The Murmansk Initiative-RF: An observer’s point of view

Alexander Raube

Publish date: December 5, 2003


Bellona’s position paper:

The process of accumulation of liquid radioactive waste, or LRW, on the Kola Peninsula and in the Arkhangelsk region is determined by the operation and decommissioning of nuclear-powered vessels of the Russian Northern Fleet, of nuclear icebreakers, which are in trust management of the open joint stock company, the Murmansk Shipping Company, as well as by the operation of the Kola Nuclear Power Plant.

In the period from 1959 to 1991, tonnes of liquid radioactive waste, or LRW, with a combined activity of 880 terabecquerels (TBq) were dumped in the waters of the Barents and Kara Seas.

Limitations and a subsequent moratorium imposed on LRW sea dumping have spurred research for new technological solutions to the problem of the accumulation and the safe and secure management of LRW.

In 1989, financed by the Murmansk Shipping Company, an experimental industrial-scale installation for LRW treatment was built at the Russian nuclear icebreaker service base Atomflot through a method that had been successfully tested on the radioactive waste transportation tanker Serebryanka. The installation, whose capacity allows for treating 1,200 cubic metres of LRW per year, is functioning to this date.

The Murmansk Initiative-RF—or the Murmansk Initiative in the Russian Federation, a trilateral project signed by the United States, Norway and Russia—envisioned increasing the capacity of the existing experimental industrial LRW treatment facility from 1,200 to 5,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste per year. The implementation of the project was launched in 1996.

The costs of the project, initially estimated at $2.2m, gradually ballooned to over $5m. The installation was slated for completion by 2000. However, the new dates when the facility was to go online were postponed numerous times. Today, the installation has still not been put into operation.

In early 2003, the official contractee and representative of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, the inter-industrial coordination centre Nuclide, addressed Minatom, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a request to authorise the shutdown of the existing treatment facility. If the old facility is closed in this forced way, Atomflot will have to clean up the mess of the new project with its own resources and at its own expense—which, in essence, means money from the pocket of Russian taxpayers.

Bellona considers unacceptable the option of shutting down the old installation before the new one begins its work. In Bellona’s opinion, this development will lead to significant hurdles and snags in other areas, particularly, in the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. Furthermore, if the operating facility goes offline, with the new one completely unprepared to begin its work, it may provoke the unsanctioned and illegal practice of dumping LRW at sea. Bellona therefore suggests a number of actions that would pave the way out of the situation at hand.

–> 1. Introduction
Since the late 1940s, 13 countries had dumped their solid and liquid radioactive waste at sea. The combined activity of this waste had reached 85,000 TBq, with 38,500 TBq of it being the responsibility of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Since 1972, radioactive waste dumping has been regulated by the London Convention. The limitations on LRW dumping specified in this convention were further enhanced by the 1983 Resolution on a Temporary Moratorium on the dumping at sea of all types of radioactive waste. This moratorium became a permanent ban in 1993.

Both during the negotiations on the London Convention and later, on the fulfilment of the moratorium on radioactive waste dumping in 1993, Russia was stating that it did not have sufficient means to treat LRW, while the process of mass-scale decommissioning of nuclear submarines would lead to the additional accumulation of LRW.

The dumping of the Russian LRW in the Barents, Kara and White Seas began in 1959. The dumping operations were carried out by the Russian Northern Fleet and the Murmansk Shipping Company. According to official data, the last such operation was performed in November 1991—NATO’s recently declassified intelligence testifies, the practice of dumping the Northern Fleet’s LRW at sea did not stop in 1991. According to the NATO data, more dumping incidents took place in July 1995, near Kildin Island, a mere 80 kilometres from the city of Murmansk [1]. From 1959 to 1991, altogether 880 TBq of liquid waste was dumped in these seas.

At present, the main sources of LRW in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions are the Northern Fleet’s nuclear vessels, the civilian nuclear fleet and the Kola Nuclear Power Plant.

