Nuclear safety and spent fuel import in Russia

Publish date: April 26, 2001

Written by: Rashid Alimov

After 15 years of Chernobyl disaster Russia prolongs life-time of the aged reactors, plans to import spent nuclear fuel, and develop dangerous MOX-technology.

Before the second reading of the “nuclear” bills, Institute for Press Development held a press-conference “Safety of nuclear installations in the Russian Federation”. The topic was reported by Vladimir Kuznetsov, director of a program for nuclear and radiation safety of Russian “Green Cross”, ex-chief inspector for nuclear and radiation safety of the Nuclear State Regulatory, the author of a book “Russian nuclear energy: yesterday, today and tomorrow: independent expert’s view”.

Russian NPPs’ safety

During the year 2000, 18,077 violations of safety rules at the NPPs were found. Kuznetsov states, that from January, 1st 1991 to December, 31st 2000, 1,188 operating failures took place at Russian NPPs. Although Minatom claims, the number of the failures is reducing, the seriousness of the failures is proliferating.

Vladimir Kuznetsov said, that capacity factor of the NPPs amounted to 63-64% in the last year, while world-wide this factor equals to 80-85%. That means, that Russian NPPs work “in a light duty”.

In a number of times, energy of the NPPs has not been needed because of its high price, e.g. energy produced at Balakovo NPP, equipped with 4 VVER-1000 reactors, was not demanded. The enterprises of the region preferred to buy electricity at a lower price from the Volga hydroelectric plant.

In last 15 years there have been constant failures of the steam generator of the VVER-1000 reactors. Maximum period of generator’s life equals to 10-13 years. Recent replacement of all the 4 steam generators of Balakovo NPP after 12 years of exploitation, was too expensive, Kuznetsov says. Moreover, during the replacement the personnel of the NPP was heavily irradiated. But the cause of the failure in the generators has not been eliminated. Replacement activities seem to be needed soon also at the re-started reactor of Rostov NPP.

In 6 years capacity of the VVER-1000 reactors has been reduced for 90%, because design defects of the controlling and safety systems were found. During this period the cause of the malfunctions was not revealed and eliminated. That made units 1 and 2 of the Kursk NPP to limit the work till 70% capacity. Life time of units 3 and 4 of Novovoronezh NPP expires in the year 2001, although expensive operations of reactor roasting to prolong its life have been performed repeatedly.In 1989 the Nuclear State Regulatory commission advised to limit the capacity of the Kola NPP to 50%-70%, to make the units finish their life time gradually. But the management of the Nuclear State Regulatory and Rosenergoatom concern did not pay attention to the commission’s report. Specialists from Sweden and Finland claim that Kola NPP’s VVER-440 reactors are ones of the most dangerous in Russia, according to the commission’s report and, Kuznetsov says.

The last operating reactor of Chernobyl NPP was shut down in December. Chernobyl NPP used RMBK reactors, which are still in operation in Russia: at Kursk, Smolensk and Leningrad NPPs. But in spite of poor safety of the reactors of this type, Minatom keeps building the RMBK units, e.g. at Kursk NPP, which will be put in operation after the Rostov NPP’s launch.

Design defects of the RMBK-1000 are found in the forced multi-circulation metal circuit. Every planned repair reveals up to 300 defects in the reactor water tubings. Such defects have been found almost at all the NPPs, using such reactors.

Kuznetsov claims, that after the change of the standards, no NPP in Russia has a completed security blanket today.

Spent fuel import and nuclear safety

Vladimir Kuznetsov criticised parliament hearings on the spent nuclear fuel imports, held on April, 9th. He said, that having been working as an expert in all the three State Dumas, he has “never seen so disorganised hearings”. Kuznetsov also expressed regret that head of the Nuclear State Regulatory Yury Vishnevsky, who participated in the hearings, did not clear out an issue of nuclear radiation safety of the Russian plants.

Kuznetsov quoted data on citizen nuclear energy objects, present in Russia on April, 1st 2001. There are 213 nuclear plants; 1,226 transporting containers; 454 storage for nuclear substances and radioactive waste; 16,675 radiation sources and 1,508 storage for radioactive substances and waste in industry. 4 m people live in about 1,300 settlements, situated in the 13-km areas of the NPPs and close to nuclear fuel plants.

