Revoked License Grinds Mayak to a Halt

Publish date: January 16, 2003

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

Mayak Chemical Combine — the infamous nuclear site in the Chelyabinsk region of the Southern Urals that specializes in reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and submarines — has been ordered to shut down its activities.

The halt order was imposed following a refusal by Gosatomnadzor, or GAN, Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency, to extend the license for Mayak’s main production facility, reprocessing plant No.235.

Mayak’s license, which expired in December 2002, had been issued to the combine for one year only as an exception to the rules and in exchange for Mayak’s promises to bring its activities into accord with existing environmental standards.

In Russia, spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, comes from ten nuclear power plants that employ 30 energy-producing blocs working on VVER-440, VVER-1000, RBMK-1000, BN-600 and LVGR-12 reactors, nuclear submarines and ships of the Russian Navy, a fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers, as well as several research reactors. Aside from those, Russia still has in service three military reactors producing weapons-grade plutonium. As of today, estimates put Russia’s SNF stockpile at about 15,000 tonnes.

In accordance with Russia’s accepted concept of closed fuel cycle, SNF from nuclear plants that employ VVER-440 and BN-600 reactors, as well as SNF from maritime nuclear installations, such as submarines and icebreakers, and some of the research reactors, is shipped to Mayak for reprocessing. SNF coming from VVER-1000 reactors is sent to a storage facility at the Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine in the Krasnoyarsk region in Central Siberia. Spent fuel that is produced by RBMK reactors remains inside their power plants, kept at the plants’ storage facilities.

Mayak’s violations
On Dec. 20 Andrei Kislov, head of GAN’s third directorate, which is responsible for safety control on fuel cycle facilities, sent an official letter to Mayak’s general director Vitaly Sadovnikov, informing him that the plant’s license was rescinded. The corresponding decision had been made by Gosatomnadzor on the previous day.

The main foundation for canceling the license was Mayak’s systematic violations of Russian environmental legislation — namely Art. 104 of the Code on Water Resources Use, Art. 51 of the Law on Environmental Protection, Art.48 of the Law on Nuclear Energy Use — that forbids dumping of liquid radioactive waste in open water reservoirs. As pointed out in Gosatomnadzor’s letter, Mayak was supposed to work out a plan for gradual cutbacks and eventual ceasing of dumping practices and have it then approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources, but has failed to do so.

In one document that Mayak did present to GAN — the text of proposed measures that would stop sewage dumping practices, stabilize the water level in water reservoir No. 11 and close up water reservoirs Nos. 9 and 17 — only contained financial information on gradual year-by-year allocation of funds to environmental cleanup activities. GAN noted in its letter that "the plan does not stipulate what activities this money would be spent on."

As GAN further argues, Mayak has failed to present an analysis on the reliability of the plant’s vitrifying kiln used to convert highly radioactive liquid waste — the waste resulting from SNF reprocessing — into glass for permanent storage. Nor has an analysis for the kiln’s efficiency been filed. The vitrification facility, put into operation on Oct. 26 2001, has been shut down several times for the past year due to various defects. The previous facility used by the plant had been taken out of service in 1997 after working twice as long as its designed operation term allowed.

At that time, GAN first suspended Mayak’s reprocessing license exactly because of the malfunction of that vitrification facility. The license, however, was soon renewed after Mayak submitted documentation reasoning that the plant’s operation was safe even without a working virtification kiln.

Open water reservoirs
By means of routine radioactive discharges and spreading of radioactive materials as result of accidents, Mayak has contaminated vast stretches of the surrounding river system, including the river Techa. In an effort to curb further spreading of radionuclides, a number of artificial reservoirs were built along the Techa. These reservoirs are able to hold large amounts of radioactivity inside their limits.

The 240-kilometre-long Techa River and falls into the river Iset near the town of Dolmatovo. The Iset in turn flows into the river Tobol in the Tyumen region. The whole river system extends to approximately a total of 1 000 kilometres. The Tobol River joins with the river Irtysh, which, in its turn, falls into the river Ob ending at the Kara Sea.

The first reservoir (reservoir No. 3) was constructed in 1951 through building a dam just below Lake Kyzyltash (reservoir No. 2). Additional dams were built down the Techa River in the years 1956 (reservoir No. 10), 1963 and 1964. Altogether, reservoirs Nos. 2, 3, 4, 10, and 11 form a total area of 84 square kilometres, with a total volume of 394 million cubic meters. The activity levels of caesium 137 (137Cs) and strontium 90 (90Sr) in these reservoirs have been measured at 7.141 TBq (193 kCi) altogether. To prevent any influx of water or flooding, a canal system has been built around the reservoir, with canals on the left dug out in 1963, and canals on the right in 1972.

Over the years that the reservoirs have been in use, however, the water level in them has been gradually rising. Every year spring floods create a critical situation in the region, causing fear that radioactive waste will overflow and seep from the reservoirs into the river system.

Since 1951 and to the present day liquid waste has also been dumped into the closed reservoir Lake Karachai (reservoir No. 9), and Lake Staroye Boloto (reservoir No.17), five kilometers to the northeast from Karachai.


A shock for the minister
Speaking on Monday in an interview to Russian radio Echo Moskvy, Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Ministry of Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, seemed to be fuming with anger: "I was simply taken aback by this. I’m used to different turns, but when I hear that they revoke the license of a nuclear plant — how can that be? Is it supposed now to work without a license and violate the law? This isn’t going to happen, the license has to be in place, and GAN’s business is to see that everything is as it should be."

