Nuclear Waste Storage In Andreeva Bay
By Thomas Nilsen
The Russian Northern Fleet's main storage for nuclear waste at Kola Peninsula is leaking radioactivity. During 1997 all spent nuclear fuel which was sent to Andreeva bay, was stored in the open, without protection. The danger of increasing leakages is great.
Andreeva bay is located on the Western shore of the Litsa fjord, 45 kilometres from the Norwegian border. The base is the only operating storage for spent nuclear fuel from the Northern Fleet's nuclear powered submarines. 21,000 spent fuel elements are stored here, in three concrete tanks in very poor condition. These storage tanks have been filled to capacity since the beginning of the 90's. Up till 1996, spent fuel was shipped away from the tanks to the reprocessing plant in Mayak in Siberia. This transportation stopped totally in 1997.
Containers stored in the open, without protection
During 1997 all containers transported to Andreeva bay were stored outside, without any kind of protection. Several tens of containers with spent fuel of the type TK-11 and TK-18 are placed on the ground near the three overfilled tanks. Each container holds 35 spent fuel elements with a maximum enrichment of 40%. The unsecured storage of these containers violates Russian and international regulations for handling of nuclear waste. Experts believe that during winter, these containers will develop craks because of ice and snow. When thawing starts in spring-time, radioactivity could leak out in the Litsa fjord.
Existing leakages of radioactivity
The expected leakage from the new containers will come in addition to already existing leakages from 32 containers which have been stored in the open for more than 30 years. These are badly affected by the harsh weather conditions. An area of close to 2 km2 are already radioactivly contaminated, and radioactivity is leaking to the sea.
Along a small river that runs from the old storage site for spent nuclear fuel, Russian experts have measured elevated radiation levels. Radioactivly contaminated water was leaking from the old storage in the period 1982 to 1989. Radioactivity is still transported by this river to the Litsa fjord.
Danger for criticality
The three concrete tanks which store 21.000 spent nuclear fuel elements are so run down, that the stability of the contained fuel elements is endangered. The distance between elements is only 25 cm. The concrete which separates the elements has developed cracks, because of snow and ice. There exists a substantial risk for criticality (i.e. the starting of chain reactions) when several elements get too close.
October/November a critical time
The largest risk for criticality is present when the first period of freezing starts in October and November. During 1997 the Northern Fleet did not receive any money to do necessary work to prevent the risk of criticality, as they have done in earlier years.
When the first freezing-period starts this Autumn, this lack of maintenance will lead to an increased risk for pushing the elements together.
The workers disclaim responsibility
Due to arrears in payments for maintenance and even regular salaries to the workers, the Northern Fleet disclaims responsibility for future developments. Parts of the Northern Fleets Labour Union went on strike in the beginning of October in protest against the situation. They also sent a letter to President Boris Yeltsin, in which they underline that they can not bear the responsibility any more.
Denies international inspection
On several occasions, Russia has denied experts from Norway and USA thorough information on the situation in the Litsa fjord. Even the Russian civilian nuclear inspection Gosatomnadzor has been denied entry to the base. Norwegian scientists have for several years been refused to take samplings of radioactivity outside the Litsa fjord. The Bellona Report on the situation has been banned in Russia.
by Joshua Handler
A host of environmental problems have come to the attention of the world since the demise of the Soviet Union. Chernobyl proved to be just a prelude to what was to come next as the veil of secrecy was slowly pulled back during the latter years of glasnost and the early days of the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, Russia discovered that massive industrial development and a massive investment in nuclear weapons has a logic and consequence of its own regardless of capitalist or communist ideology: massive environmental degradation.
Of the many environmental problems besetting the former Soviet Union, the problems created by the naval nuclear complex -- i.e. the operation and maintenance of a large fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, and some surface ships, and icebreakers -- have generated particular attention. They are one of the problems that create immediate threats for neighboring countries as well as to Russians living in and near the bases and facilities themselves. Also, the stories of the dumping of large amounts of radioactive waste in the Northern and Pacific Oceans have created a lot of international concern.
The problem has roughly three dimensions: the previous dumping of radioactive waste at sea, the shore-side naval waste problem, which is related to the decommissioning problem and; the question of accidents aboard nuclear-powered submarines. The most acute problem today is that of the decommissioned submarines and the shore-side support facilities and maintenance ships. Little thought or planning had gone into what to do with retired submarines prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, a lot of thought has been devoted to this problem, but the absence of finances has meant serious environmental problems continue, and will probably continue for a decade or more to come. The Russian Navy and surrounding countries remain concerned that a major accident could ensue. This paper will overview these three questions.
