Albion Monitor /News

Nowhere to Process Ex-Soviet Nuke Waste

by Andrei Ivanov and Judith Perera

on problems at this base and analysis why Russian politics take precedent over safety

Related article in this issue

(IPS) MOSCOW -- Dangerous nuclear wastes from Russia's crumbling naval facilities on the Kola Peninsula are being shipped across the country to a reprocessing plant where operations have been suspended by Russian nuclear safety officials.

Tons of radioactive waste is going from the Severodvinsk naval base on the peninsula to the Mayak reprocessing plant in the Urals.

But Mayak's operating license was based on the condition that high level liquid radioactive waste left by the reprocessing process was then vitrified for safer storage. And when Mayak's vitrification oven was found to be running two and half years past its operational limit, reprocessing was suspended by the State Nuclear Inspectorate Gosatomnadzor (GAN) on Mar 21.

Yet so precarious is the safety situation at the massive naval bases on the Kola Peninsula in north west Russia, that shipping the waste to storage at a closed plant is seen as a safer bet.

The problem is down to a cash flow crisis caused by non-payment of bills
A 1996 report by a former Russian submarine captain and Norwegian environmentalists concluded that the thousands of spent nuclear fuel assemblies and other radioactive waste from the Russian northern fleet posed more danger than the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

The first load of waste came from one of the most serious cases at Severodvinsk -- the spent nuclear fuel assemblies stored under the crumbling decks of Naval Service Ship PM-63.

PM-63 was inspected by the Northern Fleet's technical control authorities at the beginning of April. Out of 67 checked loading mechanisms on board, only four were found to be functioning. The inspection concluded that the boat required immediate unloading and a major refit.

After a delay caused by damage to one of the TK-18 storage units on the train, the first shipment, taking about a third of the fuel assemblies stored on board the PM-63, was dispatched to storage at Mayak in May.

The plant has storage capacity for high level radioactive liquid waste for two years, according to Mayak press center official Evgeni Ryzhkov.

Deliveries of fuel received from other countries with Soviet- designed reactors such as Ukraine, Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria, are being accepted as scheduled and stored, he added. The suspension primarily affects the reprocessing of fuel from plants, nearly all in Russia, with VVER-440, BN-600, and BN-350 type reactors, plus Russian research reactors and naval reactors.

Neither Mayak nor GAN officials in Moscow can say when the reprocessing facility will be back in operation, but the ministry of nuclear power (MinAtom) says it expects the first of two new vitrification facilities at Mayak to be commissioned by the end of this year.

The second facility should be finished by the middle of 1998. This project is to be financed by MinAtom, using the proceeds from a 1993 deal to sell Russian weapons grade uranium to the United States, supposedly to keep it out of the hands of unfriendly powers.

However, 18.2 million dollars is still required to complete the construction of the first vitrification facility, and the prospects of fresh funds are slight, says Ryzhkov. The Mayak plant itself is searching for possible financial sources.

Nuclear waste disposal got less than half the funding it needed in 1996, says Russian nuclear energy minister Viktor Mikhailov. He says $50 million a year is needed to dispose of the existing 1.5 billion curies of nuclear waste by the year 2000, but only $20 million was actually spent last year.

The federal budget provided only three million dollars. Another five million was found by the Mayak plant managers and another $12 million was raised from the ministry's export earnings.

The problem is down to a cash flow crisis caused by non-payment of bills. Russian consumers owe the nuclear energy ministry about 22,000 billion rubles (about four billion dollars) in unpaid bills, and the federal government owes another 1,600 billion rubles ($290 million) in unpaid budget allocations for 1996.

Meanwhile, Mayak administrators are trying to get an intermediate operating license that would not require them to vitrify the waste immediately, allowing them to restart reprocessing but store the waste in tanks until the new vitrification facility is ready.

But a tank of liquid wastes exploded at the facility in 1957 contaminating vast areas of surrounding land, and there could be political objections to this proposal.

Research on vitrification of high level liquid wastes at Mayak began in 1967, but it was 1987 before the first small facility was put into operation. Once vitrified the wastes can be stored on site in metal containers for up to 40 years pending final disposal.

Presently the storage facilities for vitrified waste are around 20 percent full.

The first unit could process around 500 liters of waste into 90 kilograms of glass per hour and used a process that put radio nuclides into phosphate glass prepared in a ceramic smelter. It was shut down after an unspecified accident just 13 months of operation.

A second similar electric oven, the EP-500-1, was installed in the same building, and put into operation in June 1991. It had a estimated three-year operational life, but continued to operate past the deadline and by the beginning of 1995 had vitrified some 8,500 cubic meters of liquid waste.

By Mar. 21, 1997, safety officials had decided that enough was enough and pulled the plug.

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Albion Monitor July 10, 1997 (

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