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Russian nuclear power officials visit Vermont for ideas, expertise in decommissioning process

BRATTLEBORO—A delegation of Russians and Norwegians spent the past week in Vermont to study the decommissioning of nuclear plants in New England.

The issue has grown in importance in Russia, which has 31 civil nuclear reactors that produce 16 percent of that nation’s electricity, as well as 13 reactors that are being operated beyond their original projected 40-year lifespan.

Oleg Bodrov, an engineer and physicist, spoke about nuclear energy issues in Russia, and the differences between the decommissioning process there and in the process in the United States, in a talk at Brooks Memorial Library on Oct. 9.

“There is no open, public debate on decommissioning [in Russia],” said Bodrov, who is one of the founders and current chair of the Green World Council, a St. Petersburg-based environmental group. “There are no independent experts. There is no money for decommissioning. There is no infrastructure for decommissioning. And there is no safe storage technology. This is as much a social problem as it is a financial problem.”

That’s why, he said, there have been delegations from Russia and Norway coming to the United States over the past 16 years — to find out about the decommissioning process as it is done here and build bridges between various sectors of society in Russia and the United States.

With the possibility of Vermont Yankee being closed after its operating license expires in 2012, the scientists who visited our area last week sought ideas from their American counterparts to apply to their countries’ nuclear programs.

Spent fuel woes

The biggest issue regarding nuclear power, Bodrov said, is the reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear reactors, something that has been prohibited in the United States since the late 1970s.

Bodrov said Russia is not only reprocessing its own spent fuel, but is accepting other nations’s nuclear waste.

The biggest reprocessing facility, Mayak, is located in the Ural mountains. It was the site of an massive explosion in 1957 that spread highly radioactive contaminants over 500,000 people. It was second only to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in size and scope.

Mayak, still one of the biggest nuclear facilities in Russia, reprocesses about 200 tons of spent fuel annually, said Bodrov. An extraction process called PUREX (plutonium and uranium recovery by extraction) is used to separate those two elements from spent fuel.

But the process, Bodrov said, creates 22,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste for every cubic meter of spent fuel.

A combination of past nuclear accidents and the accumulation of wastes from more than six decades of nuclear activities at the site have made the area surrounding Mayak one of the most contaminated in the world, with significant concentrations of strontium, cesium and plutonium found within a 100-kilometer — or 60-mile — radius of the facility.

Bodrov said that there are about 500,000 cancer victims living in that zone, and the childhood cancer rate around Mayak is 14.1 per 100,000, as of 2007-08, substantially higher than in other parts of Russia.

In addition to handling its own wastes, Russia is taking in radioactive material from Britain, France and Germany, which is turning into a profit center for the Russian government.

Natalia Mironova is a former engineer who is the head of the Movement for Nuclear Safety, an environmental group in Russia formed by a group of women concerned about radioactive waste. She said that Russia is positioning itself to be “the superpower of energy.”

Russia already substantial natural gas reserves and an equally substantial uranium mining industry, she said. Reprocessing the world’s nuclear fuel fits into that strategy.

Aging plants, no easy fixes

Of the 13 Russian reactors that got authorization from Rosatom, the Russian Federal Nuclear Agency, to extend their operation, Bodrov said 11 are of the same design as the Chernobyl reactor. An accident at these reactors, many of which are located in more populated areas, would have even worse environmental consequences than the Mayak or Chernobyl disasters.

Russia and the United States, as the first nuclear nations, have the oldest nuclear reactors that require decommissioning and clean-up. This raises significant environmental and safety issues in both nations.

What’s the solution? Bodrov said setting up a well-funded decommissioning process is the first step, with the management infrastructure to do the job.

In Russia, he said stronger laws and regulations are needed to protect the public and regional councils — similar to the regional planning commissions in Vermont — should be formed to serve an advisory role and represent the public in any deliberations.

Finally, he wants to see host cities of nuclear facilities get sufficient funding to make the transition to economically and ecologically sustainable development.

Bodrov acknowledged that the United Stares is much further along in this process than Russia, but there is one common factor between the two nations. “One region gets the ‘clean’ power and another region gets the waste,” he said.

Among the other delegates that made the trip to Vermont were Olga Tsepilova, deputy chairman of the Green Russia political party; Andrey Ivanov, head of the Murmansk Regional Parliament Committee on Environment and Agriculture; Sergy Pavlov,  a legislator and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia; Julia Korshunova, an coordinator for the decommissioning project of NGO GAIA in the Russia city of Appatity; and Pavel Tishakov, an advisor for the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.

The tour was sponsored by the New England Coalition.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #71 (Wednesday, October 13, 2010).

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