Rosatom presents a few results from its work in 2010 with a cocktail of gallows humour

Publish date: January 24, 2011

Written by: Alexander Nikitin

Translated by: Charles Digges

At the end of December the public council of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, held it’s year-end meeting at which Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko presented two planned reports containing the short conclusions on his company’s performance in 2010.

The report by Gennady Sarychev of BNIIKhT presented interest in the section that concerned the management of depleted uranium hexafluoride, or uranium tails. Saruchev presented a project for a plant for reprocessing uranium tails with a production rate of 30,000 tons a year. It’s worth noting that experts estimate that Russia is already home to 900,000 tons of uranium tails.

No decision has been taken on whether to build the BNIIKhT uranium tail reprocessing plant, and judging by Kiriyenko’s comments, it won’t be taken any time soon. Answering a question about when the reprocessing would be launched at an industrial scale, Kiriyenko said: “We have not decided if we need to build such a large plant and limit with other suggestions fewer extravagances and with a lower production rate.”  

As such, there currently exist suggestions for reprocessing uranium tails, but there is no reprocessing. Sarychev assured that there is no danger in the suggested technology. The plant is just as dangerous as any other industrial enterprise, the Americans work with the same technology and here it is hard to say who acquired it from whom, said Sarychev. Russian technology does not have a chemical or explosive danger, he said. Kiriyenko added that uranium tails located in storage present almost no radioactive danger, but rather a real chemical one.  If a plane crashed into the uranium tails storage site in Angarsk, Siberia, it would be a chemical catastrophe for the region, Kiriyenko stated frankly. This is the danger that environmentalists spoke of when protesting the transport of uranium tails through St. Petersburg. The most important thing that Kiriyenko said while conversing about depleted uranium hexafluoride was that at present Russia had no contracts to accept any more uranium tails and that there are no new contracts to do so.

The second report was presented by Mark Glinsky, deputy director of Gidrospetsgeologiya, and concerned a program of objectively monitoring subsurface earth at Rosatom enterprises from 2011 to 2015. It was revealed that Gidrospetsgeologiya, as a geological enterprise, deals only with the ideology of monitoring, and technical development of programs (i.e. how to monitor). And what installations are to be monitored are defined by Rosatom. In connection to this, the question of what criteria are used to select an installation for monitoring, and why, for instance, the DalRAO radioactive waste management site is monitored, but SevRAO, an analogous installation, is not monitored, nor is the dry spent fuel storage facility at Andreyeva Bay, in which ground water constantly appears, remains a mystery.  Environmentalists, for example, have announced the necessity of conducting monitoring at Sosnovy Bor, home of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant – and soon, the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant 2.

Glinsky imparted that Gidrospetsgeologiya could furnish not only monitoring of migrating radioactive substances in underground water tables, but could organize complex monitoring of the whole territory, including observation of soil plants, etc. Yet this is what activists in Sosnovy Bor have already been discussing for years. There is a suspicion that Rosatom will single out for monitoring only clean installations. But Kiriyenko must be given due credit: Before the closing of the public council meeting, he suggested that a regime for selecting objects for monitoring be discussed at the next meeting of the public council, taking into account what has been suggested by environmental organizations.

Before Kiriyenko delivered his final remarks, a number of people from the public council appeared and congratulated themselves to widespread agreement.

In these remarks, Kiriyenko, who was in high spirits, made a few interesting announcements.  First, he said that over the last year Rosatom had increased its uranium mining activities abroad.

“Two days ago, we mined our first ton of uranium in the mines of the United States. Two or three years ago, we didn’t even dream this possible,” said Kiriyenko. “Today we own 20 percent of American extraction, the cost of which is two times lower than in Priamur. Yesterday, we purchased the Kramatorsk plant (in Ukraine) which is fully certified under the aegis of our production facilities,” Kiriyenko continued.

It should be recalled that Atomenergomash acquired the controlling interest in YeMSS Holdings Limited, which owns a 92.68 share of the Energomashspetsstal plant in Kramatorsk. In 2010 Rosatom added many foreign clients to it reactor building portfolio, such as India, Turkey and others, “as a result of the fact that apparently we cannot initiate more than one reactor block a year on Russian territory.

The theme of importing spent nuclear fuel from research reactors in Germany to Russia was mentioned. Kiriyenko outlined his position thusly: “If the Germans don’t want to deliver their highly enriched uranium to us, then they don’t need to. It’s neither hot nor cold to us. We tried only to fulfil our obligation to our agreement (the Global Threat Reduction Initiative) with the United States to take back all fuel from research reactors built by us. We would be worried if this fuel remained in unstable countries, like, for instance, the Balkans. But if it remains in Germany, let Germany deal with it.” 

Kiriyenko also spoke of supercomputers, the de-monopolization of the industry, and at the end of the event awarded medals to distinguished personages. Among them was one of Bellona’s old colleagues in Murmansk, Sergei Zhavoronkin, who currently heads up the regional Rosatom public council in Murmansk, and who has recently become an active adherent of all nuclear establishments without exception. Perhaps he was thus before and we simply did not notice. Whatever the case:

“And on his mighty chest the medal/Shone lonesome in a brick of metal,” as the old Soviet army folklore goes.

Every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying has it.

It’s possible that Rosatom’s activities in uranium extraction abroad will put extraction at poor sites in Russia on the back burner, thus saving the territory of Priamur and Pribaikal and the people who live there. Five years ago, Rosatom planned to build four reactors a year in Russia, then two, now one. The tempo couldn’t be better. And then the situation with depleted uranium hexafluoride reprocessing plant and Kiriyenko’s position on highly enriched uranium became clear.

In any case, attending this event was probably useful. It was possible to ask questions of the leading figures at Rosatom to which, as infrequently happens, it was possible to get some kind of answer, and it was even possible to express suggestions that were not just brushed off.

At the very end, members of civil society organizations were invited for cocktails. The sturgeon caviar didn’t buckle the tables, but all were offered as a new year’s gift a wooden box with honey on which was written “Lugovoi” – the Russian word for meadow, but also the last name of Andrei Lugovoi, a politically active Russian businessman widely suspected by British police of murdering ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvenenko by placing the highly radioactive element polonium in Litvinenko’s London flat – the world’s first act of assassination by radiation. The pun was not lost on those gathered.

I still have not tried the honey in my tea.

Aleksandr Nikitin is the chairman of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona.