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Cleaning up the Soviet legacy

UK engineers are playing a key role in cleaning up the Soviet Union’s nuclear and chemical legacy.

At first glance, Russia’s Kola bay — with its crystal-clear waters and soaring mountainous backdrop — is a location straight out of Vladimir Putin’s holiday snaps. But scratch beneath the surface, turn your gaze to the rusting hulks that line its shores, and the beauty quickly turns to horror. For this is the home of Atomflot, a nuclear icebreaker base now considered to be one of the environmental hotspots of the former Soviet Union.

At the heart of this nuclear dustbin sits the Lepse; a retired support vessel, streaked with rust, barely afloat, and crammed to the gunnels with around 650 largely damaged fuel rods from spent nuclear fuel assemblies. Thought to present the biggest radiation risk of all retired nuclear service ships in Russia, it has been described by experts as a floating Chernobyl.

Taken in isolation the Lepse is terrifying enough. But the vessel is a potent symbol of a wider, even more worrying problem: Russia’s Soviet-era heritage; a hastily developed, poorly designed, and now crumbling assemblage of reactors, ships and weapons that is regarded with increasing discomfort by Russia, its neighbours and the rest of the world. Fortunately the international community is awake to the threat. And despite its often fractious political relations with the west, Russia is the focus of almost unprecedented international collaboration, as a host of countries contribute money, expertise and equipment to the planet’s most challenging and dangerous clean-up operation.

One man who knows more than most about the scale of this challenge is Balthasar Lindauer, deputy director of nuclear safety at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) — the international group that manages the funds for many of Russia’s clean-up programmes.

Talking to The Engineer from his London headquarters, Lindauer contemplates the Lepse with horror. ‘I’ve spoken to people who worked on the ship when it was operating, and they tell me that sometimes the fuel wouldn’t fit into channels so they would use hammers to force the fuel into the superstructure.’

In the early stages of investigating the Chernobyl site robots were used and sometimes they didn’t make it — their electronic components were unable to cope with the radiation they found

Balthasar Lindauer, EBRD

Precisely how the vessel will be dealt with is still open to debate. The high radiation levels and the fact that many of the fuel rods are damaged means that humans can only spend very limited amounts of time on or near the boat. But time is running out. ‘It has been in danger of sinking for quite a number of years so it’s a very urgent project — it cannot wait for ever,’ said Lindauer. The eventual solution, he believes, is likely to involve robots. But even these systems must be carefully designed to cope with the polluted environment. He added: ‘In the early stages of investigating the Chernobyl site robots were used and sometimes they didn’t make it — their electronic components were unable to cope with the radiation they found.’

The Lepse is not an isolated case. Some 50km to the west, in a similarly deceptive setting, is Andreeva Bay, former home of the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers; now one of the world’s largest nuclear dumping grounds.


The UK MOD has played a key role in the development of the Schuchye chemical weapons destruction facility

Just 40km from the border with Norway, its often poorly maintained storage units contain around 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies and 35 metric tonnes of radioactive materials retrieved from the decommissioned vessels that once operated from the port. ‘The fuel has now been brought ashore, but the problem is that there still aren’t appropriate storage facilities nearby and the transport of this fuel is a bit hair-raising,’ explained Lindauer.

Enter the UK, which is playing a major role in this particular operation through the government’s Global Threat Reduction Programme — its £36m-a-year contribution to a multilateral non-proliferation programme agreed by the G8 in 2002. Around 90 per cent of the programme’s budget is wielded by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and devoted to addressing nuclear concerns — principally in the former Soviet Union. The remaining 10 per cent is managed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and directed at chemical and biological weapons.

Last year the UK provided around £9m of assistance at Andreeva Bay, and is helping develop plans to build a spent nuclear fuel handling facility over the top of the existing dry storage units. According to the DECC, this will make use of remotely operated equipment to retrieve individual fuel assemblies, repack them into canisters and place the canisters into shielded casks for storage and transport. Once this has been done, the plan is to transport the waste to a centralised reprocessing facility by 2014.

But nuclear material isn’t the only threat. At the same time that submarines were rolling off the Soviet’s North Sea production lines, its chemists were busy weaponising around 40,000 tonnes of chemical warfare agents — the largest stockpile of its kind in the world.

The site had 5,400 tonnes of chemical agent [sarin, soman and Vx] held in 1.9 million artillery munitions and rocket warheads

James Harrison, MoD

Obliged to destroy this under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia called on the international community for assistance, and once again the UK has provided some key expertise. James Harrison, deputy director of counter-proliferation and arms control at the MoD, explained that this help has centred on a chemical weapons destruction facility at Schuchye, a remote village around 16,000km east of Moscow. The plant, he said, has been built next to one of the world’s largest stockpiles of Category 1 chemical weapons. ‘The site had 5,400 tonnes of chemical agent [sarin, soman and Vx] held in 1.9 million artillery munitions and rocket warheads.’