Spent fuel import, reprocessing and storage facilities

Today Russian nuclear plants are waiting for spent nuclear fuel imports for reprocessing after the “nuclear” bills are passed. Minatom claims, the plants’ activities are absolutely safe. According to Kuznetsov’s information, 40 accidents took place during last 10 years, 3 of them in the year 2000 (2 failures at the Mayak plant, and 1 at Tomsk-7 industrial complex). 80 % of the accidents was followed by radioactive substance release. Russia is still pumping low- and medium-level radioactive waste in deep geological strata, e.g. in Dimitrovgrad, Chelyabinsk-65 and Tomsk-7. Chelyabinsk-65 keeps on dumping medium-level waste into open reservoirs. Low-level waste is also dumped into the Karachay lake.

Today in Russia there is no universal technology for spent fuel reprocessing. According to a version, there was a serious failure at Siberian chemical plant in Tomsk-7 with a radioactive waste release on April, 6th 1993. The accident was caused by French spent nuclear fuel reprocessing under the contract with Cogema, because isotopic composition of the fuel fell beyond the plant’s flow sheet, designed for Russian fuel.

Russian plants reprocess mostly fuel from VVER-440 reactors. Fuel from RMBK-1000 and VVER-1000 reactors may not be reprocessed, and therefore it is stored in Krasnoyarsk-26. Total volume of the VVER fuel is equal to 2,500 tonn, and by the year 2025 it will reach the quantity of 8,400 ton. Total waste from the RMBK-reactors was equal to 10,000 ton in 2000, and by the year 2025 it will be 22,000 tonn. NPPs’ storage facilities for spent fuel of RMBK reactors are almost filled up, and Minatom is going to perform fuel densification. But it is not the solution, Kuznetsov said.

NPPs’ storage facilities for liquid radioactive waste are filled up for 90%. The storage of the Kalinin NPP is already filled up, says Kuznetsov, referring to the Nuclear State Regulatory documents, and the data niggardly and occasionally published by Minatom.

Total activity of the waste, produced by the nuclear plants, amounts to 1.8 bln Ci. Total capacity of the liquid radioactive waste exceeds 440 mln cubic meters.

In case the “nuclear” bills are passed, Russia will have to import about 2,000 ton of spent fuel annually during 10 years. The storage of Krasnoyarsk-26 will be filled up for 3,000 ton by the end of 2001, which is exactly a half of its project capacity. If Russia will be importing spent fuel, all the Russian storages will be filled in a year and a half. Referring to the former nuclear minister Evgeny Adamov, Kuznetsov said that in the last year, RT-1 Mayak plant in Ozersk, Chelyabinsk region, has reprocessed only 126 ton of spent fuel from 11 shipments of the Pacific and Northern Fleets, and from the Murmansk Shipping Company. In case the fuel will is imported, there will be no capacity for reprocessing of spent fuel of the Russian fleet. Mayak plant can reprocess only 440 ton of the spent fuel per year, but even this figure is overestimated because of the worn out equipment.

Today there is no program for spent fuel imports, where separate procedures would be defined step by step. One can assume, that after fuel is imported, Minatom will demand additional funds, e.g. to resume building of a reprocessing plant in Krasnoyarsk-26, suspended 10 years ago. In Kuznetsov’s opinion, the aim of the Minatom’s activity is creation and modernisation of nuclear weapon. Practically 80% of the extra-price of spent fuel cost supply military technologies. Kuznetsov drew attention to the MPs’ unanimity supporting the “nuclear” bills, at the first reading, while previous State Dumas could not even approach this.

Plutonium treatment and MOX-fuel NPPs

From the spent fuel Minatom is going to extract reactor plutonium, which can be converted into weapon grade Plutonium. Reactor- and weapon-grade Plutonium can be converted into so-called MOX-fuel. Today the heads of Minatom want to change all Russian nuclear energy into BREST-reactors, working on the MOX. But no energy system in the world works on plutonium. The only exception is BN-600 reactor at Beloyarsk NPP. Cost of a kilowatt-hour, produced at this reactor, is 40% higher than one, produced at VVER reactors. In Kuznetsov’s opinion, any plans to use Plutonium in reactors, including reactors not designed to that, will not worth funds invested.

Kuznetsov criticised Nuclear Energy Development program of ex-minister Adamov. The programme required 30 units of NPPs, most of them are BREST-300 reactors with lead-bismuth coolant, to be put in operation. The thesis of the BREST safety was doubted by academician Nikolay Ponomarev-Stepnoy in the “Yaderniy kontrol” (Nuclear control) magazine.

Storage of Plutonium may also become a matter of difficulty. There is from 4 to 10 kilos of reactor grade plutonium in every ton of spent nuclear fuel. Storage of 1 gram of plutonium costs $5-6. Russia is storing about 180 t of Plutonium, and after the spent fuel imports this number may reach 400 ton. Storage of the amount of plutonium extracted would require $2.5 bln annually.