COMMENT: Mobile nuclear meltdowns: Coming soon to a town near you?


Publish date: January 18, 2012

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - Some three hundred nuclear time bombs are to cross the vast expanses of Russia within the next dozen years as Moscow embarks on its plan to send special-purpose trains with spent nuclear fuel (SNF) burnt at the country’s commercial reactors to a storage facility in Siberia. That’s the “solution” the nuclear industry has come up with for the ever mounting problem of nuclear waste – take it cross-country and pile it up where it will threaten the environment and public health for generations to come.

The first train bound for Krasnoyarsk Region in Central Siberia – where a repository is being built for both Russia- and foreign-produced nuclear waste – will carry spent nuclear fuel generated at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), a site near Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg, in the country’s northwest.

The date of departure – the first in a large-scale series of shipments devised to scoop up and stow away nuclear waste from all over the country – is being kept secret. The State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom plans to move some 22,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to Siberia before 2025. This means three new trains loaded with dangerous waste – 300 shipments in total – will be arriving in the closed town of Zheleznogorsk, also known as Krasnoyarsk-26, every second month for the next thirteen years.  

Shipments like these threaten the safety of residents of more than 15 large Russian cities that will happen to be on the way, urban centers like the Russian capital, Moscow, as well as St. Petersburg, Penza, Samara, Kirov, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk and so on – virtually every industrial hub on Russia’s enormous map. Even though the shipping routes have not been disclosed, simple logic suggests moving trains loaded with cargoes as massive and logistically sensitive as these will require major railroads – such as those that involve stations, links, and depots serving heavy-traffic areas.

Nuclear transports as a whole present a particular risk for both the population at large and, specifically, those railroad personnel who may find themselves working in the vicinity of cargoes emitting high levels of radiation. As the Russian tradition holds, no warnings are issued in such cases to caution against potential danger – the usual cross-your-finger approach dictates it’s going to be just fine. All three hundred times. But there is the risk of radioactive contamination that could occur in case of an accident – brought on either by the poor condition of Russia’s railroads or as a result of a malicious act. (In 2009, a homemade bomb planted on the tracks derailed a passenger train on the country’s busiest route – the Moscow-St. Petersburg link, favored by government and business elites – constituting one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Russia’s recent history outside of the volatile Caucasus region). And this not even taking into account that the transportation of these radioactive materials will be overseen by a chain of agencies whose expertise hardly includes dealing with issues related to nuclear safety: Russia’s railway network and other transport services, as well as a variety of regional authorities.

Spent nuclear fuel is the most hazardous kind of radioactive waste nuclear power plants produce. It contains plutonium, an isotope with a half-life of 24,000 years. The nuclear industry vehemently objects to this material being referred to as waste, arguing it is instead a valuable resource that can be used again as fuel after reprocessing – a highly questionable process that itself generates hundreds of times more radioactive waste as a result.

Meanwhile, Russian law speaks clearly to this issue: If nuclear material cannot be put to further use, then it is waste. Incidentally, the better part of the SNF Rosatom plans to move to Siberia has been burnt in reactors of the RBMK-1000 series – the same type that blew up in Chernobyl and remains in operation at three nuclear power plants in Russia, the site near St. Petersburg and Kursk and Smolensk NPPs, in Western Russia. But not only does Russia possess no technological capacity to reprocess spent fuel of this type, it furthermore has no plans to build any soon, for reasons of exorbitant costs. The very idea is simply economically indefensible. In fact, of the 33 reactors in operation in Russia, only seven currently produce spent nuclear fuel that lends itself to reprocessing.

To be sure, Rosatom’s continued operations imply that the so-called “dry” storage facility slated for completion at the Mining and Chemical Combine in Krasnoyark-26 will in fact be a nuclear repository set to remain there for many thousands of years: The plutonium alone will remain highly hazardous for 10 half-life periods – a quarter of a million years. In other words, one stroke of Rosatom’s pen forces the residents of Krasnoyarsk Region to assume the risks created by the sixty-five years of the nuclear industry’s development.

It is likewise not customary practice in Russia to first inquire of the locals whether they mind living next door to a nuclear dumpsite of international proportions – no more so than it is to conduct a fair parliament election or warn of hazardous cargoes passing through a populated area. Previous attempts that a number of countries have undertaken at building nuclear repositories have inevitably fallen flat – quashed either by large-scale public protests or by prohibitive costs (or a combination of both). A great uncertainty thus remains in the United States, Germany, Japan, and other countries that have historically relied on commercial nuclear power as to what to do with their accumulated waste. This means the Krasnoyarsk site may in the long term become the go-to facility for foreign SNF producers wishing to be rid of their nuclear headaches, and plans to accommodate imported waste have been developed before. One such project, revealed by Ecodefense in 2001, was a study sponsored by the US Department of Energy for a US-funded program looking to employ the option of storage and eventual geologic disposal in Russia of spent fuel of US origin used in Taiwan.

Taking into account the significant safety hazard associated with nuclear waste, the less than state-of-the-art condition of Russian railroads, and the sometimes inadequate security en route, nuclear trains have all the makings to turn into a catastrophe waiting to happen – three hundred mobile Chernobyls that Rosatom, despite the obvious risks, would rather keep secret from the public. It falls, then, to environmentalists to fill this information gap.

What could we Russian citizens do? We could keep a Geiger counter ready at home and be generally prepared to protect ourselves from radioactive exposure. But most importantly… we  could speak out against nuclear shipments in our regions. Make ourselves heard by local parliamentaries, government officials, and emergency services. Take our protest to the streets.

This is not a trifling matter. What we are dealing with is not a one-time nuclear delivery from point A to point B. At issue is a program that puts at risk the better part of the Russian territory for thirteen years. This program must be stopped as soon as possible – and that means putting our voices together for a clamorous public outcry. This is a simple choice we are facing – live a life of fear of a radiological disaster, or head out en masse to the railways to voice our protest and just maybe stop this madness from happening. It is our health and environment we need protecting – and it is our choice to make.

The nuclear industry is certainly not making this task any easier for us. Six decades into the peaceful atom’s history, the problem of nuclear waste still remains unsolved. No other industry in the world has produced so much dangerous and long-lived waste that has the capacity to inflict such harm to the environment and human health both now and throughout the next many thousands of years. Not to mention the gigantic financial burden that the storage of nuclear waste will place on the shoulders of thousands as-yet unborn generations. No one today is in any position to guarantee the safety of this waste thousands of years in advance, as the industry has simply not conceived of any way to efficiently remove the threat – but it will have to, at some point.

So instead of putting hundreds of Chernobyls-on-wheels in motion all over the country, the more reasonable option would be to leave the waste where it was produced – providing the highest level of safety possible to ensure against all eventualities. Equally reasonable would be to expect Rosatom to stop prolonging the operational life terms of old reactors or building new ones – and instead direct all efforts toward solving the problem of nuclear waste, not amassing it. The time to move the waste already accumulated must not be before we have a clear idea of how we can keep the public and the environment safe during the entire term this waste remains a menace.

Experts in the United States have established this period at one million years, but the US likewise lacks a definitive solution for the problem. And certainly, the dry storage facility in Krasnoyarsk-26 is not an answer, if only because it won’t last a thousandth of the time it will take to keep the waste safely isolated.

As it stands, Rosatom’s plan is nothing but travesty, a pitiful attempt at a solution that will only shift the burden of responsibility onto future generations – forcing the job of safeguarding the growing nuclear mess on our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and so on ad aeternum. This simply will not do.

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Ecodefense, is a frequent contributor to Bellona