Today, 116 submarines have been taken out of active operation in the Northern Fleet. Of these, 58 are laid up, including 36 with their spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, still on board. The remaining 58 submarines have been dismantled, and their reactor compartments sent for storage at Sayda Bay on the Kola Peninsula [2]. The decommissioning of a submarine produces on average 300 cubic metres of liquid radioactive waste of varying levels of radioactivity, including 200 cubic metres of liquid radioactive waste during the defuelling stage of a submarine’s reactor [3].

From 1959 to 1991, the Soviet Union built nine civilian vessels operating on nuclear power installations—eight icebreakers and one light-container ship. The nuclear-powered vessels are in trust management of the Murmansk Shipping Company. Technical servicing of the civilian nuclear fleet is carried out by the state-owned Atomflot, which is located two kilometres from the northern edge of the city of Murmansk. So far, two icebreakers have been retired. The average yearly LRW accumulation rate from the operation of nuclear-powered vessels is 400 to 500 cubic metres.

The liquid waste produced by the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, or Kola NPP, is stored in containers on the site. The Kola NPP is at the moment building its own LRW treatment plant, which is expected to come into operation in 2005.

2. The history of Atomflot’s LRW treatment facility
The experimental industrial-scale installation for LRW treatment was built at the Russian state-owned nuclear icebreaker service base Atomflot in 1989. The construction was financed by the Murmansk Shipping Company. The facility—which uses a treatment method that had been successfully tested on the special purpose, radioactive waste transportation tanker Serebryanka—is capable of processing 1,200 cubic metres of liquid waste per year.

The facility was created for the purpose of disposal of the LRW accumulated by the Murmansk Shipping Company, which was the first in Russia’s northwest to abandon the practice of dumping liquid radioactive waste at sea. The last dumping operation it had performed took place in 1986.

Altogether, 14,000 cubic metres of LRW have been processed by the facility from 1989 to 2003.

It should be noted that a development plan for the state-owned Atomflot envisions the construction of another treatment facility, which would tackle LRW produced by the operation of the civilian nuclear fleet.

This project was developed by Minatom’s St Petersburg-based State All-Russian Scientific Research and Design Institute of Complex Energy Related Technologies, known by the Russian abbreviation of VNIPIET. The sphere of activities of VNIPIET includes research and design works in fission reactors, fuel cycles, radioactive waste treatment and waste disposal. However, the technology part of the project was worked out in the late 1970s, and, on Atomflot’s initiative, it was re-researched using the obsolete technology of evaporation and subsequent bituminisation of the sediment replaced by the method of selective sorbents for cleansing the waste of radionuclides. The new treatment implies radionuclide saturation of the sorbents, and then concrete packing of the sediment in special containers.

The construction of this facility was started in 1988, but as money budgeted by the state dried up, the works would repeatedly grind to a halt—and have not yet been completed today. According to plan, this facility should treat all types of liquid radioactive waste—reactor cooling waters, decontamination waters—produced in the operation of civil nuclear vessels. The projected capacity of the facility is 15,000 cubic metres of waste per year.

3. The Murmansk Initiative-RF: The new treatment facility
The Murmansk Initiative-RF is a trilateral project signed by the United States, Norway and Russia, which envisions increasing the capacity of the existing experimental industrial LRW treatment facility—from here on referred to as "the old facility"—from 1,200 to 5,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste per year. The implementation of the project was launched in 1996.

The projected result of this initiative is a new federal site for a LRW processing complex installation of a two-fold purpose, which would treat LRW resulting from the operation and decommissioning of nuclear submarines, nuclear icebreakers and temporary storage facilities for SNF and radioactive waste. The dual purpose of the facility is implied by the fact that this treatment installation would process the waste generated by both civilian and military nuclear powered fleet.

The American part of the project was coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and the Norwegian part by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, or NRPA. On the Russian side, the project management and implementation control has been maintained by Minatom’s Nuclide.

Other Minatom organisations—like VNIPIET and the Sverdlovsk Scientific Research Institute of Chemical Engineering, or SverdNIIkhimmash, based in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg—were given the task of modernising the technical aspect of the project.

Of the initial costs of the project—which grew from $2.2m to over $5m—more than $2m was contributed by the Norwegian participants.

The construction was slated for completion by 2000, but this deadline has been changed numerous times. Today, the facility has still not been put online.

