Another nuclear incident at Mayak

A. Nikulina

Publish date: April 1, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - An air quality sensor in an isolation chamber at the Mayak Chemical Combine's RT-1 spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Russia’s Southern Urals Chelyabinsk Region was set off during welding operations officials finally said on Tuesday April 1st. The incident occurred six days ago on March 27 st.

According to officials with Russia’s nuclear industry, no radioactivity was released into the atmosphere or the environment.

Emergency instructions were followed – the repair work was stopped immediately and the participating workers evacuated. The workers were sent immediately to an onsite clinic to evaluate whether any of them had inhaled radionuclides, a Mayak spokesman said on Tuesday. Final results of the test will be known on April 15th, he said.

The reasons for the accidents are as yet unknown. Sergei Novikov, spokesman for Russia’s atomic energy agency Rosatom, was, according to his secretary, on a business trip Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

“The incident rates as less than a zero on the International Nuclear Event Scale,” Rosatom assistant director Igor Konyshev told Bellona Web Tuesday, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale for measuring the seriousness of nuclear incidents and accidents.

“Because of that, the commission that is investigating the reasons is comprised only of representatives of Mayak,” he said, adding that the results of the investigation would be made public in 10 days.

It is already apparent, however, that there were no consequences as a result of the incident, said Alexander Mysin, Urals Federal Region assistant director for RosTekhNadzor, Russia’s technical and industrial oversight ministry.

“There were (no consequences) even 15 minutes after the incident,” Mysin said in a telephone interview.

Environmentalists, however, were not calmed by the confident words from Russia’s nuclear officialdom.

“Lately, incidents at Mayak have been occurring with alarming frequency,” said Vladimir Slivyak of the Ecodefence environmental group.

In Slivyak’s view, frequent news about emergency situations is on the one hand an indication of openness on behalf of the facility. On the other hand, he said, it attests to the deterioration of Mayak’s equipment.

The condition of Mayak’s equipment
Research conducted by Bellona Web reveals, the last incident at the RT-1 reprocessing facility at Mayak occurred in June 2007. A pipeline carrying pulps of radioactive mixtures in the facility’s No. 5 workshop sprung a leak between June 24th and 26th. The severe leak, according to many interviewed by Bellona Web, cost Mayak’s former director, Vitaly Sadovnikov, his post.

In October of 2007, a leak occurred in the industrial complex of Mayak during a routine transport of liquid radioactive waste over one of the plant’s internal roadways while being transferred from Mayak’s chemical-metallurgical facility to its radio-chemical plant.

But Rosatom’s Konyshev said that the recent string of incidents “does not have anything to do with equipment deterioration at Mayak.”

“Routine equipment substitutions occur at Mayak. One can’t speak of any equipment (there) being worn out beyond the norm,” he said.

Mayak was the Soviet Union’s most important production point for weapons grade plutonium. Since 1977, Mayak has been used for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel at its RT-1 facility.

RT-1 is built to handle spent nuclear fuel from VVER-450, BN-450 and BN-600 reactors, as well as fuel from submarine and nuclear icebreaker reactors. In recent years, RT-1 has been undergoing upgrades in order to reprocess fuel form VVER-1000 reactors – per Rosatom’s plans – which are the workhorse of Russia’s nuclear industry.

Mayak reprocesses some 120 tons of spent nuclear fuel a year, though its annual throughput is designed to be 400 tons. In February 2006, the State Duma’s Committee on Ecology demanded that reprocessing at Mayak be brought down to the minimum that was “sufficient to fulfill international agreements, as well as programmes of geared toward ecological and defence purposes” – meaning the continued reprocessing of fuel from nuclear submarines.