Dismantling Ignalina

29 November 2018

Vladimir N. Kuznetsov* speaks to NEI about decommissioning plans for Ignalina.

A brief history of Ignalina

The Ignalina nuclear plant comprised two water-cooled graphite-moderated channel-type RBMK-1500 reactors. It was originally planned as a four-unit site. Unit 1 came online in 1983 and unit 2 in 1987. Originally, unit 2 was scheduled for launch in 1986, but this was postponed following the Chernobyl accident, after which both units were de-rated to 1360MWe.

Construction of Ignalina 3 started in 1985, but was suspended in 1988 and it had been dismantled by 2008. Lithuania agreed to close the plant as part of its accession agreement to the European Union (EU), which argued that lack of containment made the units unsafe. Unit 1 closed in December 2004 and unit 2 - which accounted for 25% of Lithuania’s electricity generating capacity and supplied about 70% of Lithuania’s electrical demand - closed in December 2009. Following closure of the plant Lithuania became an energy importer.

The total estimated cost of the Ignalina decommissioning project is over €2.5bn, with the EU pledging €1.4bn towards these costs, funded largely through the Ignalina International Decommissioning Support Fund (IIDSF) administered by the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) and two other funds administered by EBRD. About 95% of the required decommissioning funds are being provided by the EU member states. The other 5% comes from Lithuanian state funds through the state’s own energy agency.

A new energy policy in 2012, aimed at reducing energy dependence on Russia, was based on construction of the new Visaginas nuclear plant, a new LNG terminal, and rebuilding the power grid. Energy reliance on Russia was to drop from 80% in 2012 to 55% by 2016 and 35% in 2020. The 2012 policy also involved rebuilding the grid to be independent of the Russian/Belarus system by joining the European Network of Transmission System Operators’ synchronous system, and strengthening interconnection among the three Baltic states.

In 2006, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia signed a communiqué inviting state-owned energy companies to invest in the design and construction of a new nuclear plant and in 2007 parliament adopted a law on its construction. In 2008, the power companies of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland agreed to set up the Visaginas Nuclear Plant Company, to build a 3000–3200MWe with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy as a strategic investor. However, the project foundered on the rocks of regional and domestic politics.  

How do you evaluate the decision to close Ignalina?

For 13 years, after leaving Chernobyl, I worked at Ignalina as head of the fuel laboratory, during which time I met with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors on a quarterly basis. They visit every nuclear plant in the world and they always liked to visit Ignalina, which was considered one of the cleanest and safest stations. During 26 years of operation, there was not a single accident at Ignalina related to rupture of the fuel or flooding of the graphite matrix in the reactors. This was a reflection of the highly qualified and technologically disciplined staff. Sweden provided great financial and logistical support in improving the safety and reliability of the plant. A number of projects aimed at improving reliability and safety were implemented. Ignalina was the first nuclear plant with RBMK reactors to transition to erbium fuel, which significantly improved the thermophysical characteristics of the reactor core and the reliability of the fuel and reactors. Ignalina could have worked reliably for at least another 20 years. After the closure of unit 2, 75 fresh fuel assemblies remained at Ignalina. Their storage, disposal or export posed technical, organisational and also political problems. Today, no-one is responsible for solving this problem, and anyone who tries will face great difficulties.

The government should have persuaded the European Union (EU) to allow such a reliable plant a further 15-20 years of operation. During this time it could have earned the funds necessary to finance its closure, without having to depend on the European Commission (EC). But instead of earning €300-500 million a year for the state budget, Ignalina employees are now using money every year to ensure radiation safety. Energy independence - rejecting annual purchases of nuclear fuel from Russia – has proved very expensive for Lithuania. Ignalina was closed without any scientific or technical justification. It was a political decision.

Can you describe the closure process?

In 2004, the Ministry of Economy (MH) developed and adopted a Final Plan for the closure of Ignalina (SSES-2004). Then, in 2014, the Ministry of Energy (ME) adopted a 7th version of a second Final Disposal Plan (SSES-2014), in which the new date for achieving brownfield status for Ignalina was set at 2038 instead of the previous date of 2029. MH violated a requirement of the General Provisions for Ensuring the Safety of Nuclear Power Plants (OPB-88/97, PNAE G-01-011-97), which stated: “The operating organisation (EO) of the NPP (General and Technical Director), no later than five years before the expiration of the design lifetime of the NPP unit must ensure the development of closure programmes for each power unit” and submit then to the regulator, Gosatomnadzor (Vatesi).

The programmes should take into account: safety criteria; environmental, socioeconomic and hygienic issues; the level of technology available for decommissioning nuclear units; the availability and characteristics of packaging and, repositories for radioactive waste management; the availability of protective containers and casks for used nuclear fuel; and the work involved and its sequence.

