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Opening the lid on Russia’s super-secretive nuclear industry

“Our country will receive waste from foreign nuclear power plants built by Rosatom from time to time”  By Matvey Antropov, 14.04.2020

Environmentalist Vladimir Slivyak on the industry that “always kept its affairs secret”

On March 19 and April 6 of this year, German eco-activists protested against the export of new shipments of radioactive waste to Russia, “cynically undertaken in the midst of the pandemic to safely avoid protests.” Realnoe Vremya spoke with Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecozaschita!, author of the book From Hiroshima to Fukushima, about how nuclear waste is imported to Russia, how open information is about Rosatom’s activities, and whether a nuclear power plant will be built in Tatarstan.

“We will know that certain wastes are imported to Russia after their transportation or arrival”

Vladimir, let’s first determine what is considered to be radioactive waste.

There are different points of view on this issue. There is a view of the nuclear industry, which is the position of the state, and there is a view of environmentalists, which, of course, is fundamentally different. The first is that if you plan to use radioactive waste (RW) further, then they are not considered waste. Environmentalists believe that any action with radioactive materials leaves waste (by-products). This can be work at nuclear power plants, in places where uranium is extracted and enriched — there are a lot of such places. In general, the discussion about what is considered waste in Russia has been going on for many years.

It should also be noted that when it comes to importing nuclear waste to Russia, it is most often waste from uranium enrichment — depleted uranium hexafluoride UF6 or spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

How many tonnes of radioactive waste are imported to Russia and who is their main exporter?

There is a contract, under which from 2019 to 2022, 12,000 tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride should be imported to our country from the plant in Gronau (North Rhine —Westphalia), owned by Urenco. Approximately 6,000 tonnes have already been imported. Of course, we don’t know about all the contracts. From 2016 to at least 2019, Russia received depleted uranium hexafluoride from the British plant in Capenhurst of the same company Urenco. It is unknown exactly how much it was imported.

The nuclear industry has always kept its business secret and still does. All the words that they want to be open and engage with the public are conversations in favour of the poor. Of course, all the information in Rosatom is classified. We will know that certain wastes are imported to Russia after their transportation or arrival to Russia. We have colleagues abroad who monitor the movement of nuclear waste. So we will only find out about this through our own channels of civil cooperation of activists. Reports from representatives of the nuclear industry are very rare in the media, so it is quite difficult for us to navigate. But the data on the movement of uranium hexafluoride from the plant in Gronau are accurate — they were obtained by a member of the Bundestag from the official response of the German government.

It should also be noted that Rosatom builds nuclear power plants in different countries of the world. Last year, we conducted the first independent study in Russia to find out where Rosatom operates, where nuclear power plants are actually being built, and where only the appearance of construction is being created. We have a corresponding report on our website. Usually, the priority option when signing an agreement on the construction of a nuclear power plant involves the return of spent nuclear fuel to Russia, of course, for a lot of money. In other words, our country will receive waste from foreign nuclear power plants built by Rosatom from time to time. Ecologists consider them to be one of the most dangerous among the nuclear waste.

“They say that this is not waste but valuable raw materials. At the same time, a million tonnes of ‘raw materials’ lie idle for decades”

As far as I know, the import of nuclear waste in Russia was not always allowed, right?

Yes, in the ’90s, spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants could not be transported. And then it was considered waste. There was also a complete ban on the import of other raw materials. The nuclear industry (then ministry of atomic energy) came out of the situation in the following way: referring to long-concluded agreements that need to be fulfilled, the ministry for atomic energy asked to make an exception for them. And the government agreed with these arguments.

And in 2001, a bill was passed allowing the import of spent fuel from foreign nuclear power plants and removing it from the category of waste (because it can be used further). Although the essence of the question on this topic is as follows: during the production of electricity at nuclear power plants, nuclear waste occurs. Whether you use them in the future or not -it’s still waste. Besides, not all spent fuel is used in any way in industry.

Our legislation has done everything for Rosatom’s comfortable operation. If the latter has indicated somewhere that it plans to use the waste in some way in the future, this means that it ceases to be radioactive waste. But this is absurd.

