Radioactive waste next door
The uranium enrichment enterprise Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine (AECC), founded in 1954, is located right on the outskirts of Angarsk, a city of 241,000 in Russia’s Irkutsk Region in Southeast Siberia. In fact, AECC’s production-related sites – including open-air yards housing containers with highly toxic radioactive waste – are within city limits.
That highly toxic waste is depleted uranium hexafluoride, also called uranium tails – a by-product generated when enriching uranium for the production of nuclear reactor fuel. This waste is stored on the premises of AECC – and so, on the territory of the city of Angarsk. Environmentalists say it is toxic enough that a leak occurring through loss of sealing in a container may result in deaths as far as 32 kilometres away.
Between six and seven tonnes of uranium tails is generated per each one tonne of uranium enriched for fuel production. Additionally, until very recently Russia was actively pursuing a policy of commercial imports of foreign-generated uranium tails for re-enrichment, so apart from generating its own waste, AECC was one of four Russian enterprises to receive these imports from uranium enrichment plants in the Netherlands, Germany, and France.
Compounding the problem is the Russian nuclear authority Rosatom’s intent to make Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine the centrepiece of international deliberations on a secure international uranium fuel bank for countries with developed nuclear power. As one of first steps in this direction, Russia in 2007 signed an agreement with Kazakhstan, officially establishing an International Uranium Enrichment Centre that will operate at AECC.
Just exactly how much uranium hexafluoride is now stored at AECC is information the plant is keeping secret. And environmentalists are not the only public voice to raise concerns over the uranium tails storage practices at AECC and the other three facilities where this waste is accumulated – the Siberian Chemical Combine in Tomsk, the Zelenogorsk-based Electrochemical Plant near Krasnoyarsk, and the Ural Electrical Chemical Combine in Novouralsk.
The Russian federal oversight agency Rostekhnadzor, which is charged with maintaining safety standards across domestic industries, including the nuclear sector, routinely calls attention to the problem in its annual reports, referring to it as an issue “of outmost urgency” and “a distinct environmental and radiation risk due to the significant amounts of the material stored and its high chemical activity.”
As it deplored lacking safety measures in the nuclear fuel cycle industry in its 2007 report, the agency said uranium hexafluoride storage was performed “in conditions of insufficient normative basis and a significant degree of risk of containers losing impermeability.”
The costly solutions
Any solutions to the uranium tails storage problem – reducing the toxicity levels of the waste, building a state-of-the-art storage facility, or moving the waste to a different location – will require significant spending, which AECC tries to avoid or, at the very least, turn into an item on the state budget expense sheet, rather than its own.
Living next to a toxic industrial facility and thousands of tonnes of chemical and radioactive waste is not something Angarsk and its population are happy about. For its part, AECC has a reason of its own to want to change the current state of affairs.
That reason is that according to the legislation currently in force, a radioactive materials storage facility must be part of a unified state registry of sites of storage or disposal of hazardous materials, including radioactive waste. But the law also prohibits operation of such sites within city limits – and that is exactly the case with AECC.
The solution suggested by the plant was to change virtually nothing, and spend nothing on any works associated with the storage facility – but simply move AECC’s premises out of the city boundaries on paper. The plant would physically stay where it is – but would not be legally part of the city’s territory.
AECC’s proposal, floated at a public hearing in Angarsk late last December, had earlier already been rejected by city authorities. Allowing the plant a fictitious move and a perfunctory change of legal status would mean for Angarsk handing AECC all further control and decision-making regarding the fate of the radioactive dump on its outskirts – effectively surrendering to the prospect of living with that dump forever. Furthermore, the creation of the International Uranium Enrichment Centre at AECC means increased production rates at the combine and, by extension, an increased output of uranium tails piling up near residential buildings.
To resolve the mounding tensions, a public hearing was organised in an Angarsk school on December 28, where the issue of granting AECC the formal status of an enterprise operating out of city limits – without it changing its physical location – was discussed. The hearing was limited, though, to a heated exchange of information, with no decisions following or votes taken on the proposal. The two sides budged not a centimetre on their positions: The facility still insisted on continuing to generate radioactive waste and store it right in the city, and local residents still defended their right to a safe and healthy environment.
According to several participants of the hearing, this one was spared the traditional busloads of audiences tutored in advance and driven to the school to paint a picture of unanimous support – such attempts to demonstrate public unity behind controversial decisions coming from the top have not been uncommon in Russia, with people taken off their work places and delivered in organised groups to public hearings such as the one in Angarsk. Yet, as first-hand accounts said, 95 percent of the hearing’s participants were in fact employees of AECC. Several local residents, as well as ecologists, spoke against the nuclear delegation’s plans. They said the city’s safety and the well-being of the environment were more important than Rosatom’s profits.
At some point during the discussion, it turned out AECC was not producing four cubic metres of radioactive waste a year, as had been asserted earlier, but a whole 2,000 tonnes. “Ah, so that’s the way the uranium cookie crumbles,” one of the hearing’s participants somberly joked.
The city administration holds firmly to the position it took earlier, following deliberations by a special task group formed by city officials and local legislators – AECC was to be denied in its attempts to formally move the facility outside the city’s legally set limits.
