Current Status, July 1998: Mayak Chemical Combine

Publish date: August 7, 1998

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Mayak Chemical Combine, the major radiation polluter in western Siberia, is on the brink of collapse, but tries desperately to survive.

The most profitable part of Mayak – the reprocessing plant RT-1 – has beenin decline for years. Finland’s nuclear power plant Lovisa stoppedshipping its spent fuel for reprocessing. The other countries that usedMayak’s reprocessing services are also considering other options. The Russian customers – nuclear power plants operating VVER-440 and BN-600reactors, as well as maritime PWR reactors – are still interested but have no money to pay their bills. To top it off, the vitrification facility for liquid highly radioactive waste was taken out of operation last year. That facility is absolutely needed for the reprocessing operations. By 2000, the on-site liquid waste storage tanks will be filled up, causing indefinite suspension of operations. The two new vitrificationfacilities, currently under construction, are not receiving any funding at present.

In the meantime, Mayak is doing well on one of its conversion projects – production of isotopes. In addition, the combine is working hard in co-operation with the U.S. on research to start MOX-fuel production. The weapons dismantling projects funded by CTR and a participation in the Russian-American uranium deal make some contribution to maintain life at Mayak as well.

This Current Status focuses on the Mayak Chemical Combine, which, whilestruggling to survive, threatens not only Chelyabinsk County, but areas asfar as the Arctic Ocean, with environmental disaster.

Mayak Chemical Combine (MCC) is located 10 km from Ozersk, a closed city in the Southern Urals with a population of 85,000. Some 70 km to the south lies Chelyabinsk, a city with a population of about one million people in the Asian part of Russia.

There used to be six operational reactors producing weapons plutonium at MCC. Five were graphite-moderated while the sixth was originally a heavy water reactor. These reactors have now been shut down. The heavy water reactor (Ruslan) was later modified to a light water reactor whichremains in operation today. An additional light water reactor (Lyudmila) produces isotopes for civilian use. There is a reprocessing facility (RT-1) in use at Mayak and about 100 storage tanks containing high levelradioactive waste. Two vitrification facilities are currently underconstruction to replace the one taken out of operation in 1997. Twoyears ago, MCC commissioned a research fabrication facility called Paket tomanufacture MOX-fuel using plutonium extracted from nuclear warheads. Mayakis also involved in down-blending of weapons grade uranium, in accordancewith a Russian-American agreement. The down-blended uranium is sold to theU.S. to be utilized as fuel in American nuclear power plants.

Mayak is with little doubt the most radioactively contaminated place on Earth. Controlled and accidental discharges of radioactivity during the Combine’s operational history led to the release of hundreds of millions of Curies of radioactivity into the environment.

The major income for Mayak Chemical Combine, accounting for some 50%,still comes from reprocessing of spent fuel shipped from Soviet-designed nuclear power plants located in Eastern Europe. Payment for the shipments of domestic fuel from nuclear power plants, the civilian atomic fleet andthe Navy is not profitable, as the price set for this service is belowactual cost. Production of radioisotopes, light conductors, stable-magnet motors, fiber-optic cables, various monitoring equipment forproduction processes in the oil, gas, chemical and food industries and other civilian products account for roughly 13% of the Combine’s economy.Military orders are down to 30% of the Soviet era average. In addition, remaining state funding frequently arrives late. The state’s debts toMayak amount to about $59 million for 1997 and 1998 so far. A total of $4 million was due to arrive in June to cover some of the salary arrears.

In addition, Mayak can employ some of its 20,000 employees in programsfunded by the United States in relation to the arms reduction treaties.

Mayak operates Russia’s only reprocessing facility – the RT-1 – whichcan take spent fuel from VVER-440s and PWR type maritime reactors installed onboard submarines and nuclear powered ice-breakers. A part of the spentfuel comes from the BN-600 fast-breeder reactor.

In addition to domestic reactors, Mayak used to accept fuel forreprocessing from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary,Finland and Ukraine.

RT-1’s capacity is 400 tons per year for VVER-440s and 10 tons per year for naval and ice-breaker reactors. However, throughput of VVER fuel hasbeen declining in recent years as a result of financial and transportation problems, combined with new environmental legislation which prohibits the import of nuclear waste and limits annual reprocessing amounts. In 1995, in accordance with an agreement reached between Mayak, the Ministry for Atomic Energy and the Chelyabinsk County administration, the maximum annual amount of reprocessable spent fuel was limited to250 tons. In practice, the Combine managed to handle 120 tons that year, 35 tons in 1996 and around 100 tons in 1997.

In 1995, Finland decided to build a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel generated at Soviet-designed Lovisa Nuclear Power Plant. The last shipment of spent nuclear fuel from Finland was performed in 1996. Hungary has also commissioned a dry storage facility and is considering an option to stop transportation to Mayak. Such developments may cost Mayak $50 million of revenues per year.

In the end of 1997, the State Duma adopted a law which prohibits import ofnuclear waste to Russia. From that point on, Mayak’s’ foreign customershad to take back the vitrified, highly radioactive waste that accruesduring reprocessing. The law has retroactive force, thus making life evenharder for Mayak. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine have announced that they would continue to ship fuel to Mayak under the new conditionsuntil 2002. Bulgaria is still undecided on what it will do with the spent fuel from its four VVER-440 reactors.

Nevertheless, the question remains: Will Mayak be able to return the waste and to continue operating at all?

