Russia’s Murmansk receives first nuclear waste import from Poland

Anna Kireyeva/Bellona

Publish date: September 23, 2009

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MURMANSK – On September 20th, the Russian dry cargoship MCL Trader delivered a load of spent nuclear fuel, generated reportedly at a research reactor in Poland, to the port of Murmansk in Northern Russia, from where the dangerous cargo will proceed to the reprocessing plant Mayak in the Chelyabinsk Region.

MCL Trader, about which there remain a number of safety questions,  moored at a wharf managed by Atomflot, the Murmansk-based nuclear-powered ice beaker fleet operator. Twelve containers with spent nuclear fuel (SNF) were transshipped, loaded onto specially retrofitted trains and sent off to the reprocessing the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Urals by rail. The SNF came from a research reactor dubbed Maria and run at the Polatom Institute of Atomic Energy in Poland.

Earlier this month, Russia and Poland had signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement that foresees Russia importing spent nuclear fuel generated at the Maria reactor for the next twenty years.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative
The move of the SNF appears to be part of the Global Threat Reduction Programme, inked by the US and Russia to repatriate highly enriched fuel from research reactors, thought neither Russian officials phoned by Bellona Web were immediately available to confirm the tie to the programme. In 2007, Russian and US funding repatriated 8.8 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from the Maria reactor and officials said the United States would invest in converting the reactor into one that burns low enriched uranium.

In the early days of the 1950’s, when nuclear research was at a peak, Russia and the United States handed out several hundred kilogram of highly enriched uranium to research reactors around the world. In 2004, both counties recognized – after years of urging from the scientific community – that most research reactors using highly enriched uranium were located mainly in poorly guarded university and research facilities, making the uranium a sitting duck for terrorist incursion.

An agreement between the United States and Russia was forged to repatriate SNF from research reactors in 17 countries, including Poland. But if SNF is being moved in vessels of questionable integrity, it could cast a dim light on the non-proliferation programme similar to difficulties Norway encountered when funding submarine decommissioning in Russia that in 2003.

At that time, it was found that Norway was funding the same towing methods used that resulted the catastrophic sinking during a Rusian funded operation of the K-159, a derelict sub that sank while being towed to dismantlement, killing 9 crewmembers and sending 800 kilograms of nuclear fuel to the sea bottom.

Bellona and the Norwegian government reacted strongly when it came to light that the same towing practices were being funded with Norwegian funding, and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry emerged with a black eye, and pledged to amend its Russian sub transport practices.

The Polish uranium that arrived in Murmansk may not be part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, as SNF covered by that program is ordinarily slated for initial shipment to the Dmitrovgrad All-Russia Institute for Atomic reactors, known as NIIAR in its Russian acronym prior to shipment to the Mayak Chemical Combine.

The Polish fuel is said to be bound directly for Mayak. But if the fuel is part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, it could give a shiner to both Washington and Moscow for using a vessel of questionable integrity to ship SNF.

The Russian-Polish agreement The Russian-Polish agreement serves effectively as a legal basis for the export of SNF from the Polatom institute into Russia for temporary storage and consequent reprocessing – which is consistent with Global Threat Reduction Initiative practices. It also includes a clause allowing for a renewal of the contract upon its expiration. The now-defunct USSR had built two research reactors in Poland, dubbed Eva (currently shut down) and Maria.

Construction on the 30-megawatt Maria started on January 1st, 1969. Altogether, over 360 fuel assemblies worth of spent nuclear fuel have been generated in the years since the reactor has been in service, reported. The fuel assemblies are currently in wet storage in a cooling pond located near the reactor.   The plan is to start removing low- and high-level enriched fuel from the reactor core after 2012.

MCL Trader’s track record
MCL** Trader is a Russian dry cargoship, 95 metres in length over all and with a deadweight of 3,860 tonnes, which was specially retrofitted and licensed for SNF transports.

The vessel is infamous for an incident in May 2008, when, while on a voyage from Sweden’s Halmstad to Russia’s St. Petersburg, it ran aground near the Danish island of Bornholm. Danish authorities arrested MCL Trader’s captain and chief engineer on a suspicion that the two were drunk.

“We were sending signals from the shore, trying to warn the Russian ship that our island was… well, where it had always been, but the vessel ignored our signals and there was no radio communication with the crew,” Flemming Drejer, chief inspector with Bornholm’s police department, told.

“When we stepped on board the ship, we understood immediately that there was something wrong with the captain, and when we came closer to him we had to state that he was in a condition of severe alcoholic intoxication,” he told newswire at the time.

The Danish authorities were especially concerned with the fact that the Russian vessel had a special license to transport radioactive cargoes, said However, an inspection showed that no cargo was on board MCL Trader when it ran aground.