Tour of Northern Russia’s Sayda Bay radwaste dump for reporters and NGOs shows improvements

Andrei Ponomarenko

Publish date: August 8, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

MURMANSK – Representatives of the state-owned SevRAO nuclear waste management facility offered journalists and NGO members a rare and surprising look at the notorious Sayda Bay’s storage site for aged submarine reactors in a visit organised by the public council of Rosatom, Russia state nuclear corporation.

Sayda Bay is a former fishing village on Russia’s Kola Peninsula near Murmansk that was annexed as a military area in 1990. Its former inhabitants were moved out and the area is now used for storing hulls and reactor compartments from nuclear submarines. The water is 20m deep at the piers. The oldest pier is over 30 years old and was built for the local fishermen. According to base authorities, this pier could sink at any time.

The base is especially vulnerable to outside intrusion: in December 2004 –  thieves raided many of the 50 submarines, some still holding their spent nuclear fuel, and made off with 14 tons tonnes of titanium metal that formed the submarines’ bulkheads. The theft comprised a portion of some 30 tons of titanium that has been stolen from submarines at Sayda Bay over several years. Police suggest that thieves sell the metal, some of it irradiated, at scrap points along the Kola Peninsula.

Earlier, in 2003, Germany had signed up to donate €300 million for security improvements and cleanup of the ever more contaminated bay. Germany donated the money as part of its obligation to the framework of the “10 plus 10 over 10” plan agreed upon by the Group of Eight industrialised nations, or G-8, in 2002 at the group’s summit in Kananaskis, Canada.

Under this agreement, seven of the G-8 member countries were to contribute $10 billion toward solving nuclear dismantlement and security issues in Russia. The United States, also a G-8 member, is  contributing another $10 billion toward the pledge, for a total of $20 billion in nuclear dismantlement funding for Russia over the next 10 years. Yet many countries, aside from Germany, have yet to make good under the deal.

“The principle goal of the visit was to acquaint members of (Rosatom’s public) council with the condition and the perspectives for the installation,” said Sergei Zhavoronkin, chief secretary of the Public Council on Safe Use of Atomic Energy in the Murmansk Region, where Sayda Bay is situated.

“This is the first such visit to such an installation for members of the press and NGOs,” Zhavoronkin told Bellona Web in an interview.

Improvements underway

According to Andrei Ponomarenko, coordinator of nuclear and radiation safety for Bellona Murmansk, the first and second stages of the installation have been put to use – the long-term storage for reactor compartments from nuclear submarines, surface vessels, and large-sized compartments from nuclear service ships.  

At present, Sayda Bay’s long-term storage facility holds 40 reactor blocks, and 39 reactor blocks are stored on the water tethered to piers.

Sayda Bay is needed for the completion of all technological cycles of dismantling nuclear submarines in order that all reactor compartments and reactors from dismantled submarines are moved to onshore storage. According to Zhavoronkin, the installation is also needed for on shore storage for reactors from surface vessels and nuclear ice-breakers as well. Large-sized reactor compartments from nuclear service vessels, including the compartment of the decommissioned Lepse technical support vessel, which is the biggest nuclear and radiation risk of all retired nuclear service ships in Russia.

The Lepse

Taken out of service in 1990, the Lepse’s spent nuclear storage units – consisting of casks and caissons – holds 639 spent fuel assemblies, and a significant portion of them are severely damaged. Extraction of the spent fuel assemblies from the Lepse’s storage holds presents a radiation risk and will be a complex technical operation, the framework for which is still under consideration.

The Lepse remains moored at the Atomflot port 2 kilometres north of the city of Murmansk and its population of 500,000.

“SevRAO radiation monitoring specialists demonstrated to us the operation of automatised systems of radiation control and took control measurements for members of the visit,” said Ponomarenko. “The level of radiation at the storage facility corresponds to the natural background (radiation) level,” he said.

The management of the facilities saw no reason to fit out visitors in specialized overalls for their visit to the site, where emissions of radiation and elevated radiation levels are possible.

“The reactor blocks stored on water, the specialists assured us, have at present a sufficient supply of buoyancy that will keep them from sinking in the event of an emergency,” underscored Ponomarenko. “And to reduce such a risk, the aquatoriums (where these reactors are stored) are guarded with modern means of video observation that do regular sweeps of the piers.”

On water storage still a risk

Meanwhile Ponomarenko said that storage on water still presents a potential risk of sinking, and there is no certainty that there will not be a release of radionuclides into the environment.

It is precisely these risks and the necessity of periodically conduct inspections of the reactor compartments that was one of the main reasons behind building the long term submarine reactor storage point.

The second installation being constructed at Sayda Bay is the regional point of air cycle conditioning and storage of radioactive waste. Preparations are underway for the construction of the future building, and work is expected to be complete by 2014.

Sayda tour gets high marks

“Participants on the visit say the safety conditions of the installation and were convinced it has a good level of physical safety,” said Zhavoronkin.

“As a result, we will be getting products from this site that are fit for internment. After a repository is built, we will send out products in containers for burial at the repository,” said Valery Panteleyev, SevRAO’s director.

For many years, Sayda Bay was one of the most dangerous radioactive installations in the world. Until the 1990’s the world community was unwilling to take on the challenge of solving this issue. Since then, donor nations have begun to earmark funding for cleanup of nuclear and radiation hazards in Russia, as Russia’s own federal budget has been insufficient for this task since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The modernized facilities at Sayda Bay have been constructed by the Germans at a cost of €300 million over a construction period of eight years. – meeting their “10 plus 10 plus 10” obligations to the G-8 right on target.

“From my point of view, this is one successful project that has been realized in the North (of Russia) with the help of international donors,” said Alexander Nikitin, Executive Director of the Environmental Right Centre, St. Petersburg, Bellona’s St. Petersburg office. “

“If we hadn’t had this help, the reactors from the dismantled submarines would have hung from the piers until they sank (…),” he said.