But because the closure decision was unexpected, there was no time to develop such programmes before the units were shut down. Preparations for decommissioning were supposed to begin in 2000, when the closure decision was taken. But this did not happen, and this is the fault of the EO, Gosatomnadzor, MH and ME. The programmes should provide detailed information for all stages of decommissioning, including the schedule for carrying out project activities until the final goal – a brownfield site – is achieved. Sixteen years have passed and there are still no programmes in place. As of today, no strategy for transfer of knowledge and skills is available. And there are almost no new specialists in Lithuania to whom this knowledge could be transferred.

Now we are close to dismantling the reactors and, probably, it’s time to release the 3rd SSPS, then the 4th, etc.

This is not about solving problems as they arrive. There is a danger of losing inter- generational experience and skills for such complicated and long programmes. In the nuclear power industry, violating the existing OPB-88/97 regulations is unacceptable and can lead to a national catastrophe. At present, radioactive waste of all levels of radioactivity has been removed from the reactors, packed and placed in newly constructed surface storages and repositories, not only at the Ignalina site, but also in adjacent territories. A vast area has been created where radioactive waste and used fuel is stored on the surface.

This is a target for terrorist attack and a potential threat to national security, with the additional risk of spreading radionuclides throughout Europe. There are dangers involved in decommissioning the world’s first nuclear power plant with uranium-graphite reactors without having the proper programmes in place.

The lack of any detailed and clear programmes, prepared by competent Ignalina staff with the involvement of foreign nuclear experts, means that the Lithuanian authorities do not understand the specifics of the nuclear technologies and cannot make competent decisions on decommissioning Ignalina’s uranium-graphite reactors.

This is the first time in the world that a strategy of immediate dismantling of power units has been implemented before first achieving brownfield status and in the absence of a national nuclear scientific base and relevant competent nuclear personnel. This is a big issue - how can it be done without proper manpower trained and educated for such tasks?

What about the costs?

The cost of implementing the initial decommissioning plan was estimated by experts in 2005 at €1.239 billion, with completion by 2029. Most of this was expected to come from the EU and donor countries. Confirmation of project financing depends on the decision of the Assembly of Donors which manages the International Fund for Support of Decommissioning the Ignalina NPP.

The donor countries are Austria, Belgium, the UK, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the European Commission. The Assembly of Donors can change the content of the projects.

Some social programmes have been implemented for the nuclear city of Visaginas and approximately €1 billion has been spent on this.

The total estimated cost of the project to build Ignalina was €3.5 billion, but the EU has allocated only €1.242 billion for its decommissioning, with possible finance through the Ignalina Programme, under the supervision of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and two other funds managed by the EBRD.

About 95% of the required funding is provided by EU member states, and expenditure is controlled by the Central Agency for Project Management (CPVA) and the EBRD. The remaining 5% comes from the Lithuanian state budget, through ME, which aims to complete work to dismantle the power units by 2038.

The need for additional funds of €2.6 billion for decommissioning from 2014 to 2038 has been identified.

However, Brussels has reduced EU financing for the closure of Ignalina. The EC has indicated that Lithuania should increase its contribution to finance the closure. The draft regulation approved by the Commission in June said the EU will finance no more than 80% of the expenditure in the 2021-2027 budgets, and that Lithuania and other international donors must contribute 20%. Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernalis has said that the EC’s planned allocation of €552 million for the 2021-2027 period is not enough and Lithuania will continue negotiations.

What are the provisions for waste management?

By 2015, the equipment from the turbine shop at Ignalina unit 1 had been dismantled, and the used fuel had been unloaded from the reactor and transported to an onsite dry container storage facility with a guaranteed shelf life of 50 years. In 2017, an Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility (ISFSF) was put into operation (delayed by nine years).

The process of building surface storage facilities and burial grounds continues but when will they be closed? This is not mentioned in the current SSPS -2014. Consequently, by 2038 there will be no brownfield site. The irradiated graphite will be temporarily stored in steel barrels without a binder and insulation to prevent ignition and the release of radioactive carbon-14 (C-14). The technology for remote disassembly of reactor graphite stacks has not yet been developed for rapid dismantling.

As to used fuel management, the issue of the final disposal of radioactive waste, and its removal to a centralised safe depository has not been resolved. No safety measures have been taken to prevent the destruction of containers from pressure build-up due to the transition of plutonium-241 to americium-241, the formation of gases in fuel rods and their depressurisation. The irradiated graphite and used fuel in 310 containers will be left for future generations, who will need to be trained to deal with these materials. This is one more argument illustrating the need to develop knowledge transfer strategy and the means to follow it.

How do you assess the situation?