2. Dumping of Radioactive Waste at Sea
In March 1993, after several years of revelations about the dumping of radioactive waste at sea, the Russian government released a White Paper describing some 30 years of the dumping of radioactive waste at sea. The so-called Yablokov report detailed how 18 damaged naval nuclear reactors and two internal reactor screen assemblies were dumped in the seas around the Soviet Union. Sixteen reactors were dumped in the Kara Sea and 2 in the Sea of Japan. One reactor screen assembly was dumped in the Kara Sea and one off Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii in the northern Pacific Ocean.
Thirteen of the 16 damaged reactors dumped in the Kara Sea came from nuclear-powered submarines. The other three came from the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin. Most alarmingly, 6 of the 13 damaged nuclear-submarine reactors in the Kara Sea still contained their nuclear fuel. And, the Kara Sea reactor screen assembly came from the ice-breaker Lenin and contained damaged nuclear fuel. The Pacific internal reactor assembly came from a submarine and did not hold any fuel.
The original radioactive inventory from dumped reactors was estimated to be: 2.3 million curies in North and 116 curies in Pacific. In addition to the reactors, other liquid and solid radioactive waste (LRW and SRW) was dumped including an estimated total of 16,000 curies in Western Arctic and 18,600 curies in the Pacific Ocean. Subsequent reanalysis indicates some 120,000 curies are still contained in the dumped reactors as of the mid-1990s. Japan was made alarmingly aware of this dumping when Greenpeace caught a Russian naval vessel pumping 900 tons of liquid radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan in October 1993.
Several scientific expeditions to the dump areas in the Arctic found local contamination from dumped materials. But there is no evidence of migration so far. However, all dump sites were not found and fully investigated.
To insure the dumping of liquid-radioactive waste does not resume, several countries - the United States, Japan and Norway - have been assisting Russia to build equipment to process liquid radioactive waste. E.g. Japan is funding the construction of a barge for this purpose to be placed at the Zvezda shipyard at Bolshoi Kamen near Vladivostok. The US and Norway are cooperating with Russia to expand the liquid radioactive waste processing capacity of the ATOMFLOT complex. In addition, the Pacific Fleet has deployed several "Sharya" processing units which have been processing liquid radioactive waste and is making some use of the Pinega waste processing vessel. Thus, several thousand tons of accumulated liquid radioactive waste is beginning to be processed.
In principle, this should allow Russia to declare its adherence to the London Dumping Convention's ban on dumping of radioactive waste at sea. President Yeltsin made some comments about this at last year's April 1996 Nuclear Safety Summit in Moscow. Also according to news reports, Japanese officials were told by Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov when he visited Japan in early April, that Moscow was likely to join the global ban later in 1997. It remains to be seen if this happens.
The outstanding issues in this area then remain the further investigation of the dumped materials to see if they can be remediated and continued cooperation with Russia to build facilities for processing liquid radioactive waste.
3. Nuclear Submarine Bases, Shipyard and Waste Storage Facilities.
As of 1997, Jane's Fighting Ships estimates the Russian Navy has 75 operational nuclear-powered submarines. These submarines are based in the Northern and Pacific Fleets split in the same fashion they were in Soviet days: approximately two-thirds in the North and one-third in the Pacific. Three nuclear cruisers are based in the Northern Fleet and one in the Pacific Fleet. One nuclear-powered communications/range vessel is also in the Pacific Fleet. All nuclear-powered icebreakers are based at Murmansk.
On the west side of the fjord, almost directly across from the general-purpose submarine base, is Andreeva Guba. A small bay some 1 km wide and deep, it juts to the northwest off the fjord. On the waterside of a hilly point of land on its southern side is a naval facility which is the main Northern Fleet storage site for nuclear waste from submarines, including spent nuclear fuel rods.
B. In the Pacific: from south to north, facilities for supporting nuclear-powered submarines in the Russian Far East are found in the Primorsky and Khabarovsk krays and on the Kamchatka peninsula. Over half are located near Vladivostok, in and around the Shkotovo region. The other set of important facilities are concentrated near Petropavlovsk.
The facilities near Vladivostok include:
4. The Decommissioning and Shore-side Waste Problem
The operation of nuclear-powered submarines generates considerable amounts of nuclear waste. Liquid and solid radioactive wastes need to be removed from submarines and stored. In addition, periodically the submarine needs to be refuelled, thus spent fuel needs to be removed from the submarine and also stored. Decommissioning a nuclear submarine generates these streams of waste and in addition, the defuelled reactor compartment must be dealt with.
