Minatom to Build Radioactive Waste Repository on Novaya Zemlya

Publish date: May 24, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia's Ministry for Nuclear Energy (Minatom) announced Thursday that it would be building a storage facility for low and mid level radioactive waste on the Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, a remote site used during Soviet times as a nuclear bomb testing range.

Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister assistant Nikolai Shingaryov told Bellona Web in a telephone interview Thursday that a $70 million geological repository for low- to mid level radioactive waste from submarines currently stored at various sites in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions.

The most infamous site is Mironova Heights located 12 kilometres south-west of the town of Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk region. The storage contains 1,840 cubic meters of waste.

"The facility is only for low to medium level waste from submarines," said Shingaryov. "No waste from any other parts of Russia will be coming, and certainly we will not be storing any foreign spent nuclear fuel (SNF) there. This is primarily for the submarine waste — something has to be done about that quickly."

Shingaryov said a working design for the repository was on the drawing board and facility would likely be open for its first load of waste in 36 months.

Novaya Zemlya most recently made headlines when American intelligence allegedly picked up indications that preparations were underway on the remote archipelago for major nuclear tests. Russia denied the reports, though the northern territory of Novaya Zemlya is still used for so called sub-critical test blasts of nuclear weapons, in which plutonium is blasted with explosives too weak to set off an atomic explosion.

The waste repository, said Shingaryov, will be located in Novaya Zemlya’s southern section.

A 2001 report running more than 200 pages by nuclear experts from Norway, the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Great Britain declared Novaya Zemlya ecologically sound for the storage of low and medium level waste burial, even in the presence of the sub-critical nuclear explosions, Shingaryov said. Bellona staff, who studied the report, confirmed this.

Engineer Vladimir Mankin, of Moscow’s VNIPIPromtechnologii, helped design the waste 50,000 cubic meter burial tomb, and told Bellona Web in a telephone interview Thursday that it’s design basically resembles a steel-walled mine shaft. Containers of low and medium level waste would then be lowered into it in reinforced ceramic barrels.

But this $70 million price tag for the project has alarmed other environmental groups, who say that the investment — in comparison to the billions spent by other projects to develop geological repositories for waste throughout the world — is grossly inadequate.

"This guarantees that the Novaya Zemlya facility will have an extremely low level of radiation safety," Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the local environmental group Ecodefence!, told Bellona Web.

By comparison, the United States government has sunk $6 billion into research alone surrounding its own plans to build a geological repository for SNF at Yucca Mountain in the state of Nevada. But even at after such a substantial financial outlay, many US ecologists say the proposed site is dangerously unqualified as a waste storage tomb.

Likewise, an American corporation called the Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT) has budgeted $1.3 billion for testing and building a geological repository in Russia in a proposal it is discussing with the Russian government.

But Minatom’s Shingaryov said these comparisons were inaccurate.

"First, the Yucca mountain site is built for SNF, not low to medium level waste," he said. "Besides, Yucca is a multi-tunnelled underground structure — what we envision for Novaya Zemlya is one simple shaft into which we would sink containers of low level waste."

Shingaryov added that the Novaya Zemlya project has been in the making since 1990, "and Minatom has spent at least the equivalent in research and labour that has been devoted to Yucca."

Officials with the Arkhangelsk regional administration have been adamant that waste from other regions of Russia will not be accepted at the Novaya Zemlya site, even though the lion’s share of funding for the repository came from the federal budget.

"The transfer of radioactive wastes to Novaya Zemlya from outside the region, not to mention from abroad, is just out of the question," said Anatoly Yefremov, governor of the region, according to Interfax news agency.

Neither Yefremov nor his deputies were available for further comment on Thursday, but Shingaryov defended the administration’s ban on waste from other regions.

"Why would they want waste from other region?" he said. "The waste they have from the submarines is the waste that concerns them and they have the right to keep waste from other regions away."

But when asked why other regions, like Chelyabinsk had to accept waste from other regions, and Russia as a whole had to accept waste from abroad, Shingaryov responded that the Novaya Zemlya site, and the special conditions surrounding the waste to be stored there, were "a kind of gift."