Russia to improve nuclear waste management 18 Jun 2020

Eugene Gerden for TunnelTalk

The Russian Government is designing a package of measures aimed at improving the current system of nuclear waste management and reducing the volume of accumulated nuclear waste. According to recent statements by senior officials of the Russian Ministry of Energy and industry analysts, implementation of these plans is part of the existing Federal program entitled Ensuring Nuclear Radiation Safety for 2016-2020 and for implementation during the period to 2030.

Fig 1. Nuclear power plants in Russia
Fig 1. Nuclear power plants in Russia
Credit: NO RAO

The end of World War II, and the beginning of an active development of nuclear power generation in the USSR, and later Russia, resulted in a significant increase of the volume of accumulated nuclear waste in the country. Most of this waste has never been the subject of any disposal or treatment in the country which led to a significant growth of its accumulated volumes. According to various assessments, the present volume of accumulated nuclear waste in Russia is estimated at a total 500 million tonnes, with figures continuing to grow. One of the main reasons for this is the ongoing decommissioning of old industrial sites and Soviet-era nuclear power plants.

According to Dr Olga Ulybina, a senior researcher at the German Center for Social Research (WZB), management of nuclear waste is complicated by the variety of civil, military and experimental nuclear reactors which were used in Russia and the earlier USSR. Currently the Government is involved in the design of a comprehensive approach for the storage and disposal of nuclear waste within the territory of the country, that should take into account the interaction between radionuclides during their decay.

Ozyorsk, location of largest site for radioactive waste
Ozyorsk, location of largest site for radioactive waste

In regard to nuclear waste disposal, the existing program involves the establishment of at least 10 sites of final radioactive waste isolation in Russia by 2025. It is planned that these sites will be designed for the disposal of about 80,000m3 of solid radioactive waste material. According to some media reports, one of the largest of the sites will be established by 2021 on the base of the Mayak plant, a facility established in 1945 in Ozersk, a closed city in the province of Chelyabinsk Oblast, for the production of weapons-grade plutonium (Fig 2). The new complex will have the design capacity of 2,000m3 of waste per year and will be capable of recycling solid nuclear waste of all categories and from all types of activities.

The national program also involves the complete suspension of the release of radioactive effluent and the closure of at least six of the existing sites for their storage.

At present, the storage of nuclear waste in Russia is carried out mainly in temporary storage facilities. Their total number is currently estimated at 140 industrial sites and 1,466 temporary storage points located in 43 regions of the country. Most of the waste is stored in metal or concrete containers, metal or concrete tanks, at ground level or underground, and in outdoor pools for liquid radioactive waste.

Construction progressing for the at-reactor dry storage facility in the Sosnovy Bor in the St Petersburg Region
Construction progressing for the at-reactor dry storage facility in the Sosnovy Bor in the St Petersburg Region

Spent fuel is usually stored at power plants, in reactor storage pools, as well as on vessels servicing nuclear icebreakers. In addition, there are also a number of on-shore facilities. The majority of these facilities are operated by the Russian Government monopoly of the nuclear industry Rosatom.

According to a spokesman for Alexander Novak, the Russian Minister of Energy, a significant part of nuclear waste in the country is also stored on the seashore. For the purpose, a number of special naval bases were built along the Russian coast from the 1960s. Most of these bases specialize primarily on the storage of both spent fuel from nuclear submarines, as well as liquid and solid radioactive waste. There is a possibility that many of these facilities could be closed or removed from service due to ongoing climate change and rising sea level concerns. These trends may pose a threat to them in the long-term as ever increasing water temperature and acidity can accelerate the corrosion of containers.

Currently Rosatom is working on the reconstruction of some of these coastal bases and the decommissioning of old ones. The situation, however, is complicated by the fact that many of these nuclear submarines, reactors and containers were flooded in the Kara Sea and the Pacific Ocean during the Soviet times.

As the presence of long-lived isotopes is associated with the need of extremely long-term storage of nuclear waste, up to hundreds of thousands of years, Russia plans to continue the practice of pumping liquid nuclear waste into rock formations as an alternative method of waste disposal. The method was first introduced more than 50 years ago and was practiced also in the USA until 1984.

