Russia Struggles with Post-Soviet Nuclear Legacy
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW, Russia, September 19, 2002 (ENS) - Russian authorities have pledged to build new storage facilities to tackle the country’s nuclear waste mess and import waste from overseas. On Tuesday, Russia’s Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev was quoted by the official RIA news agency as saying that Russia has started construction of a new waste storage facility with capacity of 33,000 tons.
Environmental activists have argued that Russia’s largest waste storage facility, Krasnoyarsk-26, has only about 3,000 tons of unused capacity, while Russia’s Atomic Power Ministry, Minatom, wants to permit other nations to pay to send more than 10,000 tons of their radioactive waste for reprocessing and storage in Russia.
Apart from nuclear waste import plans, Russia now faces immense challenges in dealing with its post-Soviet nuclear legacy, notably rusting nuke submarines. Minatom has announced that the Russian navy had decommissioned a total of 189 nuclear submarines, but 126 were still waiting to be scrapped.
Russia’s Far Eastern regions face particularly serious nuclear waste problems. The Pacific Fleet's 75 decommissioned nuclear submarines are still stranded in harbors, of which 45 are waiting for nuclear fuel to be unloaded from their reactors.
It was environmental organizations such as the Norwegian Bellona Foundation who first warned the world in 1995 about these submarines, tied to their docks still loaded with nuclear fuel.
At the time, the Bellona report prompted charges of treason against Bellona’s Aleksandr Nikitin, a former officer in the Russian Navy, who was finally acquitted of these charges in December 1999.
The greatest source of danger has been reported from the submarine PM-32, located in a Kamchatka harbor. It is being used as a provisional storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from other submarines.
This year, Navy experts are expected to unload spent nuclear fuel from 20 nuclear submarines and completely dismantle 17.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Deputy Nuclear Power Minister Valery Lebedev announced at an international conference on nuclear security in Vladivostok that the Pacific Fleet's three decommissioned nuclear submarines are so dangerous that nuclear fuel cannot be unloaded from their reactors.
In 2003, a sarcophagus is to be built for two of these subs in Razboinik Bay at an estimated cost of $18 million, Lebedev was quoted as saying by RIA.
Last March, Russian media alleged that a decommissioned nuclear submarine had recently sank in Krasheninnikov Bay on Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East.
Russian naval officials dismissed claims of a nuclear incident in Krasheninnikov Bay, although they conceded that such incidents had taken place back in 1997 and 1999.
Russia’s North also faces the challenge of dealing with decommissioned nuclear submarines. Earlier this week, Viktor Akhunov, head of the of ecology and decommissioning department at Minatom, conceded that the rusting hulls of 39 nuclear vessels pose the greatest danger to the environment in Arctic.
Since 1994, a total of 29 trainloads of nuclear waste have been brought from emergency storage in Andreyev Guba on the Kola Peninsula to the Mayak reprocessing facility near Chelyabinsk. Waste from some 100 reactors is being temporarily stored in Andreyev Guba. All the waste is due to be removed from the Kola region by 2007.
It is widely accepted that Russia now faces a longer term safety problem as its existing nuclear waste storage facilities are getting closer to being filled to capacity. Russia's scientists and officials agree the country urgently needs to monitor and control the post-Soviet nuclear waste legacy. Environmentalists, however, cast doubts on the effectiveness of the governmental programs to tackle the mess.