Cleaning Russia’s cold war legacy

29 April 1999

Russia’s arctic ports on its north west coast were a hot spot in the cold war. But the nuclear powered submarines which were a vital part of the Soviet military machine are now decaying in ports along the coast. A major clean up operation is emerging as a top priority not only for Russia, but also in the West.

Alexander Nikitin was an officer in the Russian navy and he served on the nuclear submarines which were such a potent symbol of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the justification for maintaining such a formidable force became less convincing and with Russia in financial crisis, the resources to maintain the fleet began to dry up. During the Cold War little thought or preparation was put into how to dismantle the submarines at the end of their working lives and as a result the military ports of the north west, such as Andreeva Bay and Murmansk, as well as sites in the Russian Far East, contain an environmental legacy which is going to take decades and billions of dollars to clean up. Nikitin realised the seriousness of the environmental situation and after retiring from the Northern Fleet, he joined Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group collating detailed information on the problems in the north west. Through Bellona, the West gained a much clearer understanding of the problems in the region. Despite Russia’s embrace of Western values, including, at least in theory, a tolerance of free speech, Nikitin was charged with treason. His trial took place last October and despite the prosecution failing to offer much of a case against him, the judge told them to go away and come back fully prepared next time. Nikitin is limited in his movement to the city of St Petersburg and is unable to continue his work with Bellona. Nikitin’s decision to blow the whistle has had a profound effect on events, with the West now greatly concerned, realising that an environmental catastrophe would have a similar impact, both ecologically and politically, as Chernobyl did in 1986. As a result Western governments and the nuclear industry, led to a certain extent by Norway, have started to address the problems and are making attempts to deal with them. The scale of the task is daunting. Enter the experts Chris Watson, a nuclear expert at AEA Technology, is a member of the IAEA’s Contact Expert Group which formed to “deal with the issues regarding international co-operation in radioactive waste management and related issues”. In 1997 the CEG issued an ‘opinion’ statement designed to push the situation in Russia’s north west higher up the international political agenda. The statement concluded that “as a result of past practices in the management of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union and in particular, as a legacy of the cold war a situation with radioactive waste has developed in the Russian Federation, in particular its north west region, which is a matter of international concern. Unless the situation there is promptly and efficiently addressed, it could impact on peoples and the environment not only of, but also far beyond the Arctic lands and seas of northern Europe. Specifically, immediate attention must be given to improving the management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.” As part of the CEG’s work, Watson and his colleagues are working on a project considering the best ways to recover spent fuel currently stored on board the Lepse, a barge moored in Murmansk harbour (See NEI, April p3) as well as assessing the wider situation and considering strategies for addressing the problems. At a meeting in Murmansk last November, the CEG endorsed a list of highest priority tasks to address the problem. “The major difficulties are finance and getting nuclear guarantees,” says Watson. “Russia has signed, but not ratified the Vienna Convention and therefore Western companies are not covered by indemnities. The Vienna Convention means that operators take the liabilities for incidents, which gives protection to outside companies. At the moment contractors are having to work with ad hoc indemnities. The European Union has indemnity for any project, as has Norway, but the parties involved in this work are much wider than that. The EU has funded a series of projects related to the Lepse, including a recent safety and environmental impact study which AEA Technology is carrying out with SGN, but engineering design work is still blocked. However the problem is on its way to being solved.” The cost of the remediation work is likely to be a much greater stumbling block. Russian scientists have estimated $3 billion will be needed to address waste and spent fuel issues in the north west, a figure Watson considers a conservative estimate. Last year Russia spent $5 million on the whole of its nuclear industry, despite it being near the top of the government’s priorities. Western aid so far has also amounted to millions, not billions. The West has supplied funds of around $100 million a year since the Chernobyl disaster, to improve safety in RBMK and VVER reactors. According to Watson considerable progress has been made, but an effort of a similar scale is needed with the submarines. When Nikitin first alerted Bellona, a major concern was submarine reactors which had been sunk to the bottom of the Kara Sea, but subsequent assessments have concluded that they are well sealed and radioactivity should remain isolated from the environment for a considerable time. The situation on land, and in the ports where submarines are moored, has emerged as a more immediate problem. There are around 150 nuclear power submarines which have been retired from service in docks in Russia, about two thirds are in the north west, with a third in the Far East. Half of them still have fuel on board and some are 30-40 years old. Insufficient measures have been made to prevent radioactivity being released into the environment should they sink. Those measures that the Russians have carried out are thought to be focused on preventing any criticality incidents occuring and include welding the control rod equipment so that it cannot be accidentally withdrawn. The submarines’ radioactive inventory is similar in scale to that of the power reactors throughout Russia. 