The cost of building Ignalina using clean materials and equipment in 1970-1983 amounted to €3.5 billion. The additional funds of €2.6 billion for decommissioning work up to 2038 is obviously underestimated or incorrectly calculated. To bring the site to brownfield condition will cost €5-6 billion.

The work will entail:

  • Remote disassembly of graphite reactor stacks (3500 tons, or 26 wagons of graphite), disposal of irradiated graphite with an insulating matrix in protective containers, and deep disposal, followed by concreting;
  • Deep burial or export to another country of 2500 tons of used fuel temporarily stored in metal-concrete containers on an open site (120 containers) and in ISFSF (190 containers), which will involve reloading it into smaller transport packaging containers;
  • Deep burial or removal to another country of 75 fresh fuel assemblies.

Today, four surface temporary storage facilities and three surface burial grounds and a final disposal ground are under construction. It is planned to place the irradiated graphite in the surface burial grounds. This contravenes the recommendations of the IAEA, which stipulate that highly radioactive and long-lived radioactive waste should be stored underground at a depth of at least 250m. In 2017, six years after the events in Fukushima, the EU adopted a new directive on radioactive waste and spent fuel which stipulates storage in deep underground bunkers in granite or clay at a depth of at least 300m.

Can you elaborate on the problem of graphite disposal?

Irradiated reactor graphite contains radioactive carbon-14 (C-14) with a half-life of 5700 years. To date, no one knows how to safely dismantle a RBMK reactor which contains 1750 tons of irradiated graphite. C-14 is easily spread, and is absorbed by plants and living organisms. Other hazards associated with irradiated graphite include radioactive chlorine (Cl-36), with a half-life of 300,000 years, which is easily soluble in water, and tritium (H-3), for which there is practically no protection.

Therefore, nowhere in the world has even a small research uranium-graphite reactor been dismantled.

During disassembly, graphite dust will enter the environment through filters of the ventilation system with a cleaning factor of 99.99%, i.e., the environment will receive 0.01% of the C-14. This is with a new filter, but the cleaning factor decreases with use, and the release of C-14 increases. The seventh version of the “Final Plan for the Withdrawal from the Operation of Ignalina - 2014”, involves dismantling graphite masonry between 2025 and 2038. This means that during these 13 years, a significant amount of technogenic and biologically significant C-14, Cl-36 and H-3 will be released to the environment. As yet, the IAEA does not have a safe industrial technology for handling irradiated graphite. During the dismantling, independent international monitoring will be essential to ensure engineering barriers to the release
of these radionuclides, as well as integrated environmental monitoring of the habitat in the Ignalina area.

Are there any international initiatives to tackle this problem?

IAEA is concerned about the problem of decommissioning uranium graphite reactors. In February 2017, it supported the idea of creating an international centre in Russia to develop technology to deal with irradiated graphite. A centre was established at the Tomsk Experimental and Demonstration Complex for Decommissioning of Uranium-Graphite Reactors (UDC-UGR), which also includes Germany and France, which aims to develop an industrial technology of the safe handling of irradiated graphite within three years. To date, the work to develop a safe industrial technology for handling irradiated graphite is not finished, and the technology is not available.

At the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, all three RBMK-1000 reactors have been defuelled, but dismantling has been deferred for 70 years. A similar decision on deferred dismantling of RBMK reactors has been taken by Russia.

What is being done at Ignalina?

Nowhere in the world has there been any attempt to disassemble the graphite masonry of decommissioned reactors. Lithuania, in violation of the Aarhus Convention (on access to environmental information) and the Espoo Convention (on environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context), has not yet informed its citizens and neighbouring countries about its plans for handling irradiated graphite and used fuel.

Due to high levels of radiation, the dismantling of graphite masonry must be done by specially designed robots. Dismantling of graphite masonry of Ignalina’s RBMK-1500s will require the design/construction of a full-scale simulator with appropriate computer programs and training of operators for remote handling.

The immediate dismantling of RBMK reactors at Ignalina is effectively the world’s first pilot project. But the risks have not been properly evaluated. Lithuania’s Energy Ministry should wait for the outcome of the IAEA’s GRAPA project, being implemented at Tomsk, which is assessing the risks, as well as the scale of the financial costs. It should reconsider its strategy for disassembly of graphite reactor cladding and its placement in near-surface temporary storage. Such disassembly will have a negative impact for centuries on the environment and the inhabitants of Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other neighbours.  

Vladimir Kuznetsov is the chairman of the Union of Veterans of Ignalina. He worked at the Leningrad in Russia, Ignalina in Lithuania and Chernobyl in Ukraine during the launch of RBMK reactors at those sites, and as head of the fuel laboratory at Ignalina for 13 years until his retirement in 2009.  

Ignalina nuclear plant

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