Cleaning up Andreeva Bay27 July 2017
After ten years of preparation, a project to remove spent nuclear fuel and radwaste form Russia’s nuclear submarines is now underway. Judith Perera reports.
In mid-May Russia began unloading used fuel from nuclear submarines in the former naval base of Andreeva Bay, in the Litsa fjord on the Barents Sea coast of the Kola Peninsula.
The base in Andreeva Bay was set up in the early 1960s to provide maintenance services for nuclear reactors of Northern Fleet submarines. The coastal maintenance facility also stored radioactive waste from nuclear submarines, surface ships with nuclear propulsion units and nuclear submarines’ support vessels. However, the facility stopped accepting used fuel and radioactive waste in 1993.
After an accident at the nuclear waste storage facility in 1982, when water was found to be leaking from the storage pool, the used fuel elements were transferred to three dry storage units as a temporary measure, but have remained there for more than 30 years. The Defence Ministry made a decision to upgrade all the facilities at that time, but the project was stalled as a result of the Soviet collapse and subsequent economic crisis. Work only resumed in the late 1990s with international support.
The base concerned neighbouring states because of the lack of any proper storage facilities. The cleanup work is being organised by RosRAO, a subsidiary of state nuclear corporation Rosatom, which is responsible for back-end radioactive waste and decommissioning services.
RosRAO’s northern branch, SevRAO, is undertaking remediation of the sites of Northern Fleet bases, and dismantling of retired nuclear-powered naval ships and submarines.
Infrastructure had to be put in place before removal of the used fuel could begin. Andrey Golin, director general of Russia’s Federal Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (FCNRS) announced in April that the new facilities were ready. FCNRS has been contracted to construct a building to hold more than a hundred submarine reactor cores in dry storage, comprising 22,000 fuel assemblies. The storage also hosts more than 17,000t of solid and hundreds of cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste.
Russian companies involved in the project included the Federal Medical and Biological Agency. FCNRS participated in
the construction of two-thirds of all the facilities in Andreeva Bay, which were built in hazardous radiation conditions.
The spent fuel is now being unloaded to safe temporary storage, before being transported for reprocessing at Production Association Mayak in Ozersk. Regular shipments are due to start this year, and all 22,000 naval fuel assemblies should be shipped by 2024.
The assemblies will be placed in purpose- built containers and shipped in the special purpose vessel Rossita from Andreeva Bay to Atomflot, the service base for Russia’s fleet of civilian nuclear powered icebreakers in Murmansk. They will then be unloaded from the vessel and placed in special-design railway wagons for transport to Mayak. Empty containers will be sent north again for re-use. There are expected to be 30 train-loads.
Remediation of Andreeva Bay has been supported by grants and practical assistance from the European Union countries and Norway. In 1995, Norway launched a Plan of Action for nuclear safety in northwest Russia, and in 1998 a Joint Norwegian Russian Commission on Nuclear Safety was established.
Rosatom and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) manage the Nuclear Window programme, which started in May 2003, as part of the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership. This originates in the EU’s Northern Dimension Initiative to promote cooperation between countries of the Baltic and Arctic Sea regions.
The Nuclear Window supplements Russian, multilateral and bilateral-funded programmes aimed at decommissioning nuclear-powered vessels, providing safe and secure infrastructure for nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel, and restoring the sites. To date, contributors have provided €165m ($185m) to the Nuclear Window.
The UK funded the design and construction of some of the major used fuel management facilities, as well as the extensive decommissioning of redundant facilities and the provision of health physics, decontamination and monitoring stations.
Norway has spent more than NOK1.5bn ($175m) on nuclear safety projects in Russia. It paid for much of the new infrastructure at Andreeva Bay, including buildings, electricity, physical protection, roads and harbour facilities, four of the special rail wagons and new sea marks along the coast of the Kola Peninsula. Russia and Norway signed contracts worth RUB100m ($2.9m) in 2014 to develop a system to deal with Andreeva’s used fuel and radioactive waste. Agreements to develop the necessary infrastructure were signed between the leadership of Finnmark and SevRAO. Norway also provided emergency planning expertise and training and support to the regulatory authorities.
Part of Italy’s commitment to the G-8 global partnership agreement was the Rossita, vessel. It was built by Fincantieri at the Mudzhano shipyard following the framework of a 2003 agreement on bilateral cooperation in dismantling Russia’s submarine fleet.
Italy is also providing facilities for radwaste management and diesel generators.
Sweden supported the design for solid and liquid radwaste management. It co-funded projects with the UK as well as bilateral support for the provision of key items.
The EU supplied a nuclear materials accountancy system and new canisters for re-packing used fuel assemblies.
Russia supplied equipment for the preparatory stages of fuel handling, operates the site, oversees safety and security aspects and will use the facilities to retrieve the fuel and transport it to Mayak.
Nuclear Window projects include:
- Procurement and installation of nuclear rated cranes for the accumulation pad for the casks, the dry storage unit enclosure and the pier;
- Construction of an accumulation pad for the casks;
- Procurement of the spent fuel retrieval equipment;
- Construction of the enclosure building providing containment, shielding radiation monitoring and alarm systems;
- Supply of a special vehicle to transport casks from the dry storage enclosure to the accumulation pad;
- Establishment of a trolley system to transport flasks within the storage enclosure and casks from the accumulation pad to the pier;
- Supply and installation of a new transformer station.
Most of the key facilities and equipment were completed and installed by the end of 2016.
The dry storage enclosure is fitted with ventilation, water, radiation monitoring, power supply, overhead cranes, trolley and transformer station. Installation of the spent fuel retrieval machine was completed in April 2017. The infrastructure for the transformer installation will be ready in December 2017.
Comprehensive integrated operational trials of the facilities and systems required to support recovery of fuel from the dry storage units (DSUs) were completed in December 2016.
Russia plans joint efforts with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority to withdraw all nuclear waste from Andreeva Bay by 2020, according to FMBA head Vladimir Uiba. The first shipment of used fuel is scheduled to leave for Atomflot towards the end of June 2017.
Following removal of the first seven assemblies, SevRAO director Valery Eremenko said a lot of work lay ahead. “We’re confident that during the handling of the used nuclear fuel we will be able to acquire additional operational skills, improve certain production processes and thereby speed up its export.”
Transferring the used fuel assemblies, some of which are damaged, from their current canisters in the concrete tanks to new transport containers is a complex operation. It will include removing the six damaged assemblies still in the original storage pool.
FCNRS in late May signed a contract with Spetstehkomplekt for the manufacture of remote handling equipment to remove these assemblies which are at the bottom of the pool under a layer of radioactive silt which built up over 30 years. Each assembly is about three metres long and weighs up to 20kg. After the contract for supply of the equipment is completed in 2018, other contractors will be brought in to load the assemblies into special containers for defective fuel.
The work aims to decrease background radiation in the technological hall and provide improved radiological safety for the future decommissioning work.
RosRAO director general Vladimir Luzin described the unloading of the first batch of fuel as “a landmark event”, the culmination of 10 years of design and development work, and “an example of successful multilateral international cooperation in solving the complex problems of the ‘nuclear legacy’ of north-western Russia, enhancing nuclear and radiation safety and improving the environmental situation”.