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Work grinds to a halt at enormous spent nuclear fuel facility in Siberia as funding dries up

Publish date: July 13, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – A gargantuan project by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom to build a dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at the Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical combine near Krasnoyarsk, Central Siberia, has been ceased.

The work on the facility was being carried out by Russia’s Federal Agency for Special Construction, or Spetsstroi, but the agency has unilaterally ceased work as of April 1st.

“At present, Spetsstroi has not signed a new contract, and work has been stopped. The money for the construction, however, has been earmarked, and we are interested first of all in the construction being completed on time,” Igor Konyshev, Rosatom’s department chief for work with civil society organisations and regions, told Bellona Web in an interview.

However, it is precisely the conditions of pay that have caused perturbation with the contractor. Before 2008, the financing of the storage facility was covered by extra-budgetary funds from Rosengeroatom, Russia’s nuclear power utility. But beginning in January 2008, the construction funding has come from a government controlled federal target programme called “Securing nuclear and radioactive safety for 2008 and until 2015.”

With the handover of funding to the federal target programme, said Spetsstroi, pay has been unjustifiably lowered. In particular, the annual coefficient to adjust to inflation, which has allowed the project to continue, has been slashed.

The dry storage facility is Rosatom’s second recent large-scale project that has ground to a halt because of financial problems. A month ago, Rosatom officially admitted that work on its first floating nuclear power plant at the Sevmash shipyard in the northern Arkangelsk Region was stopped because funding had dried up.

Nuclear industry officials have issued assurances that, despite these difficulties, the dry storage facility at the Zheleznogorsk facility will nonetheless be complete by 2011. The first phase, with a 5,00 ton capacity for spent nuclear fuel from Chernobyl style RBMK reactors, is planned to go online as soon as 2009. According to 2007 estimates, the construction costs are expected to be 34 billion roubles ($1.4 billion).

Rosatom plans to store spent nuclear fuel from all RBMK reactors in Russia, which is currently being housed at the reactor sites themselves. The projected volume of the future storage facility is 38,000 tons, 27, 000 tons of which will be devoted to RBMK fuel and the remaining 11,000 tons will house fuel from VVER-1000 reactors.

Nowhere to store spent nuclear fuel

Large-scale dry storage in the Krasnoyarsk region has been appealed for to solve the problem of radioactive waste has already exceeded Russia’s current storage capacity.

Currently, spent nuclear fuel from these Chernobyl style reactors is kept in wet storage – large pools that are in use at the Kursk, Smolensk and Leningrad nuclear power plants.

These pools were already filled to capacity over a decade ago, and the spent fuel now being kept in them has long since overshot engineered capacities. In the late 1990s at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, for instance, officials developed brackets for suspending spent fuel assemblies in the pools that allowed for twice as much waste to be stored in the plant’s wet storage pond.

The pond’s themselves began leaking their radioactive bilge directly into the Gulf of Finland, on which the plant in situated, 50 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. Despite efforts to patch the holes, the problem persists.

Fuel from VVER 1000 reactors has partially been transferred to wet storage at the Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine. The designed capacity of the storage facility is 6,000 tons, but the volume of waste has long surpassed that limit, so facility officials have been forces to squeeze the surplus in.

New tenders
On July 2nd, Rosatom was forces to announce a tender for the completion of the projected dry storage facility at Zheleznogorsk. The winner will be announced at the beginning of August. According to Rosatom’s Konyshev, Siberian construction firms will have the advantage.

“Tossing a company from the European section of Russia into Siberia is complicated, so we are welcoming the participation of local contractors,” he said.

“This will significantly ease their work and allow effective use of the budget.”

It remains unknown how many construction firms will bid for the government contract, given that the financial situation will remain the same.

Spent fuel from abroad?
Even when taking into consideration the 38,000 of waste to be stored, the scale of the new storage facility is enormous.

“We calculate that if all the spent fuel from all the RBMKs in Russia is collected, it will amount to about 15,000 tons,” said Vladimir Mikheyev of the Citizens’ Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation.
“We are apprehensive that the remaining space is slated for spent nuclear waste from the counties of Southeast Asia.”

Pyotr Gavrilov, director of the Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine, denied in conversations with environmentalists that this was the case – but he offered no explanation of how the 23,000 remaining tons of space would be put to use.

Safety concerns not on the table
According to Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the environmental group Ecodefence, constructing one enormous dump for radioactive waste is not the correct solution.

“You don’t need to move the fuel anywhere – you need to figure out a reliable way to store the waste at the nuclear plants themselves,” he said.

“During transport, nuclear material is at its most vulnerable for theft as well as terrorist attacks – this has been official acknowledged by every leading nuclear country in the world.”

After the storage facility goes into service, this transport will be affected along trans-Siberian thoroughfares and railways through some of Russia’s largest cities. Storing the waste in one place, with all the attendant transportation dangers and local concerns, was a decision authoritatively taken by Rosatom, which didn’t conduct a single consultation with the populations who will be impacted.

“The Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine is a completely closed facility. No environmental impact studies will be conducted there – I am only familiar with the project in general terms,” said Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former inspector with Russia’s now defunct nuclear oversight body, Gosatomnadzor, in an interview with Bellona Web. Kuznetsov currently directs the nuclear and radiation safety programme with the Russian Green Cross organisation.

“There is no independent oversight of the construction at all,” he said.

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