BNFL’s Russian experience

30 November 1999

UK / Russia A Western consortium involving BNFL, French and Scandinavian companies, has provisionally negotiated a $50 million package to build an interim storage facility for spent Russian nuclear submarine fuel. The funding is from Nordic sources. The interim storage facility would be built at Mayak in the southern Urals and would hold spent fuel elements for up to 50 years.

The consortium is discussing the project details with the Russian authorities. One issue is whether the facility should be a dry or wet store. Russia began work on a wet store in the early 1990s, but lack of finance meant it was never completed. Russia wants to complete the wet storage facility. The western consortium prefers a dry store.

The project is a concrete development in western efforts to clean up the Russian north west where the environmental damage caused by Russia’s nuclear military is a serious problem (See NEI May 1999, p38).

“I regard this as an extremely serious threat,” said David Bonser, BNFL director, waste management and decommissioning, in giving evidence to the House of Common’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “Spent fuel is now on land in containers that are open to the atmosphere and deteriorating fast. This material could get into the Arctic Ocean and threaten fishing grounds.

“It is necessary to focus on a few of the most important threats. We have been working with the Russians and others to establish what are the key pressure points and then to come up with practical solutions.” A briefing document BNFL produced for the Common’s committee described the situation at Andreyev Bay.

“BNFL is working with Russians and Norwegians on a project to tackle the urgent threat from a partially-emptied, leaking fuel store there, known as building No.5. A stream running through contaminated ground is taking radioactivity out into the Bay.” Bonser added that the total cost of cleaning up nuclear contamination in Russia would be comparable to the cost of the clean-up work envisaged in the United States military complex; $100 billion.

BNFL’s evidence came at a Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into business relations with Russia. BNFL plans to be involved in Russia for many years and its aim now is to establish good working relationships. Unlike most other businesses, BNFL’s work will be mostly financed by Western sources.

“Our reputation is more at risk than our financial position,” said Bonser. “If our strategy is to work we need some early successes. Part of what we are trying to do is make Russian companies more commercial, there need to be major changes.

“We are involved in exchanges with young people which were introduced by Yeltsin — we’ve found these very successful. In the 1950s young Japanese people came to Calder Hall and many of them are now senior positions.” BNFL puts its success in Russia down to establishing good working relations and mutual professional respect.

“Inevitably we encounter the usual difficulties — bureaucracy, finance and corruption,” says the briefing document. “There are no easy solutions to these, other than persistence, prudence, and good local contacts and experience. There are additional difficulties specific to the nuclear field, which remains a sensitive and complex area. These include problems of legal liability, taxation and customs, which are currently the subject of international negotiation. These need to be resolved, in order to create secure operating parameters. There is also the vexed question of Western access to contaminated Russian military sites.”

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