Big four toxic dumps

The legacy of the Soviet Union’s chemical and nuclear programme

Andreeva Bay - Russia’s nuclear dustbin, home to some 22,000 spent fuel assemblies, 35 metric tonnes of radioactive materials, and 12,000m3 of solid and liquid waste taken from decommissioned vessels of the Northern Fleet

Atomflot - Final resting place of the Lepse (the floating Chernobyl), an abandoned supply vessel crammed with 650 damaged nuclear fuel rods

Chernobyl - Engineers are racing to complete the construction of a new shield that will cover the leaking, 20-year-old sarcophagus

Chemical weapons - Russia has the largest declared stockpile of chemical weapons — more than 40,000 tonnes. Much of this is stored in artillery shells and rocket warheads

At the heart of the facility are two automated destruction buildings. The first of these — for which the MoD and its contractor Bechtel procured much of the equipment — began operating earlier this year and has so far destroyed around 700 tonnes of agent. The destruction process, which draws heavily on the expertise of the chemists involved in Soviet-era weapons projects, is relatively straightforward. Harrison said: ‘The first stage is to drain the agent out of the munitions. The munitions then go into a metal-parts furnace to be heated to get rid of any residual contamination. The agent is neutralised chemically and then mixed with bitumen and stored in drums.’ Once in this state, he added, it is almost impossible for anyone to extract the chemical agents.

But while the legacy of the Soviet Union’s military might continues to present challenges, it is Chernobyl, a civilian nuclear reactor, which remains the most terrifying symbol of the era. And with the hastily constructed concrete sarcophagus that contains the destroyed reactor now more than 20 years old, plans to build an immense, hermetically sealed arch over the site are finally coming to fruition.

Not a moment too soon, says Lindauer, who, despite numerous efforts to strengthen the existing sarcophagus, remains worried about its stability. ‘In 1986 they hadn’t undergone any seismic qualification of the structure. The construction was done without any documentation and it is not clear what kind of events it could withstand.’ A collapse of the roof would, he said, scatter the contaminated dust within across the entire exclusion zone and scupper any plans to clean up Chernobyl.

The contract for the design and construction of this shield — known as the new safe confinement — has been awarded to Novarka, a consortium headed up by French civil engineering firm Vinci, which is finalising the design. Lindauer expects the complete structure — a 20,000 tonne, 105m-high arch — to be installed over the reactor as soon as 2012.

The Soviets had the mentality that they would deal with problems when they arose and not before — lots of things were not forseen in a detailed fashion

Balthasar Lindauer

To protect workers from the radiation levels around the sarcophagus that can burn them within 15 minutes the plan is to assemble the shield to the west of the main site in an area sheltered from the worst of the radiation and then slide it into position along specially constructed rails. The cost of constructing the shelter has been estimated at around $1.6bn (£965m), although with so much still unknown about the site, Lindauer said that it is impossible to put an exact price on it. ‘There are all kinds of unexpected situations — for example, when you build a foundation around a shelter you can hit radioactive waste that has been buried there and that would hold up your construction.’

Indeed, encountering the unexpected is, he said, something that has characterised not just the Chernobyl clean-up but also the work on decommissioning other Soviet-era reactors in Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria. ‘The Soviets had the mentality that they would deal with problems when they arose and not before — lots of things were not forseen in a detailed fashion.’ Nevertheless, Lindauer seems reasonably confident that the mistakes of Chernobyl will not be repeated. ‘There are a lot of reactors in the former Soviet Union that, from a western point of view, probably lack the appropriate safety levels. But lessons from Chernobyl have been taken into account and the risk of a similar accident happening is relatively low. We definitely hope that this will remain a one-off.’

Widening the scope

Britain’s commitment to help make safe the radioactive legacy of past conflicts is likely to continue

Funding for the UK’s Global Threat Reduction Programme is due to run out in 2011, although, as one Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokesperson told The Engineer, the challenges the programme is trying to address will exist way beyond this date. It therefore seems likely that Britain’s commitment to the global fight against non-proliferation will continue.

There is still much to be done in the former Soviet Union. In the Ukraine, the UK is leading plans to build a centralised store for highly active spent radioactive sources, and in Tajikistan, UK scientists are assisting in the construction of another waste storage facility. The DECC is investigating potential sites in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. According to Balthasar Lindauer, nuclear safety director at the EBRD, the retired nuclear submarines of Russia’s Pacific Fleet pose similar problems to those in the north. Lindauer is also concerned about the abandoned uranium mines in central Asia.

In terms of chemical weapons, the biggest future challenge exists in China, where Japanese troops buried tonnes of lethal shells and bombs in the final weeks of the Second World War. While Japan claims responsibility for around 700,000 chemical munitions, the Chinese government puts the number closer to two million.

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