Russian Nuclear Regulatory alarms cabinet

Publish date: January 30, 2002

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russian Navy has lost parts of spent nuclear fuel; nuclear shipment is carried out in damaged railway cars funded by Norway.

Yury Vishnevsky, the head of the Russian Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, has appealed to deputy prime minister Ilya Klebanov with an alarming letter. In his letter, Mr Vishnevsky points out sever violations of nuclear safety during shipment of spent nuclear fuel unloaded from retired nuclear powered submarines to the Mayak reprocessing plant in the southern Ural.

The letter was accidentally obtained by Civil Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation, a Russian NGO from Krasnoyarsk. It reveals that despite reassurances made by Ministry for Nuclear Energy, Minatom, nuclear shipment is not so safe after all.

Mr Vishnevsky writes that the train with spent nuclear fuel, which arrived to Mayak in May 2001, carried casks with damaged spent nuclear fuel. Some parts of the spent nuclear fuel were missing and their location is unknown. This fact was not indicated in the documents sent with the train and was discovered during unloading of the fuel. According to Vishnevsky, this incident was not the first of the kind.

Defueling tempo increase
Presently there are more than 180 nuclear powered submarines taken out of service in the Northern and the Pacific Fleets. 113 submarines are retired in the Northern Fleet, including around 70 submarines which still contain spent nuclear fuel in their reactors. The defueling tempo of the retired submarines has been speeding up over the past years in tact with the increased waste management funding from Minatom. In 1998, only four submarines were defueled in the Northern Fleet with funding from Minatom at around $3.5m; in 1999, six submarines defueled with decommissioning budget of $8.6m; in 2000, spent fuel was unloaded from 14 submarines with $16m earmarked; in 2001, the financing has reached $20.3m and around 15 submarines were defueled. The funds come mainly from sales of Russian weapon grade uranium to the United States under the governmental agreement between the two countries signed back in 1993.

Those positive trends were reached when Minatom started a gradual takeover from the military the responsibility for management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste since 1998. The two infamous storage site for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in Andreeva Bay in the western part and Gremikha in the eastern part of the Kola Peninsula have been finally transferred to Minatom’s field office in Murmansk called SevRAO.

The defueling of the submarines, however, is still split between the Navy, shipyards and Murmansk Shipping Company, the commercial operator of the nuclear powered icebreakers fleet in Murmansk. And the part performed by the Navy is rarely satisfactory in terms of nuclear safety.

Nuclear safety neglected
The fact described by Mr Vishnevsky in the letter took place in Polyarny shipyard at the Kola Peninsula. The damaged fuel has apparently originated from Echo-II class submarine K-192, which suffered an accident in 1989 and has been stationed in Polyarny until it was defueled in 2000.

GAN inspectors were not in place when the damaged fuel was loaded into TUK-18 type casks destined for the Mayak plant. GAN was stripped of the authority to inspect military installations back in 1993. And the military nuclear safety inspection had no interest to complicate matters by informing Mayak about the damaged fuel arrival. The Mayak plant cannot reprocess damaged fuel and could bluntly refuse to accept it. The way-out was just to pretend that nobody noticed that the spent fuel was broken in parts, some of them missing, and get rid of the headache. The available storage sites are full in the Northern Fleet, whereas the solution to manage damaged fuel has not been found so far.

Such safety negligence is strongly resented by GAN. In his letter, Mr Vishnevsky writes that it could lead to sever consequences for the population along the route of the nuclear shipment from the Russian Far North and to the southern Ural and for the personnel of the Mayak plant.

Dangerous shipments
The tempo of spent nuclear fuel shipment to the Mayak plant has also increased over the past years. In 2000, there were seven shipments from Murmansk to Mayak, while in 1997 there were just two trains sent.

Minatom operates two special trains (nine cars in total) each can carry two to three submarine reactor cores at a time placed into 12 TUK-18 type casks. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry funded the construction of the second train. It was commissioned in 2000. But GAN alarms that the construction of the cars is of bad quality. The cracks in the cars have been discovered and it makes it dangerous to use them. The cracks were also documented in the TUK-18 casks. Those casks are currently used not only for shipment but also for temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel.

Minatom plans to start using modified metal-concrete cask design of TUK-108 type. A storage pad for those casks is under construction at the nuclear powered icebreaker base Atomflot in Murmansk. But GAN was sceptical to TUK-108 design as well and refused to approve them. As a result, GAN was taken off the project on the pretext that TUK-108s will only be used for the fuel of military origin.

GAN insists on independent nuclear safety review
GAN is insisting on independent review of the nuclear safety procedures and nuclear materials accountability at the objects of the Defence Ministry. The specific facts, described in the letter by Mr Vishnevsky, are just an illustration to the widespread situation at the defence sites cloaked by secrecy. The authority of GAN has been undermined over the past years both by the Defence Ministry and Minatom. The military do not want civilians to interfere, while Minatom wishes to make things easier in order to implement the nuclear energy development plans and to carry out the controversial project of importing spent nuclear fuel from other countries. But given the current weak position of GAN in the Russian ministerial hierarchy such demand is unlikely to be met.