In Russia every step of the process is facing problems. The support complex which was already in poor shape and accident-prone during Soviet times has been particularly burdened in the last few years. Shore-side waste sites are full of low-level radioactive waste and spent fuel. Shipments of the spent fuel to Mayak for reprocessing have been delayed due to lack of funds and equipment. The service ships which unload the spent fuel from submarines are also full and in poor shape (and some have suffered accidents). The shipyards where the work is done are facing financial shortages, power blackouts and strikes. There are no final land-based storage sites for decommissioned reactor compartments removed from submarines, so they are being stored afloat in bays near naval bases. Finally, contamination is widespread at waste storage sites in the North and Far East due to accidents. Lower-level contamination is thought to plague virtually every support facility for the fleet. In addition, accidents on submarines have lead to contamination of the surrounding area.
The massive retirement of nuclear powered submarines has further aggravated this problem. The number of nuclear-powered submarines has declined substantially since the end of the Cold War as many first and second generation nuclear powered submarines have been decommissioned. Also, due to lack of financing and arms control treaties, even third generation submarines are being removed from service. The Soviet Union/Russia constructed some 248 submarines by 1996 and some 150-170 have been removed from service. Only some third of these have had their spent fuel removed. Of the fifty or so submarines that have had their fuel removed only some 20-25 have been partially scrapped and their reactor compartments removed, sealed up, stored afloat. A particular problem is that at least one submarine in the Northern Fleet and three submarines in the Pacific Fleet were retired due to nuclear accidents. They have damaged spent fuel on board and the Russian Navy is uncertain about how to decommission them.
The Cold War at sea lead to some terrible nuclear accidents. Two US submarines were lost at sea. However, the Soviet Union nuclear submarine fleet suffered some even worse mishaps. Three Soviet nuclear-powered submarines have sunk. In addition, severe nuclear accidents lead to the dumping of the unrepairable reactor compartments, and even one whole submarine, in the Arctic ocean. At least four nuclear submarines are awaiting decommissioning that suffered severe nuclear accidents, including the Echo II SSGN which had a reactor explode during a refuelling in 1985.
The number of accidents may be declining due to the smaller amount of submarines and smaller amount of patrols. But accidents are still occurring. Most recently, last October, one nuclear-powered submarine suffered a flooding accident near Petropavlovsk. It managed to return to port. Due to the poor financial state of the Navy, and the associated weakened training and logistical support system, the possibility of a serious accident involving a nuclear-powered submarine at sea remains.
Another concern with decommissioned submarines which still have their spent fuel onboard is accidents. Naval officers fear another major accident could occur, like what transpired on 10 August 1985 when an Echo II nuclear-powered submarine reactor exploded during a refuelling at the Chazhma Bay shipyard. Another worry is that a decommissioned nuclear submarine could sink at dockside. On 29-30th May 1997, this happened when a decommissioned submarine sank at the submarine facilities in Kamchatka. Reportedly a vessel collided with the moored submarine, and it sank. The Russian Navy claimed all fuel had been offloaded from the submarine, and it posed no environmental hazard. However, such reports are not reassuring. Also, the storage of sealed reactor compartments along the coast is troublesome. In the Far East, the area experiences some strong natural phenomena - earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis - all of which have the potential to wash decommissioned submarine compartments out to sea (as well as damage shore based waste storage sites.) In the North there is heavy icing and tidal flow. Also, reportedly, one defuelled compartment was briefly lost at sea during 1994-1995 while being towed from Severodvinsk to the Murmansk area.
The US and other countries' nuclear fleets also generate considerable amounts of nuclear waste. Their nuclear submarines have also suffered accidents. Finally, their continued operation on the high seas must remain the concern of anybody worried about the global commons and the safety of the world's oceans. But the Russian naval nuclear legacy poses a set of particularly acute problems.
Areas which have housed Russian nuclear submarines will suffer from a military nuclear legacy for many years to come. At current rates, it will take at least a decade or more to dismantle and scrap the decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines, as well as deal with their nuclear waste and conduct a waste clean-up.
Russia should be devoting more resources to these decommissioning and clean-up problems. Unfortunately, it is not, and moreover, as the recent scandal over the arrest of Alexander Nikitin shows, new roadblocks to solving this problem continue to appear.
Self-interest, however, suggests that surrounding nations are somewhat forced to try to work with the Russian central government and local authorities to provide assistance to address these dangerous and pressing problems. Although such assistance at times seems to be given almost as the result of blackmail, every cloud has a silver lining. Further cooperation in the region around military-environmental matters could also be a method of encouraging more general cooperation, reducing tensions, and one hopes, improve human rights.
It would be good if governments in the area, rather than arguing about the relatively small sums of money involved in military-environmental and disarmament projects, consciously thought about how to use such programs to better long-term political relations and improve the environmental situation.
LRW = liquid radioactive waste; SFA = spent fuel assemblies
Comment: the Table does not include the amount of spent nuclear fuel (598 SFA) accumulated at the technical bases before the fuel shipment to the Mayak plant.