Rosatom is committed to disposing of all depleted uranium hexafluoride available in Russia by 2080. Here is a quote on this topic from Novaya Gazeta: “But against the background of the international outcry, Rosatom announced the launch of a programme for the management of DUHF, in which uranium “tails” are called raw materials for nuclear power of the future, a source of hydrogen fluoride and fluorine. One of the goals of the programme is the complete elimination of DUHF reserves at all Russian landfills by 2080. “Our activities can be designated with the Recycling sign,” said the acting CEO of Techsnabexport (Rosatom’s subsidiary) Yury Ulyanin.”

Does anyone believe that Rosatom will be able to recycle millions of tonnes of UF6 by 2080? In Russia, any documents that speak of such a distant time are perceived as absurd. At the moment, more than one million tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride are stored at enterprises and in places where radioactive waste is stored in Russia. A very small part has been converted to a different form that is more convenient for storage, but this is not even disposal or recycling. 

Now, when the issue of importing UF6 from Germany has been raised, Rosatom insists that it is not waste but insanely valuable and necessary raw materials. But at the same time, they have a million tonnes of this raw material without any use for decades

“We were brought and showed absolutely nothing”

Under what conditions are nuclear waste stored? How safe is it?

For example, waste from Germany is being transported to a landfill in the closed city of Novouralsk in Sverdlovsk Oblast. No one is allowed in this city to see what kind of radioactive waste is stored there. There are satellite photos that show that the containers are under the open sky. In some photos in Google Maps or Google Earth, one can see that some containers are subject to corrosion.

This information is also available from government agencies, but it is from the second half of the 2000s. Since then, publication of information on nuclear waste had been restricted. In the 2000s, Rostekhnadzor made reports on dangerous types of industry in Russia, in which the risks were described in detail. It said that a significant number of containers are subject to corrosion and there is a threat of their depressurization.

Now Rosatom says that everything is fine, take our word for it. Word — because an ordinary person can not get to the places where any radioactive waste is transported. For the most part, these are closed cities with access control. Even if someone is allowed on them as an exception, they only show a small piece of territory. You can’t freely study containers, you don’t decide what they show you.

I had a single experience of visiting a closed city in the 2000s. Then there was a fire at one of the enterprises of the uranium industry in the city of Lesnoy, Sverdlovsk Oblast. We distributed information about the fire through our channels, and a representative of Rosatom told us something like this: “Let’s take you to that company, and you will see for yourself that the information about the fire is not true.” My colleague and I were brought and showed absolutely nothing. We were taken to the house of culture, where the employees of this enterprise were sitting, and they began to express something to us. We asked: “Will you show us anything?” They told us they wouldn’t show us anything, and sent us back.

Apart from satellite images, there is no other open information on radioactive waste in closed cities.

Where and how are other types of radioactive waste stored in Russia? Are there any radiation leak?

If we take spent nuclear fuel from a nuclear power plant, then after removing it from the reactor, it is stored in pools, where it lies in the water for several years and cools down. Spent fuel can be stored dry for a long time in containers on special sites.

By default, we should assume that in theory, radiation leakage is always possible, and therefore we need to achieve the most reliable barrier between RW and the environment. Once radiation enters the environment, you can no longer control it. The rain or wind blows, and the radioactive trace spreads further and further. The only chance to contain radiation is to organize very well the places where radioactive substances are stored.

A person cannot imagine all the combinations of extreme circumstances that can lead to the depressurization of a container with radioactive substances or to the destruction of a storage facility. Accidents happen because people can’t calculate everything. Each accident is an example of some new combination of circumstances that we could not have predicted.

The nuclear industry remains the most classified in Russia. They try never to talk about any problems or accidents, and this is contrary to the interests of public safety. From the latest news, we can recall how last year the media reported about a suspected radiation leak in Novouralsk. We haven’t really found out what happened there.

April 16, 2020 - Posted by | Reference, Russia, secrets,lies and civil liberties, wastes

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