Russia reviews radwaste

21 December 2010

Russia is preparing for a second reading of a new law on radioactive waste later this year. By Judith Perera

The key points of the new law are:

1. There must be a distinction between radwaste (RW) and spent fuel (which is regarded as a potential fuel source);

2. All RW facilities must be federal property (the first draft allowed both federal and other legal entities such as Rosatom to own these facilities);

3. Any RW imported or exported for processing must be returned to the country of origin;

4. There will be no new areas for deep well injection of liquid wastes (but the four existing ones will continue);

5. All RW must be buried; there will be no new temporary storage sites in Russia;

6. RW producers will pay for its management: an appropriate infrastructure will be set up in the form of a competent national authority which will take the waste from the producers and place it in a final isolation facility.

The law specifies a unified system for RW management. It will be a state system covering not just state nuclear corporation Rosatom but other industries as well. It will cover absolutely all RW producers in the country, and also legacy wastes. This means a technologically- and administratively-appropriate system must be set up. There will be a state management authority for RW which will be Rosatom, and a national operator will be appointed by the government to undertake day-to-day management and to implement Rosatom’s policy on final isolation, according to deputy director for nuclear and radiation safety, Evgeny Evstratov.

There will be financial mechanisms to fund these activities; waste producers will pay for the full life cycle of the waste they produce. As most of this life cycle will be in the future, a special fund will be set up managed by Rosatom and this will be used to finance various facilities for final isolation of wastes, he says.

The law passed first reading in the Duma on 20 January. The second reading will see a number of changes in the law. Of 250 proposed amendments, 170 were incorporated into the draft. A specially-commissioned working group made recommendations. It included representatives of the Duma (lower house of parliament), committees on energy and on natural resources and the environment, as well as scientists, ecologists and various public organisations. The draft law was also sent to the regions for comments, which were duly incorporated.

The third reading will deal only with legal and editorial issues. If adopted, the draft law will then go to the Federal Council (upper house), and if accepted will go to the president to be signed into law.

The national operator

Although the government has not yet appointed a national operator, it is widely expected to be RosRao—the new organisation which is taking over the former Radon organisation, which dealt with all non-nuclear industry radioactive wastes. Russia’s industrial and medical nuclear wastes have been the responsibility of Radon since its establishment in 1961. At first the company was a secret organisation known only by its postbox number. It served the entire Soviet Union with stores at 35 sites. Initially these were little more than dumps, but in recent years Radon has begun to introduce modern technology and also undertakes a significant amount of research. With the collapse of the Soviet Union there were just 16 enterprises in the Russian Federation, including the main centre at Sergiev Posad, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Moscow. These were subordinated to the regions rather than the central government.

Radon was responsible for accepting, transporting, processing and storing wastes from a broad range of facilities apart from radiological combines, electrochemical plants and NPPs, which were the direct responsibility of the then Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom). Although Radon was independent of Minatom, it cooperated with the ministry and its affiliated enterprises and institutes, and operated some facilities at nuclear power plants and at enterprises dealing with submarine decommissioning. However, Radon was constantly hampered by lack of funds, especially regional centres more distant from Moscow. Some facilities were full and others faced increasing storage problems.

As part of the restructuring and rationalisation of the nuclear industry, Radon’s facilities are being absorbed into Rosatom. The Federal State Unitary Enterprise (FSUE) RosRAO was established in June 2008 to take over former Radon sites and incorporate them into seven territorial branches as its departments (northwest, south, central, around Moscow, Volga, Ural, Siberia and far east). Unlike Radon, RosRAO will be responsible for all RW, including those arising from nuclear industry facilities.

RosRAO has received a lot of old sites and facilities, including processing buildings and storage facilities built 40-50 years ago. These legacy sites operated for decades without acceptable control and with no accurate records or data being kept. They involve complex contamination of buildings, equipment, soils, tailings, and storage of RW. RosRao is responsible for these sites under the federal target programme on radiation safety.

The only site which is not yet fully transferred to RosRao is the Sergiev Posad site which serves Moscow Region and was under the jurisdiction of the City of Moscow. The site is currently preparing for start-up of a new storage facility for low and intermediate radioactive waste. The project provides for construction of two phases with a total capacity of 100,000 cubic meters. It will initially be used for long-term isolation of radwaste, but after 50 years it could either become a repository itself, or the waste will be moved to a regional repository, explains Alexander Savkin, deputy director for science at Radon’s pilot plant of applied technologies. However, storage facilities at Sergiev Posad which are already full are now being transferred to RosRao, since, under the new law, all radwaste must be under federal ownership. It is not yet clear whether the conditioning and reprocessing facilities at the site will also be transferred or will remain with Radon, which could possibly become a subcontractor.

