everyone seemed too carried away by the war on terrorism and building fences. The Russians cite lack of funds – and Russia’s Western partners cite lack of decision-making on the part of the Russians. It is hard to say what considerations motivated authorities at the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, both past and present, to ignore the necessity of a comprehensive plan and instead demand that foreign partners supply funds for isolated projects only – such as roads, sanitary and decontamination areas and check points, boiler houses, garages, fences etc. It may well be that all of this minor infrastructure is in fact needed, but it has no bearing on the main problem: Eliminating the Andreyeva Bay nuclear danger. Such policies have already resulted in that ensuring nuclear safety in Andreyeva Bay’s dry storage facility has evolved into a much more serious problem than it was twenty years ago.

The first step undertaken to work out an SNF evacuation project was the strategic master plan that started developing in 2003 under the guidance of Russian academician Vice Admiral Ashot Sarkisov. Still, a master plan is not a project. There is no serious money that could be applied for and received through a sales pitch of ideas from a master plan alone. As of today, no more than $50m has been spent by foreign partners on works in Andreyeva Bay since 1995. It would be difficult to count the sum total of expenditures on the part of the Russians. But judging from the figures mentioned in the interview to Bellona Web, it has not been nearly enough – not when the master plan for Andreyeva Bay remediation, made available to the public during the Murmansk hearings, states that investment into the construction and maintenance of the future infrastructure at Andreyeva Bay will amount to RUR 13.5 billion (or around $540m).

Costs of works and services associated with SNF and radioactive waste management in 15 years will total RUR 24.7 bn ($986m). In all, according to estimations by Russian experts, no less than $1.5 billion would be required for a period of the next 15 years to turn Andreyeva Bay into a "brownfield" – or $100m per year. This is no small amount considering that the yearly budget of the whole Murmansk region is approximately $900m.

In conclusion
In Bellona’s opinion, the very debate on whether the risk of a spontaneous chain reaction in the dry storage facility at Andreyeva Bay is hypothetical or real is not the determinant factor when the current problems of the site are discussed.

Bellona believes that the first and foremost issue that needs solution today is the problem of SNF evacuation. There is as yet no project aimed at its safe removal. The costs and timeframes of remediation works as outlined in the Andreyeva Bay rehabilitation master plan are clearly unacceptable for the purposes of the programmes of international cooperation on the issue and for the public alike. It is difficult to quantify the financing of Andreyeva Bay remediation efforts on the part of Russia. The figures mentioned by the three industry experts in their interview to Bellona Web being the only reference point available, Russian financing is incomparably less than what is needed today.

The artificial obscurity created around the very subject of Andreyeva Bay continues to aggravate the situation. The result of this lack of transparency seen today is that in the past 15 years no practical efforts have been applied to tackle the nuclear dangers of this most hazardous nuclear site. All of the facilities or structures built in these years in Andreyeva Bay have relevance only to the issues of radiation safety or physical security of the site.

No foreign investors are hurrying to finance the Andreyeva Bay project as they keep finding themselves in an artificial information vacuum.

Taking the situation at hand into account, Bellona believes that determining what acceptable projects of SNF removal from the dry storage blocks are available today and what costs and timeframes have been calculated for the implementation of these projects is a matter of undisputable priority. Andreyeva Bay is the primary nuclear hazard in Russia’s North and its rehabilitation must take place as soon as possible.

*Translator’s note: All Cyrillic letters appearing in the original text as part of nomenclature numbers are given here in accordance with Russian-English transliteration rules.