In fact, Rumyantsev discussed Mayak’s current state of affairs as recently as early December in a meeting with several environmental NGOs. The most heated issue at the meeting was Mayak’s practices of dumping liquid radioactive waste in open water reservoirs — Lake Karachai, Lake Staroye Boloto and the Techa river system. As it turned out, the minister had no knowledge that Mayak continues to discharge its waste into those reservoirs. As the meeting progressed, one fact became obvious: The Ministry, true to form, simply ignores such a petty issue as discharging medium- and low-level radioactive waste into the environment.

But even at the time Rumyantsev came to share the environmentalists’ concerns that Mayak in its activities is crossing the boundaries of law: It has no license to use water reservoirs, and the license to operate the storage and reprocessing plant RT-1 is expiring that same month. As Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s operations in Russia and one of the participants of the meeting, said later, it was never made clear as to how exactly Minatom was intending to legitimise Mayak’s activities.

Surely not by taking GAN’s authority to license away from them?

It is, however, a known fact that Minatom, since the years 1999 and 2000, has indeed been trying to do just that. Part of that authority was already clipped from GAN in 1999 by governmental decree No. 1007 that was signed by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. That decree stripped GAN of their right to license "the use of radioactive materials in application of nuclear energy for purposes of defence, including design, production, testing, transportation, operation, storage, destruction and decommissioning of nuclear weapons and military nuclear reactors." In other words, the decree removed GAN from any involvement with the process of decommissioning of nuclear submarines, which presents the greatest problem to the Russian Northern and Pacific Fleets. Apparently, it also bars GAN’s oversight from the three plutonium-producing reactors in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk in Western Siberia.

But full transfer of GAN’s licensing functions to Minatom would violate Russia’s international obligations. All the nuclear safety assistance programmes that Russia receives, in particular, from the European Union, or EU, — for instance the TACIS programmes — stipulate an active involvement of GAN. Many EU programmes support GAN directly. In March 2002, Bellona worked out recommendations for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which were successfully passed through the Norwegian parliament and stipulated, among other things, an obligatory participation of GAN in Norwegian nuclear safety assistance programmes in Russia, giving the agency the authority to evaluate all such programmes before and during their implementation, as well as their results.

Will plant No. 235 take spent nuclear fuel for storage?
Meanwhile, Russia is planning to start in late January the defuelling of the Kursk submarine at the Nerpa shipyard in Kola Peninsula, in Northwest Russia. The operation is scheduled for completion by the end of February, after which the unloaded spent nuclear fuel is planned to be shipped to Mayak.

According to Nadezhda Kutepova, an environmentalist from Ozersk, where Mayak is situated, "It’s unlikely that the plant No. 235 will stop taking spent fuel for storage, at least, until its cooling pond has any capacity to take it."

Mayak’s current situation may impact most the fate of spent fuel that comes from the Northern Fleet submarines. At the same time, representatives of the Rosenergoatom concern, which operates all Russian nuclear power plants, said to Bellona Web that they have absolutely no need in Mayak, because they can store their spent fuel for a long time yet in those storage facilities that they have at the power plants.

Natural death for Mayak
The revocation of Mayak’s reprocessing license is far from a sensation it appears to be at first glance. It is, rather, just one exchange in a routine working interaction between two bureaucracies — that which exploits and that which controls. The myth about a Renaissance of Russia’s atomic industry, a future of high nuclear technologies etc. that Minatom has lately been cultivating with such zeal, is essentially a bluff: at second glance, there are problems — problems that were there, that have not dissolved, that continue to be exacerbated. This is what the latest incident between the two authorities serves to confirm. In off-the-record interviews, GAN officials admit that if they were to really follow all the laws and standards, half of Minatom’s sites would have to be closed down just like that.

There is no doubt that Mayak, just like it did in 1997, will somehow find arguments to prove that it is "safe to empty its liquid radioactive waste into open water reservoirs" and will somehow get its license extended for 2003. But it doesn’t mean by any stretch that Mayak’s problems end here.

To stop liquid waste dumping practices Mayak needs full reconstruction, which requires significant funds. The plan outlining the construction in the Chelyabinsk region of the South-Ural nuclear power plant, which, according to Minatom’s grand design, would be used to steam the contaminated water out of the reservoirs and prevent catastrophic situations caused by yearly floods, doesn’t solve the problem. No matter how good the plan, the radioactive discharges will be continued anyway.

At the same time, Minatom doesn’t show a much of an enthusiasm for investing large sums into Mayak’s reprocessing plant. The reason is not only that it lacks necessary funds, but also because of larger economic considerations: Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel isn’t profitable now, and it won’t become profitable, while prices for natural uranium remain as low as they are. But they will only go up in the next 30 to 40 years, and that only on the condition that no new uranium deposits are found, and that the nuclear industry receives a huge developmental boost. Besides, Minatom is more inclined to pour funding into completing another reprocessing facility — RT-2 in the Krasnoyarsk region — than it is in spending money for a large-scale reconstruction of Mayak.

Construction of the new reprocessing plant at Krasnoyarsk-26 was authorised in 1976, although actual work on the site was not started until 1984-1985. The RT-2 plant was designed to take for storage and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from light-water VVER-1000 reactors. In 1985 the first line of the site — the wet storage facility — was put into operation. In 1989 the construction, then 30 to 40 percent complete, were halted, due both to lack of funding and strong local opposition against the facility. Today Minatom estimates that RT-2 is not to be put into full operation until 2015, but even these expectations seem far-fetched.

Therefore, Minatom is stuck in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, losing the only reprocessing plant will strike a hard blow at Minatom’s philosophy of a "closed fuel cycle" and at its propaganda about Russia enjoying highly developed reprocessing technologies — propaganda that Minatom spun in summer 2000 to push legislation allowing SNF imports to Russia. On the other hand, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing is at this stage completely unprofitable. Sponsoring it, however, at the cost of the state, or taxpayer money — in the way it is done in Great Britain and France — is not an option for a Russia still smarting from economic turmoil.