The vitrification facility for high level liquid wastes at Mayak Combinewas taken out of operation on January 14 last year. The facility was 2.5years past its operational limits when closed down. Based on this, GAN -the civilian Russian nuclear inspection agency – suspended thereprocessing plant’s operating license. According to GAN, the licensewas based on the condition that high level liquid radioactive wastegenerated through the reprocessing process be glassified. As long as thiscondition is not fulfilled, operation of the plant is prohibited.

Mayak has storage capacity for liquid waste lasting until the year 2000.The plant is currently building two new vitrification facilities, with acombined price tag of some $21 million. A part of this was provided by theMinistry for Atomic Energy, the Ministry of Finance and by Mayak itself.But $18 million are still lacking. Given sufficient funding, theconstruction will take 1.5 years.

To top it off, the current situation indicates that Mayak would earn someprofit only by reprocessing spent fuel from the Czech Republic andSlovakia. Indeed, Ukraine sends fuel for reprocessing; but is unable to payfor it. When it comes to domestic customers, current prices hardly coverthe actual reprocessing expenses.

As an additional illustration of the deteriorating situation at Mayak: Since the start of its operational life in 1956, the RT-1 operated close to flawlessly all the way into the 1990’s.During the past few years, however, there were several instances when the reprocessing plant was shut down. The main reason for these shut-downs was lack of means to purchase chemical components necessary to perform the reprocessing.

Isotope production
The second money earner after reprocessing proper is the production ofvarious isotopes. This activity adds an annual $15 million to totalrevenues. According to Mayak management, the Combine accounts for approximately 15% of the world isotopes market. The Combine began toexport isotopes five years ago, after establishing a Russian-Americanjoint venture, Reviz, with American Amersham as counterpart. The Combine produces 1,100 different types of cobalt, iridium, strontium,promethium and carbon isotopes. Mayak is a monopolist in production ofcesium isotopes. Some 95% of the isotopes production is exported.

Intergovernmental agreements
Mayak Combine is engaged in a number of programs, which are follow-ups toagreements reached between the Russian and the U.S. governments. Two of theprojects deal with non-proliferation issues. One deals with handling ofnuclear warheads dismantled as a result of arms control agreements, whilethe second focuses on blending down weapons-grade uranium to be sold as nuclear fuel to the U.S. market.

A new deal signed on June 23 foresees spending $1 billion each year in the coming five or six years, to convert 50 tons of weapons-gradeplutonium in each of the two countries into MOX-fuel to be used in nuclear power plant reactors. In late June of this year, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Energy visited Mayak reprocessing plant in Chelyabinsk County and signed a letter of intent regulating the exchange of information on MOX-fuel. Two years ago, Mayak launched the research facility Paket to convert weapons-grade plutonium to MOX-fuel. TheAmerican funds will also finance experiments at this facility. TheRussian share in the research funding amounts to $2 billion. However, aweek after the agreement was signed, Lev Ryabev, First Deputy NuclearEnergy Minister, said Russia does not have that money, unless it receivesforeign financial assistance.


Mayak threatens the Arctic
The area around Mayak is heavily contaminated. In the period from 1949 to1956, controlled amounts of liquid radioactive waste from Mayak ChemicalCombine (MCC) were discharged into the river Techa. The continued operationof the reprocessing facility leads to further routine discharges into theenvironment. In two major accidents at the facility, large amounts of radioactivity were released. There have also been a number of otheraccidents of varying severity at the facilities. An area totaling 26,700km2 has been contaminated with a total activity of 185 PBq (5 MCi). An estimated radioactivity of 5,500 PBq (150 MCi) has been released into theenvironment, of which 4,400 PBq (120 MCi) went into Lake Karachay.

Under Lake Karachay, at a depth of 100 meters, a pocket containing some 5million cubic meters of radioactive liquid salts has been created. Movingat a speed of 80 meters per year towards the confluence of the River Irtysh and its tributary Techa, the pocket is currently located 1.5 to 2kilometers from an impending catastrophe. In case it eventually reaches the Techa, and consequently the Irtysh, vast areas of WesternSiberia and the Arctic Ocean will be contaminated. So far, no solution hasbeen proposed to prevent the disaster.


The Mayak Chemical Combine has faced hard times, but is desperately tryingto survive, maintaining as a matter of fact Russia’s preference to theso-called "closed fuel cycle" – meaning reprocessing of spent nuclear fuelwith the intention of its reuse. The plans to build a new reprocessingplant, the RT-2, in Krasnoyarks-26, have been shelved in practice due tofunding shortfalls. The new plant was designed to reprocess fuel generatedby VVER-1000 reactors which will be a substitute in most cases forVVER-440-type reactors. Those three Eastern European countries whichstill ship fuel to Mayak may eventually look for alternatives after theRussian Duma adopted legislation prohibiting import of nuclear waste toRussia, except if the vitrified radioactive waste is re-exported.

The VVER-440 reactors will be taken out of service in the 2010-2015 time frame. Apparently, maritime reactor fuel will continued to be shipped to Mayak for a while, but due to lack of funds and therefusal of Western donors to fund any operations which would lead to reprocessing, such practices are bound to expire.

Thus, there are all reasons to believe that with the shutting down of Mayak reprocessing plant there would be an end to the reprocessing era in Russia. Yet, Mayak has put its mark on the future, leaving the legacy of recovering the heavily contaminated areas around the plant, possibly as far as to and into the Arctic, to the coming generations.