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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Status of Mayak Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility

Report by Katarina Koivisto

Mayak, the Russian facility for nuclear waste disposal in the northwestern Urals, has been forced to close one line where waste is made solid. Lack of money prevents the old line from being renewed. Mayak, located near Chelyabinsk, is the facility where Russian spent nuclear fuel is sent for further processing and storage. Highly radioactive waste from the two reactors at Lovisa were also formerly sent to Mayak, and Imatran Voima was among the few foreign customers providing Mayak with foreign currency earnings.

Today the facility's operation is precarious. Income from abroad, from Finland for example, almost stopped over the last few years, and as a result the treatment facility has experienced economic problems. In principle, all the waste that is transported in various forms to the installation should be vitrified before storage, and it is one of these so-called vitrification facilities that has now stopped.

The Russian authorities have refused to specify what the consequences for waste disposal will be, but they confirmed that the situation is problematic.

"We never had any problems with transports from Finland," said Aleksandr Dimitriyev, deputy managing director of Gosatomnadsor, the Russian equivalent of the [Finnish] Radiation Protection Agency. They fulfilled all the international requirements for waste transports. On the other hand, transports from within Russia have been considerably more problematic.

Waste Is Problem

Dimitriyev said that in any case Russia's worries in today's situation were not about transports but rather the quantities of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel found in various places in the country in connection with several nuclear power plants like those outside St. Petersburg and on the Kola peninsula, and in the north in places where civilian or military nuclear ships are stationed.

One of the places is the nuclear power plant of Sosnoviy Bor near St. Petersburg, where there are at present significantly larger quantities of radioactive material than initially foreseen. This applies to both fuel and waste storage facilities. But Dimitriyev maintained that the situation is under control, and that the spent nuclear fuel would be stored in such a way that it would not pollute its surroundings.

"Our objective is effective waste disposal," he said. He refused to say how long the situation would be under control if the spent nuclear fuel were not treated or could not be transported for storage to other places. Mayak's capacity to receive all spent nuclear fuel from Russian nuclear power plants and from various military installations might be sufficient, if these installations could afford to pay for disposal. But they cannot in today's situation, and the less income Mayak receives, the worse the facility's capability to handle all the waste becomes. In addition, there is still the problem of terminal storage.

Two Plans for Terminal Storage

Aleksandr Dimitriyev discussed Russian plans for a terminal storage facility near Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, midway between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. But this plan is still on the drawing board; no technical studies have begun, and no money has been appropriated for this purpose either. However, the bedrock for a terminal storage facility is thought to be very suitable, Dimitriyev said.

Plans are considerably more concrete for a radioactive waste terminal storage facility from the Navy on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Northern Arctic Sea, but this terminal storage facility does not have an exact timetable or any secure appropriation either. However, technical studies have begun.

"We cannot transport unlimited amounts to Mayak either, so new solutions have to be found," Dimitriyev said. The population around the disposal facility had already been in a very vulnerable position when a military enrichment facility also operated in the area. In the Soviet era, plutonium for nuclear weapons was also produced at five installations near Mayak, only one of which still remains.

Radioactive leaks have occurred in the area on several occasions, and at least two serious incidents are known today. Therefore, in today's situation, Gosatomnadsor has its hands full just monitoring security, Dimitriyev said.

"Regarding nuclear waste, we must look at the overall situation, also from Mayak's point of view," he said.


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