At one of the recent tripartite discussion of the project, Norway’s representatives suggested a radical way out of the current impasse: to close the international part of the project. This, in effect, meant that Norway and the US would cease their financial support of the initiative. On June 20th 2001, this part of the project was officially put to an end. A protocol signed by the three parties specified the new deadlines for correction of the project’s defects and shortcomings, with the experimental trials of the new facility to be carried out before the end of 2001. The protocol also stipulated the deadline for the opening of the facility—April 1st 2002.

The suggested approach to tackle the current deadlock was agreed on in order to put an end to the continuous requests for additional funding from the Russian side and to clear out the indefinite prospects of the implementation of the Murmansk Initiative-RF.

4. An analysis of the project’s progress. Bellona’s opinion
Today, it can safely be stated that the Murmansk Initiative-RF project has resulted in a fiasco. All of its funding has been squandered. The complex dual-purpose LRW treatment installation is still far from going online.

What happened that caused this international project to end in such a deplorable failure?

According to Atomflot and Russia’s federal control bodies—Gosatomnadzor, or GAN, which oversees safety and licensing of the nuclear industry, and Gossannadzor, the state disease and sanitation monitoring agency—the installation as it is now can not be put into operation. The main reason for that is the non-functional state of its critical components. This primarily concerns the components responsible for unloading the sorbents—which provide for the sedimentation of radionuclides contained in LRW—and those where the saturated sorbents are put into cement and, finally, packed into concrete monoliths.

Atomflot’s management and experts from the Murmansk Shipping Company insist that these components of the installation are inoperable due to gross design flaws, which led to the repeated reworking of both the initial designs and the actual equipment of the components after they had already been installed. As a result, the installation as a whole has still not undergone experimental trials, which, had they been successful, would have paved the way for the installation’s industrial operation.

4.1 Design and siting
The main developers and specialists who had worked out the scientific side of the old installation—which is operating quite successfully—were removed from the project. The would-be operator of the new installation—Atomflot—was commissioned to fulfil certain assembling works in accordance with the designs provided by the developers. According to specialists from Atomflot and the Murmansk Shipping Company, the competence of the contractors recruited by Nuclide was, and is still, raising significant doubts. It’s hard not to agree with this opinion.

Seven years down the road, $5m is spent, numerous—200, according to Atomflot—discussions are conducted, and the facility is still not there.

According to Atomflot and GAN experts, the construction site has also not been chosen thoroughly—in the heavy machinery decontamination shop. To that end, the reinforced concrete shield, which used to provide the biological protection of the most areas in the shop, was dismantled. As a result, Atomflot basically lost its deactivation and repairs shop for heavy machinery from nuclear icebreakers. This decision cannot be called rational, given the natural process of aging of the nuclear fleet and the imminent decommissioning problem of civil nuclear vessels.

At the same time, while constructing the new facility, a significant number of new reinforced constructions were mounted on the site—in places that hardly ensured such protection from the point of view of radiation safety. These constructions will not perform their protective functions and will not provide safety to the workers. According to information that Bellona received from sources in Atomflot, who had been operating the old facility at the time of the construction, "a lot of money was intentionally poured into the concrete"—apparently, for no other reason than to award the subcontractor with a sweetheart deal.

As mentioned earlier, there is an incomplete complex treatment facility on Atomflot’s premises. This facility, which was meant to use special water treatment, already has LRW receiver tanks installed with a 1000-cubic-metre capacity in total, as well as a stainless steel pipeline system. This complex—designed to treat 15,000 cubic metres of waste per year—is not intended for completion because the region does not produce enough radioactive waste for it to process. Taking the final costs of the Murmansk Initiative-RF project, it would make more sense to accommodate the new installation on this site.

4.2 The environmental and economic efficiency of the project
Whether the project is environmentally sound is also still open to question. It is precisely for this purpose—tackling environmental problems of Russia’s Northwest—that the money coming from the taxpayers of the three participating countries has been allocated to the project. However, it is still not known exactly how much solid radioactive waste is produced during the reprocessing of the liquid waste.

Part of the project design documentation needs to be examined once again by monitoring agencies for approval. In the first place, a new environmental impact assessment of the project has to be carried out. The previous assessment statement expired in the beginning of 2002.