Yet even during the hearing, AECC’s representatives, as they spoke of the waste disposal practices on the plant’s territory, referred to decisions made as far back as the early 1950s – the golden era of the then incipient Soviet nuclear industry, which then and for many years after enjoyed privileges like no other in the former USSR, including unlimited support in financial and other resources, as well as a thick shield of secrecy over whatever research or construction project it was undertaking.
“Why not dig up Ivan the Terrible, the impalings and such, while we’re at it?” said one participant. “In Stalin’s time they could put a nuclear dump right in the centre of town, easily. But times are different now, and we must think of the people, first and foremost.”
A most pressing problem that came up during the hearing was who – and using what money – would be responsible for solving the issue of the radioactive waste, both already accumulated and bound to be added yet.
A representative of AECC said, according to accounts from the hearing, that in order to physically remove the waste outside city limits one had to build another plant like AECC, complete with another crew of guards. This, he said, was Angarsk’s problem and the city would have to foot the bill for the disposal site’s removal.
To which city residents said: “In the case that AECC’s disposal site is left where it is, then, for the sake of safe future living of Angarsk residents and the health of our children, one will need to build another Angarsk, as far away as possible from the radioactive dump. So, you think this will be cheaper? If so, let AECC and its Moscow [Rosatom] bosses build us another Angarsk!”
Russian environmental groups have been vocal about the uranium tails issue for several years now. In Irkutsk Region, such organisations as Baikalskaya Ecologicheskaya Volna (Baikal Ecological Wave), Baikalskoye Dvizheniye (Baikal Movement), the Russian-wide environmental initiative Ecodefense, and other groups have been working for some time to make the problem a priority issue for local residents and officials.
In the summer of 2007, a number of proposals were forwarded by ecologists which could have helped set at least some problem-solving wheels into motion. Among the ecological organisations’ demands were directing all Rosatom’s available funds at safeguarding radioactive waste accumulated in Russia, including that stockpiled at AECC, and ceasing all future development projects at AECC until a technology was worked out that would allow disposing of the accumulated waste in ways completely safe both for people and the environment.
Before the hearing in the Angarsk school, Baikal Ecological Wave sent a letter to all involved parties that outlined why Angarsk should not permit AECC to legally move its premises outside city limits. The letter underscored that the combine’s production facilities are in fact surrounded by residential areas and that operation of its sites is hazardous for the health and well-being of the local population. In more precise terms, buildings and infrastructure at the sites do not meet standards of seismic soundness; sludge collectors and production areas contribute to the pollution of ground waters; runoff water escapes, with no dosimetic control or purification procedures in place, into local rivers, including the Angara; and, should a beyond-design-basis accident occur at AECC, temporary evacuation may be required for the whole city.
These considerations mean that local officials must have all levers of control in order to take necessary safety measures and protect the residents against potential hazards. A contract of lease gives the city such control. Letting AECC operate inside city limits while, on paper, affording it an out-of-city status, does not.
Besides, say ecologists, changing the legal status and management category of land under use means changing a city’s master plan. Existing legislation dictates that changes in the general layout of a city require, first, preparation of projects that would specify such changes, and then the project documentation will, in its turn, have to be vetted in an environmental impact evaluation process.
According to law, an environmental impact study has to take into consideration the opinion of city residents, elicited by means of public hearings. Only after such project documentation is prepared can a public hearing take place to approve or reject the change.
For AECC, this means it will have to develop a City General Layout Modification project, complete with a section on environmental risk evaluation, which will then have to be taken to the public for approval, the ecologists said.
Indeed, transferring the land AECC occupies in Angarsk under the combine’s complete control is impossible without introducing modifications into the city’s master plan. In other words, the nuclear facility will still have to explain to city residents and officials just how exactly, in which time frames, and with which money they intend to solve the problem of both accumulated radioactive waste and the waste they seem to think they are entitled to produce in the future. No references to obsolete decisions dating back to the 1950s will likely serve AECC well: The population of Angarsk needs to be reassured of its safety, and not just “on paper” only.
Some are concerned that regional authorities may decide to intervene on AECC’s behalf, but the plant, employing an estimated six thousand workers, is not the largest and not the most significant in the region. Authorities on the regional level can hardly be expected to start a bitter dispute, or risk violating the law, over this uranium enrichment enterprise.
An audacious proposal was ventured by a user on a popular forum on one of Angarsk’s websites, LiveAngarsk.Ru. The discussion following the news of the upcoming public hearing at an Angarsk school late last December may not have boasted a particularly elevated tone, but surely reflected public sentiments with regard to the sore issue. “Let’s just close the f***ing thing,” the user said. “The workers, they’ll get over it, find something to go to in a year or two […] Hey, we could hold world paintball championships on the cleared territories, right after thorough decontamination ))))) Cool, huh? People will be rolling in from all over the planet. Can’t beat running around a would-have-been Chernobyl!”
That daring thought is, of course, unlikely to turn into a reality. Angarsk can be well expected to dwell indefinitely in this quagmire of half-measures – it will not close the combine, but the city can be hoped to continue pressing the plant for solutions and for strict adherence to the law, should the production expansion and modernisation programmes currently under consideration start gaining ground at AECC. One sober reminder, though, is that as experience shows, strict adherence to the law is not something the Russian nuclear industry is well reputed for.
Andrei Ozharovsky, a nuclear physicist and anti-nuclear activist, is a frequent contributor to Bellona Web.