Bellona holds round table discussion on radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel storage in Russia

Publish date: October 31, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – Russia has accumulated an enormous amount of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel and this problem must be realized on a government level, said participants in a Bellona seminar dedicated to the subject, which took place on Thursday and Friday.

“The ‘peaceful atom’ has been in use for over 50 years, but even now, there is not a single country on earth that has a solution for dealing with radioactive waste. There are good plans afoot in Sweden and Finland (where they are experimenting with deep geologic repositories),” said Bellona physicist Nils Bøhmer in his opening address to the seminar Thursday.

“Other countries have not worked out any kind of plan for long term storage. I think it important that these problems receive the necessary attention, especially against the backdrop of plans to develop the nuclear industry,” he said.

Participant in the seminar devoted their discussions on the first day to the fundamental problems of dealing with spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in Russia.

Representatives of nongovernmental organisations are concerned that the government is in no hurry to confess that the situation is critical and is dragging its feet to implement the much needed remedies.

Some 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel has piled up in Russia as a result of nuclear power stations. A significant portion of this spent nuclear fuel – first and foremost fuel from the Chernobyl type RBMK reactors – is stored in temporary storage units that long ago have been over-packed and are being used beyond their capabilities.

Russia currently lacks a developed concept of how to take nuclear power stations that are reaching their engineered life spans out of commission. Russia has already shut down, but not dismantled, four nuclear power plant reactors, 10 industrial uranium-graphite reactors, and as many as fifty other nuclear installations.  

The dangerous methods by which radioactive waste was stored by Minsredmash – the precursor Ministry to both Minatom, and its successor, the Russia state nuclear corporation Rosatom – are still in use today. At the Chelyabinsk Region’s Mayak Chemical Combine, the Siberian Chemical Combine, and the Mining and Chemical Combine in Krasnoyarsk , radioactive waste is kept in wet storage in contravention of Russian legislation.

“We frequently find ourselves face to face with these problems. It is good to see a public that is worried about these problems, about the government which has to decide these problems,” said Igor Gusakov-Stanyukovich, a specialist with Rosatom’s directorate for dealing with spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes and nuclear installation decommissioning.

He assures the seminar that “the industry has drastically changed it’s priorities,” and one of the most important of these tasks is “the formation of a system of state guarantees of safety in the use of nuclear power thanks to the creation of a single government systems for dealing with radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.”

It is to be assumed that these problems will all be solved at a cost to the Russian taxpayer. As concerns new waste that will inevitably arise as a result of the “nuclear renaissance,” Gusakov-Stanyukovich said that Rosatom will her manage by the principle of minimizing the problems that will be passed to future generations.

No legislative base radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel disposition

“We are entering an intense development regimen of nuclear power plants, but at this we are lagging in a normative base,” Valery Menshikov, a member of Russia’s Council Centre for Ecological Policy.

Russia still has not adopted a law on the decommissioning of nuclear installations or how to deal with nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel.

“A bill on dealing with nuclear waste has already been presented to the government for agreement, how every it has been hung up in the Ministry of Finance,” Menshikov said. “The bill is sufficiently well developed, it has a tortuous history creation dating back to 1991. I am apprehensive that some kind of financial crisis situation is influencing the government’s decision.”

According to Russia’s law “On Technical Regulation,” adopted in 2002, the norms and regulations, specifically in the sphere of dealing with radioactive materials, establish special technical regulations. These regulations should have been prepared before 2007, but the execution of this law has been completely stymied.

Since May, following the changes in the administrative structure of the government, the Russian Service for Industrial, Technical and Nuclear Oversight (Rostekhnadzor), which regulates the nuclear industry, has been cut adrift. The control structure has not gone either to the Natural Resource Ministry nor to Rostekhnadzor, meaning it has fallen below the federal level of authority.

“A specific law that would define the situation of regulatory organs is necessary. Russia, which was where Chernobyl occurred, must not be left without such a law,” said Menshikov.

Waste and fuel
According to Rosatom officials, a portion of that material which is now considered spent nuclear fuel could be reclassified as radioactive waste. This primarily concerns spent nuclear fuel from Chernobyl type RBMK reactors and spent nuclear fuel from defective reactors. This means that Rosatom has finally turned its back on expensive and environmentally dangerous plans to reprocess these particular items.

The federal target programme
A new federal target programme called “Guaranteeing nuclear and radiation safety in 2008 and in the period until 2015” raised by a hundred time the amount of money earmarked for dealing with radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

The programme implies the creation of high priority infrastructure installations, including emergency measures to isolate waste in the water storage facilities of Mayak, the Siberian Chemical Combine, and the Mining and Chemical Combine in Krasnoyarsk, as well as for surveying work for long-term geologic internment of radioactive waste.

“In the 1990s, the state could finance approximately 30 percent of assigned tasks. The previous programme was calculated at 943 million roubles ($34.7 million), and the present programme is calculated at 143 billion roubles ($5.2 billion),” Menshikov said. “That mean the economic content has been strongly increased, and there is hope that this programme will be fulfilled.”

Nevertheless, Bellona calculations indicate that even these funds may not be enough for the construction of new storage facilities and other related infrastructure. The annual cost of supporting radioactive material in present conditions demands enormous amounts of money.

“Storing one kilogram of spent nuclear fuel costs $120 dollars, so accordingly, storing an accumulated 18,500 costs more than $2 billion, that is half of the entire (federal target) programme calculated to last until 2015,  and the whole programme is eaten up,“ said Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office.

Today, participants in the seminar will be discussing ways of solving problems of unloading spent nuclear fuel from storage at Andreyeva Bay, a former base of the Russian Navy’s nuclear Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula.

Presentations from the seminar are available in PDF format download in Russian in the box to the right.