The issue of economic efficiency of the project is still not clarified. For the time being, the costs of treating one cubic metre of LRW at the old facility is 6,000 roubles, or roughly $200, without taking into account the costs of transporting the waste to Atomflot. However, if capital costs invested in the new facility are included, the reprocessing price is bound to rise significantly. Atomflot’s specialists still lack all the necessary project design documentation or report documentation accounting for the works performed on the project—making any cost rise predictions for reprocessing at the new facility impossible.

In the years since the Murmansk Initiative-RF was launched, LRW reprocessing costs at Atomflot have been steadily increasing. That is why the prospect that the region’s enterprises that generate radioactive waste will be willing to use the new facility—instead of seeking other ways to dispose of their waste—gives cause for doubt.

There are troubling signs to prove this point. While Atomflot’s facility was being built, another LRW reprocessing facility was commissioned and put into operation at the state-owned Zvyozdochka shipyard in the city of Severodvinsk, in the Arkhangelsk region. Likewise, the sites that operate in the jurisdiction of the nuclear waste facility SevRAO, a Minatom enterprise in Russia’s Northwest, already reprocess their waste with the help of their own mobile facility.

4.3 Latest developments
In early 2003, Nuclide came up with a radical initiative: it addressed Minatom, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—why Nuclide chose to include this latter ministry in their request is itself a cause for bewilderment—with a demand to authorise the shutdown of the old treatment facility. However, if the old facility is closed in this forced way, Atomflot will have to clean up the mess of the new project and complete it using its own resources and at its own expense—which, in essence, means money from the coffers of the state budget.

It should be noted that certain components of the old facility have been used during the design and construction works on the new one—for example, LRW receiver capacities, terminals for docking the vessels on the berthage line, lead pipelines and output pipelines for purified water.

In Bellona’s opinion, this will force the Murmansk Shipping Company to lose—for an indefinite period of time while the new installation project is overcoming its current serious difficulties—the LRW disposal scheme it has used before, which will damage the operation of nuclear icebreakers and technical service ships, as well as the fulfilment of SNF unloading works on nuclear submarines under decommissioning in the framework of other international projects.

In June 2003, Nuclide filed a lawsuit against Atomflot with the Arbitration Court of the Murmansk region. The gist of this litigation is Atomflot’s alleged violations of its contract commitments with regard to the construction of the new LRW treatment facility, for which Nuclide thinks it is entitled to 6 million roubles, or roughly $200,000, money in liability costs. The case is still being heard.

For the sake of objectivity while analysing the project’s failure, Bellona has to agree that there indeed have been oversights and gaffes on the part of Atomflot’s management in the implementation of the Murmansk Initiative-RF project. The Atomflot management did not maintain satisfactory control of the technical aspect of the project. It is also Atomflot’s responsibility that the participants of the old facility project were taken off the project that was building the new treatment facility under Murmansk Initiative-RF.

In Bellona’s opinion, the supervision of construction and installation works during the implementation of Murmansk Initiative-RF—which, from the selection of contractors to the approval of the final results, was all the sphere of responsibility of Atomflot—can also be call unsatisfactory.

On July 11th 2003, Atomflot’s director Alexander Sinyayev called a press conference to highlight the circumstances of the project’s progress. However, the questions that reporters had prepared to ask went unanswered for the simple reason that there was no one to answer them. In a strange turn of fate, all the responsible officials involved in the project on the part of Atomflot—the chief engineer and technical manager of the project, as well as the head of the capital construction department, both of whom coordinated the project’s approval process, approval of results of the works performed by the contractors and authorisation of various financial documents, not to mention most of the officials of the capital construction department—had quit the enterprise. However, Bellona insists that these officials’ unexpected flight does not take the blame for the project’s failure off the shoulders of Atomflot, which, as a juridical entity representing the Russian side of Murmansk Initiative-RF, has certain commitments in regard to this international project.

