Emergency drill at Russia’s Nerpa yard makes for a nice show, but is Russia prepared to handle a real radiation accident?

Source: Shiprepairing yard Nerpa, Murmansk Region.

Publish date: August 10, 2010

Written by: Maria Kaminskaya

MURMANSK/ST. PETERSBURG – A recent radiation accident response drill at the shiprepairing yard Nerpa in Russia’s far northern Murmansk Region – one of the sites where aged Russian nuclear submarines and nuclear service vessels undergo dismantlement – seems to have been successful enough to convince international observers Nerpa is fully prepared for emergencies involving accidental release of radiation. In reality, alas, no accident response is ever so smooth, experts warn.

The comprehensive emergency preparedness exercise dubbed Arctic-2010 took place as part of a 1994 Russian-American agreement that forged the two countries’ cooperation in the sphere of research into the effects of radiation on human health and the environment. The event was sponsored by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Research Institute for the Safe Development of Nuclear Energy (IBRAE, in its Russian abbreviation) and the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group, which operates under the Arctic Council.

The drill’s main objective was to test local and federal emergency services – and the means of emergency response that they are equipped with – as well as bodies of executive power for preparedness to deal with accidents that involve radiation release as one of the impact factors.

The mission was for the emergency services operated by various government agencies to clean up the consequences of a simulated radiation accident in real time, while exercising both rescue operations and response actions to implied radiation exposure and testing the services’ ability to provide a smooth flow and exchange of information, including with the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA. An important part of the drill was also to check that crisis response teams both at the local and federal level – these will imply the headquarters of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations in Moscow, Murmansk Regional Department for Civil Defence and Emergency Situations, enterprises operated by the Severodvinsk-based radioactive waste management company SevRAO, and other entities – were prepared to work in agreement should a radiation accident occur.

The simulation

The drill’s scenario centred on a hypothetical radiation accident taking place in the course of decommissioning works done on a nuclear-powered submarine.

According to the simulation’s legend, a process pipeline ruptures as outgassing is performed from gas tanks into the vacuum-pumping system. The tanks, to a combined capacity of 400 litres, contain a mixture of radioactive gasses, which are under 200 atmospheres of pressure. A range of impacts of a mechanical nature lead to the injury of one of the yard’s workers.

The accident then results, according to the simulation’s scenario, in a dramatic hike in gamma radiation levels and a release of radioactive substances into the surrounding atmosphere. Calculations show the radioactive cloud is moving toward the closest town, Snezhnogorsk, near which Nerpa is located.

“Such an accident is quite real, and what is more, this is the simplest of all that could happen during such dangerous works,” Alexander Gorbunov, head of the Severodvinsk-based Shiprepairing Centre Zvyozdochka, which is Nerpa’s head office, told Bellona.

And accidents at Zvyozdochka do happen. In August 2005, two workers were killed in a fire aboard a scrapped nuclear powered submarine that was undergoing dismantlement. The submarine had been at Zvyozdochka for two months by then, and thankfully, the nuclear fuel had already been removed before the vessel was put into dock.

That same year, as Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs undertook a $6.3 million project helping the Russian Northern Fleet dismantle an aged nuclear submarine – this was a third dismantlement project started with Norway’s funds – an independent report on two past submarine cutups completed by Oslo was published, raising concerns that many safety practices had been overlooked during the earlier efforts, and that authorities hindered access to observers to determine whether several other environmental safeguards were adhered to.

Chief among those concerns was the storage of spent nuclear fuel extracted from the decommissioned vessels at Zvyozdochka, and that the outdoor storage methods for intermediate-level radioactive waste were “unsatisfactory.”

Gorbunov said the vessel that was used for the exercise at Nerpa was a Generation I, Project 675 – Class Echo II – submarine which was scheduled for removal of spent nuclear fuel in September.

“We do not predict any kind of problems with the dismantlement of this submarine, because the yard has accumulated enormous experience working with these subs, and there haven’t been any accidents so far,” said Nerpa’s head for nuclear and radiation safety Yevgeny Sapegin.

As the drill’s scenario unfolds, the simulated accident leads to the hospitalisation of the worker who has sustained an injury while in that compartment of the sub where the accident took place. He suffers a broken leg and a broken arm and experiences nausea and light-headedness.

Measurements of background radiation are taken, and a special EMS team arrives to take the victim out of the damaged submarine and transport him on a gurney toward the building housing the medical station.

“The ambulance arrived on time. The guidelines give us five minutes to scramble a radiological team and ten minutes to arrive at the scene,” said Anatoly Kazakov, head of Central Medical and Sanitary Unit No. 120.

Kazakov said such drills are conducted regularly in his unit, and action plans are in place to deal with a potential emergency. Should a real accident happen, his specialists are ready to provide the necessary medical aid, he said.

The exercise and its objectives

The drill’s organisers and participants aimed to check that the system of response measures is ready to deal with radiation accidents, enhance the personnel’s competence when cleaning up the consequences of such accidents, practise alerts and information exchange, as well as ensure that contingency plans and decision-making procedures are in place should an accident occur.

