Mayak still without vitrification

Publish date: February 29, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The Mayak reprocessing plant is about to run out of storage space for high active liquid waste; a new vitrification plant is yet to be commissioned.

The vitrification facility at the Mayak reprocessing plant in the southern Urals scheduled for commissioning back in 1997 is yet to be completed. The new date is set for late 2000, a Chelyabinsk County based Agency of Information Co-operation (AIC) reported.

Research on vitrification of high level liquid radioactive waste produced as a result of reprocessing at Mayak started in 1967. But the first small facility was commissioned only in 1987. The process involved introducing radionuclides into phosphate glass prepared in a ceramic melter. The facility was decommissioned following an accident, after 13 months of operation.

A second similar electric oven (EP-500-1) was installed in the same building, and put into operation on June 25, 1991. On January 14, 1997, the facility was taken out of operation being 2,5 years past its working limits. Based on this, the Russian Nuclear Regulatory, or GAN, suspended the reprocessing plant’s licence to operate on March 21 the same year. GAN said the licence issued earlier for Mayak assumed that high level liquid radioactive wastes were solidified. As long as this condition was not fulfilled, the operation of the reprocessing plant was prohibited.

Mayak delivered later the same year a new licence application to GAN justifying the safe operation of the reprocessing plant without vitrification facility. After a row of quarrels, GAN had to lift the ban.

Mayak said that it would complete the construction of the first virtification facility by the end of 1997. The second facility was to be put into operation by the middle of 1998. In the meantime, the liquid wastes would be placed into storage tanks. Mayak has approximately 100 different storage tanks with a total volume of around 7,000 cubic meters. One of the tanks exploded in 1957 as a result of loss of cooling. It led to radioactive contamination of a large area in the southern Urals.

Back in 1997, Mayak official Evgeny Ryzkov said to Bellona Web that Mayak had storage capacity left for two years. Around three years have passed since then. The reduction of the reprocessing levels has apparently helped Mayak to gain some “extra” storage space.

The new deadline for commissioning of the vitrification facility is set for late 2000. But today all seems to be dependent on the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy (Minatom) that has to decide whether it wants to proceed with reprocessing at all.

A month ago, the U.S. Department of Energy ironed out a new proposal for Russians that suggested an assistance package of around $100 million given Russia agrees to quit reprocessing. Minatom’s first reaction was dubious, but the option to suspend reprocessing for few decades was said to be worth considering.