20-25000 fuel assemblies remain on board the decommissioned subs. Removed fuel assemblies are held in temporary storage on land. Despite the Russians’ refusal to yet allow any Western access to Andreeva Bay, it is thought 20000 assemblies are stored there. More fuel assemblies have been placed in ships owned by the Murmansk Shipping Company. The Lepse has 640, the Lotta 3000 and the Imandra 1500. There are another 3-4000 assemblies on ships scattered along inlets of Russia’s north west coast and a small fraction standing in the open air (see photo above). A reasonable estimate is therefore around 60000 fuel assemblies in total, with a combined radioactivity of 100 million Curies. Addressing the problems The question, now that there is a reasonably clear picture of the situation, is what to do. The UK foreign minister, Robin Cook, visited Murmansk in March (See NEI April, p3) and pledged £3 million to finance remediation work. Cook was taken to see the Lepse and this suggested the money may go towards making the Lepse a pilot project. It contains civilian rather than military radioactive waste, so there are no military complications regarding national security, but a final decision on how to use the money is yet to be made. Christopher Watson hopes the money will finance the production of casks needed to store the fuel elements until a final repository is built. There is still considerable debate as to what are the top priorities and what is the best long term strategy. The Russians would like to reprocess much of the fuel at Mayak, but the reprocessing facility there has a throughput of perhaps 1000 fuel elements a year and its storage capacity is almost full. Furthermore the infrastructure that exists is not sufficient to transport the elements to Mayak quickly, so a short term solution within the north west is necessary. Watson and AEA Technology advocate the use of casks made from reinforced concrete with steel inner and outer shells. The Russians are designing casks which could hold 100 elements each, so 600 would be needed, at an estimated cost of $250 000 each. The casks are currently going through a licensing process and will need to meet IAEA standards, such as the nine metre drop test. A large consortium of Western donors is financing construction of a prototype cask and the construction of a pad on which they will be placed. Once the casks are licensed places to store them for up to 50 years will have to be found. The cask solution is not the only one on the table; a consortium including BNFL has put forward an alternative involving the construction of a monolithic vault store at Mayak. The economics of the two proposals appear similar, but Watson argues that political reasons are likely to favour the cask approach. The population around Mayak is not likely to be happy with long term storage at the site. “Another issue is the final destination of the fuel elements,” says Watson. “The Russians need to answer questions such as: do you want to keep Mayak operating for 60 years? and do you want the plutonium? The Russians are looking into this and may ultimately decide to go for dry storage in an underground repository.” Another problem is what to do with the submarines’ reactors. Once the fuel elements have been removed they will still contain one million Curies of radioactivity. The Russian plan is to top and tail the vessels, recycling material which is not contaminated and placing the radioactive section in a dry trench. Unfortunately the north west region does not have many suitable dry flat areas where this could be done. The programme to cut up the submarines has begun, but is progressing very slowly. The United States has provided some aid to help speed up the process. There are currently three sites where facilities to dismantle submarines are either already in existence or being built, at Nerpa, Zvezdochka in the town of Severodvinsk and Zvezda in the far east. Zvezdochka is the furthest ahead; at the moment it has the capacity to decommission one to two submarines a year, but is moving towards a capacity of four a year. With at least 150 submarines to decommission, this is going to be a long programme, at least 15-20 years. The next problem on the list is radioactive wastes that have accumulated in the region. Most of these are ordinary operating wastes, such as ion exchange resins and contaminated water. Since the Russians stopped dumping many of these wastes at sea, they have been held in stores. “The Russians have a sensible strategy for dealing with these wastes, but it needs investment,” says Watson. The United States and Norway are funding a liquid waste treatment plant at Murmansk and Japan has helped build one at Vladivostok in the Far East. Solid wastes are held in what Watson describes as ‘unsatisfactory’ stores at the moment, with conditions not up to western standards. And finally there is the question of where and how to build a permanent repository. Minatom would like to construct one in the permafrost on the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, where the Russians have conducted many nuclear weapons tests. The top 300 metres is frozen and there is good geological evidence that conditions have been that way for at least the last million years. But there will be snags, the Norwegians are nervous about the idea and there would need to be a detailed environmental impact assessment. Highest priority tasks The CEG last met in Murmansk last November. As part of its efforts to focus western governments on the urgency of the situation and also to help with allocating aid in a logical and practical manner, it issued a list of “Highest Priority Tasks”, including: • Securing the removal of spent nuclear fuel, liquid and solid radioactive waste from floating and on shore storage facilities. • Decommissioning of the ‘Lepse’ and other floating storage vessels. • Construction of interim storage for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear propulsion reactors at PO Mayak. • Development, fabrication and delivery of metal/concrete containers for storage and transportation of spent nuclear fuel and containers for storage of nuclear waste. • Creation of unloading complexes and radioactive waste container collection sites at the submarine decommissioning plants to accelerate discharging of spent fuel from decommissioned (but floating) submarines. • Reconstruction of the tankers available to the Northern and Pacific Fleets for their use as container-carriers for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from isolated sites to points with railroad connections. • An international safety assessment and, if positive, construction of a radioactive waste final repository at Novaya Zemlya. The work to clean up will probably last as long as the cold war, but the longer nothing is done the worse the situation will be. Watson emphasises the importance of grabbing the opportunity Bellona’s work and the relative openness of the current Russian government has given the world to address the problem. “There is a lot to be said for spending money now,” he says. “In five years time, I would hope we will have got most of the 20000 fuel elements still in submarines, into casks. I would also hope we will have got submarine decommissioning activity up to full speed and resolved the issue of the repository at Novaya Zemlya. A start should also have been made on constructing storage facilities for solid and liquid wastes and I would like to think we will have started to deal with the contamination at Andreeva Bay and developed a strategy to deal with damaged submarines.” A price tag for this shopping list would be around $1 billion, similar to the amount needed to rebuild the sarcophagus at Chernobyl. Expensive as that may sound, the costs of not doing the work could be considerably greater.

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