According to the organisers, such drills are essential to providing smooth cooperation during clean-up operations among the command, the authorities, and those working “on the ground,” to practising inter-agency collaboration for potential radiation safety emergencies, as well as practising those procedures involved when notifying international organisations and keeping them apprised of measures taken during an emergency with radiation impact as a factor.

Viktor Minailov, deputy chief of the Ministry of Emergency Situations’ main directorate for Murmansk Region, says such drills are extremely important to make sure a site operating under conditions of potential hazard, such as Nerpa, is ready for a radiation accident, and that the services that would be involved, if an accident does take place, undertake a concerted effort to staunch it.   

“An emergency situation can occur at any potentially hazardous site at any moment. This is why state agencies and authorities pay great attention to issues of nuclear and radiation safety,” Minailov said.

He also pointed out that the participation of international observers from the United States, Finland, Sweden, and Norway – who gave a high mark to the enterprise’s employees and others involved in the drill for their preparedness to handle emergency situations – was a big advantage since everyone had a chance to take a look at the other’s actions during the exercise and learn from the experience.

The results

“I’d like to note the good situation with nuclear and radiation safety at [Nerpa],” said Joseph Krol, associate administrator for the US NNSA’s Office of Emergency Operations. NNSA – or the National Nuclear Security Administration – is a semi-autonomous body of the US Department of Energy that deals exclusively with foreign nuclear and weapons waste control.

“What I’ve seen has convinced me of the professionalism of the yard’s personnel. They have the necessary skills and equipment and are ready to carry out the objectives set for them.”

One shouldn’t approach radiation like an enemy, Krol says. “First and foremost, this is a technology existing to serve mankind. It just needs accurate handling.”

“All went well,” was a preliminary assessment made by Zvyozdochka’s Gorbunov. “This is what drills are conducted for: to learn from them, to see what needs improving; but I can say that the performance was 99 percent on all tasks.”

Lyudmila Amozova, a representative from IBRAE, also gave a positive review of the exercise.

“The alert system was checked – the signal went through fine. There are no drills without this or that hitch, but the hitches were insignificant,” she said.
Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch and former submarine officer, takes a more sober approach.

“It is without doubt that drills must be conducted, but one shouldn’t forget that a drill is a show, in a way, so there’s no need for rave reviews,” Nikitin said. “At a drill, everyone knows their role beforehand, everything’s practised, planned, and rehearsed in advance.”

Bellona’s projects coordinator in Oslo, Igor Kudrik, concurs. According to Kudrik, when real accidents take place, not only is the IAEA not notified, but even local media are usually in the dark about what happened.
“This year alone, this was the case with the Severka – a vessel that in itself constitutes radioactive waste. It was also the case when a transformer exploded at Kola Nuclear Power Plant,” Kudrik said.

Before the 1990s, the Severka, a dilapidated service vessel, was used to move spent nuclear fuel from a naval base in the northwestern part of the Kola Peninsula to a transshipment site in Murmansk. It was also equipped with special tanks for shipments of liquid radioactive waste. Last June, reports surfaced that it had sunk at the wharf of a shiprepairing yard, where it was scheduled for decommissioning. Though by then most of the contaminated sections had reportedly been removed from the vessel, the incident underscores the existing radiation risks – all the more so because it sank just 60 kilometres off the large city of Murmansk.

And Kola Nuclear Power Plant, which operates four 440-megawatt VVER reactors – two of which have long exhausted their operational life spans, while the other two will do so soon – has in the recent past accumulated a disturbing list of various disruptions that impact its operation. The February 2010 incident Kudrik refers to led to a 50 percent reduction of power output from the plant’s two reactor units, leaving onsite spent nuclear fuel storage without energy supply. The authorities at the plant neglected to report the incident.

“… when a real accident happens, it all looks very different,” Nikitin continues. “For instance, submarine rescue always looks so magnificent during an exercise, but how has it happened in reality, for instance, during the Kursk disaster?”

The story of the nuclear submarine Kursk is one of Russia’s greatest naval tragedies. The Oscar-II class cruise missile submarine sank just outside the coast of the Kola Peninsula east of Murmansk on August 12, 2000, taking the lives of 118 sailors. The official reason for the accident was said to be a torpedo explosion. What followed in the next several days was – in the opinion of many, both among experts and the general public – a completely botched rescue operation, attempted, despite repeated failures, without the needed help of foreign rescue services, though many such offers were made. When Norwegian divers finally managed to open the rescue hatch in the stern of the submarine on August 28 – the day after they arrived – the submarine’s compartments had been flooded with water, and all crew on board dead.

“A successful drill is when you see many defects and when there’s a lot that has failed; that means that the scenario is close to reality. And when everything’s so smooth, it’s just for show,” Nikitin said.

Quotes from Joseph Krol, associate administrator for the US NNSA’s Office of Emergency Operations, were originally used in the Russian version of this report in translation and were back-translated for the purposes of this translation into English.

Anna Kireeva wrote and reported from Murmansk, and Maria Kaminskaya wrote reported from St. Petersburg. Charles Digges also contributed.