Rosatom’s vision

Rosatom aims to launch of a unified state radioactive waste management system (USSRW) in Russia in line with an integrated governmental approach to handling RW accumulated during the nuclear arms race (legacy waste), as well as that currently produced as a result of energy production. This does not include spent fuel.

According to the USSRW plan, the eventual reorganisation of RosRAO will result in the emergence of a national RW operator and a number of specialised enterprises. The process involves two steps:

1. Finalising RosRAO’s formation and choosing scenarios for further development of its branches, specifying the long-term storage sites and the deep repositories to be eventually passed over to the national operator;

2. Splitting RosRAO into the national operator and a major specialised accredited unit.

The first step is virtually complete with the takeover of the former Radon units and facilities.

RosRAO’s current strategic goals are:

to estimate the current scope of RW;

to undertake radiation monitoring according to the agreements between Rosatom and the subjects of the Russian Federation;

to create an inventory of existing RW management technologies; and

to research the feasibility of creating long-term storage/deep repositories on the RosRAO’s current sites.

RosRAO is currently developing projects for rehabilitating nuclear legacy sites and carrying out the radiation monitoring in the regions.

Long-term plans

According to Evstratov, there will be no new temporary storage facilities for waste – existing facilities will be adequate until the final facilities are in place. Russia plans to build two pilot final isolation facilities by 2016. It is currently investigating sites for these with geological surveys underway and a decision expected by the end of the year. Depending on the logistics, the plan is to build 5-7 facilities by the end of 2020 for low level waste (LLW) and intermediate level waste (ILW). There will also be one final facility for high level waste (HLW) and Rosatom is already working on a laboratory for this facility and plans to commission a deep geological final repository for HLW by 2025 if all—including public hearings—goes well.

A detailed inventory of waste will be compiled once the new law is in force. Evstratov says Rosatom already has a system of materials accounting in place. “Currently we have accumulated a total of 550 megatons (mt) of wastes, liquid and solid, of which 350mt is in the Techa reservoirs at the Mayak facility in Chelyabinsk, and there are also some other reservoirs,” he says. The managing company and national operator will have to handle 150mt, two thirds of which is VLLW (very low level waste). The amount of waste currently generated is 50,000t a year, which will be packaged in containers. The goal is that from 2016 the amount of waste sent for disposal will equal the amount generated.

There will be a deep repository for HLW and long-lived wastes and near surface facilities for the rest—up to 100m underground. A key consideration for selecting the deep repository site will be the safety case relating to geological barriers, which will need to be adequate for the entire period of waste decay.

Deep well injection

Russia currently has four sites where liquid waste is injected into deep wells – at the Siberian Chemical Combine (SCC) in Seversk, at the Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) in Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk), at the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) in Dimitrovgrad, and at Kalinin NPP. These will continue to be used, but the radwaste law specifies that no new wells of this type can be constructed. At SCC, over 1 million m3 of low and medium activity liquid wastes are pumped underground each year to storage facilities 270-390 metres deep. At MCC, 100,000 m3 of similar wastes are pumped annually to facilities at depths of 180m-280m and 370m-465m. At NIIAR 1, 50,000 m3 of waste is pumped 1100m-1500m below the surface.

A widely-held view among scientists who have studied these wells is that banning further such installations is a mistake. They see it as a highly effective method of disposal, provided proper geological studies are conducted for site selection. They point out that the very serious environmental problems faced by the Mayak Production Association in Ozersk (Chelyabinsk) were due to unsuitable geology for deep well injection. In the early days, wastes were disposed in surface ponds and local rivers. Mark Glinsky, First Deputy Director of FSUE Gidrospetsgeologiya—an enterprise which specialises in subsoil studies—says long-term monitoring of all these sites over 30-50 years show that the radwaste is contained within the limits of its rock masses, where it will remain for thousands of years with no impact on people or the environment.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and the IAEA have established a special group to undertake independent peer review of these sites, and it should present its conclusions in about two years. Comprehensive safety cases was developed for each facility before they were built. The sites have been monitored for the past 30 years. There are hundreds of special surveillance holes around the sites from which samples are taken each year. Considering that many countries face similar problems, Evstratov believes Russia’s experience will be “useful for all of mankind,” he says.

Author Info:

Judith Perera is editor of McCloskey Nuclear Business: judith.perera@mccloskeycoal.com

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