Alexander Novak, the Russian Minister of Energy
Alexander Novak, the Russian Minister of Energy

One of the sites operating the practice currently is located within the city of Zheleznogorsk, a closed town in the Krasnoyarsk Krai region, where such nuclear waste is pumped into porous sandstone layers and blocked by clays at up to 400m deep.

In general, according to State plans, there is also the development of new, more advanced methods for the management of nuclear waste and its disposal. These include deep geological disposal facilities in stable rock masses at between 250m and 1,000m deep for mined repositories, and between 2,000m and 5,000m deep for blast-holes.

As part of these plans, Rosatom is going to complete a final disposal of a certain volume of highly active and long-lived waste in deep geological formations at more than 500m depth in the Krasnoyarsk Territory Fig 3). Implementation of these plans is scheduled for the period of 2021–2030. The repository is being established on the basis of an underground laboratory where scientists will be able to implement a control for the compliance of these works with safety requirements.

In the meantime, other options for the long-term storage of nuclear waste in Russia are being considered. For example, in the case of some remote nuclear power plants, such as the Bilibino plant located in Chukotka (Fig 1), there are plans to build a special terminal for the final isolation of radioactive waste. It is planned that these works, and the future storage of nuclear waste at the site, will be carried out in the conditions of permafrost. According to experts of the Russian Ministry of Energy, in the short term, permafrost ensures the lack of water movement and slows down chemical reactions, which increases the design life of engineering barriers. However, as scientists warn, with climate change, the effectiveness of such storage facilities will significantly decline.

Akademik Lomonosov, the world
Akademik Lomonosov, the world's first floating nuclear power plant

At the Bilibino power plant site, there is a possibility of the beginning of the gradual decommissioning of the plant. That will be mainly due to the recent commissioning of the world's first floating nuclear power plant the Akademik Lomonosov by the Rosatom Corporation in the Chukotka region. The new plant is comprised of coastal infrastructure and a floating power unit, which is equipped with two KLT-40S reactors with a capacity of 35MW each. The thermal capacity of the new plant is 50 gigacalories/hour. In the long-term, the new plant will become the main source of energy for the Russian Chukotka Republic.

In addition to State plans to build facilities for storage and disposal of nuclear waste, there is the beginning of the re-use of at least part of the waste for various purposes in Russia. According to an official spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Energy, radioactive isotopes, after their separation from spent nuclear fuel, could be used in science, engineering works, medicine and other spheres. Advance of the technology will establish a closed nuclear fuel cycle in Russia.

Akademik Lomonosov, the world
Fig 3. Yeniseisky site of a proposed high-level radioactive waste repository near Krasnoyarsk, starting with the underground research laboratory (in red)

According to State plans, investments in the implementation of the existing State program in Russia is expected to reach RUB 399 billion (US$6.6 billion), the majority of which will be provided from the Russian Federal Budget with extra-budgetary sources and private investments. In general, by 2025 the annual volume of nuclear waste disposal in Russia should correspond to the volume of its generation.

There is however, a possibility that implementation of the plans may be prevented by the plans by Russia to resume imports of nuclear waste after a pause period of almost 10 years. According to recent announcements in German and Russian media, imports will take place on the basis of fuel lease agreements for the purpose of their further processing, storage or disposal.

Such an agreement was signed with Germany, for Russia to import about 12,000 tonnes of uranium tailings, the by-products of uranium enrichment after production of fuel for nuclear power plants, during the period of 2020-2022. Deliveries of uranium waste from Germany to Russia were active at the beginning of 2000s, and were suspended in 2009 after a series of massive public campaigns, initiated by eco-activists against unsafe storage of imported nuclear waste in unclosed rusty containers on sites throughout Russia.

In addition to German nuclear waste, some Russian media have recently reported the possibility of imports of nuclear waste from the Japanese Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant that suffered catastrophic damage as a result of the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, with the plans of its disposal in the Kuril Islands.

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