5. Conclusions and suggestions
In Bellona’s opinion, the main reason why the Murmansk Initiative-RF project has been dragging along with no apparent results is the unsatisfactory coordination of the project management, both on the part of the contractee from the Russian side, in this case, Nuclide, and on the part of the Western contributors.
The Western investors sent their representatives regularly to inspect the site of construction and received updated information on what the progress of the works was. However—and this could be called a major mistake on the contributors’ part—such inspections would often end with the Russians asking for more money on the project and the Western partners making a decision to increase their funding as they were asked. At the same time, there were no reasons or foundations for such decisions.

Bellona thinks that the project design, which was carried out by VNIPIET, has to be carefully examined and assessed from the point of view of the thoroughness and quality of its implementation—from the requirements specification to the siting decision for the new facility to the expediency of this or that choice made with regard to various technical solutions to apply during the construction.

The documentation pertaining to the authorisation of the whole project by responsible federal monitoring agencies has to be verified—and new authorisation secured from these agencies, if necessary. An assessment should be carried out of the economic parameters of the project, as well as of the practical realisation of the project, including the quality of the works performed by the contractors. An independent audit of the financial aspect of the project should also be carried out—with the eye not only to the justification of this or that spending, but also to the expediency of introducing a new expense item, most notably, the items of expenses on the project’s management.

Bellona believes that the Norwegian and American participants of the project would show an interest in an independent expert examination of the project—namely, into the expediency of approval of various technical options accepted in the construction of the facility, as well as into the causes of why the many deadlines of putting the facility into operation have not been met, especially because all the mentioned above resulted in the increased costs of the Murmansk Initiative-RF project.

It should also be understood that the role that Nuclide is playing in the project is not only that of an official contractee, but also of a representative of Minatom in Russia’s Northwest. As such, it bears the responsibility of nuclear decision making in the region—in this case, coordinating measures to solve the problem of the region’s LRW. Nuclide—whose full official title is Inter-Industrial Coordination Scientific and Technology Centre for Nuclide Production—was created exactly for the purpose of bringing together the technical, financial and intellectual resources of local enterprises run by various government agencies with the aim of tackling nuclear and radiation safety and security in the area and, in the long run, rendering safe the region’s environmentally dangerous sites.

But the decisions made during the implementation of Murmansk Initiative-RF and the progress that we have observed in the project can testify that this role of an efficient, economically sensible contractee and coordinator of the region’s nuclear waste problem solution is not something that Nuclide is coping with quite satisfactorily.

However, the responsibility for the project’s failure should be shared by the Western participants as well. While approving the terms of providing funding to the Russian partners, neither the Norwegian, nor the American side made a special case to stipulate that the Russian party organise the following:

    —a tender for the project of modernising Atomflot’s existing experimental industrial LRW treatment installation,
    —a tender for the execution of construction and installation works,
    —guaranteed conditions of transparency and unrestricted access to information about the project to other organisations, including NGOs.

Taking into consideration everything discussed above, Bellona considers it absolutely necessary to take the following measures in the near future:

    —each of the participating parties must conduct an analysis of the origins and circumstances of the present situation, from the initial negotiations and the decision to take part in the project to the circumstances of the initial contribution from each side and the expediency of further investments to the circumstances of cessation of the international part of the project in 2001;
    —an independent examination must be conducted of the Murmansk Initiative-RF project of modernising the existing experimental industrial LRW treatment installation, with the participation of experts from Russian specialised design institutes and governmental monitoring agencies;
    —the project must be sent for a second state evaluation and authorisation;
    —the project must also undergo a public evaluation from the point of view of possible environmental impacts. For its part, Bellona is willing to conduct such an evaluation;
    —an audit must be conducted by the State Audit Chamber to verify the expenditures of the funding allocated for the implementation of the Murmansk Initiative-RF project on the territory of the Russian Federation;
    —with the expert evaluations and decisions in hand, the work must be started to complete the process of putting the LRW treatment installation into operation, and a decision must be made with regard to further use of the installation for the region’s needs.

All the costs associated with the measures listed above must be covered by Minatom.

List of references
1.US Atlantic Command Daily Intelligence Summary, February 1997. Declassified in 2003. Back to text
2.The 17th session of the Contact Expert Group of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Murmansk, November 18th 2003. Back to text
3. The Northern Fleet: Potential Sources of Radioactive Contamination, Bellona Foundation Report No. 2:1996 (jump to report). Back to text

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