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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Radioactive Contamination

<<< Radioactive Contamination (Overview and Index) | Environmental Problems Index | Other Republics of the Former Soviet Union >>>

Nuclear Facilities in the Russian Federation

Prior to the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, the USSR was planning to construct the largest array of nuclear power plants in the world. Collectively, the former Soviet republics are still the third largest producer of nuclear energy, behind only the United States and France. The Russian Federation contains the majority of the commercial nuclear power plants constructed within the FSU. There are presently nine nuclear power complexes in Russia, containing twenty-nine individual operating reactors. Of these, thirteen are pressurized water reactors (having the Russian acronym 'VVER'); this is the same type of reactor design commonly used in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. Eleven are graphite moderated 'RBMK' reactors of the Chernobyl design. Four are very small reactors in the Siberian town of Bilibino of a type not used elsewhere, and one (at Beloyarsk) is a breeder reactor. Table 19.2 summarizes these reactor complexes.

Commercial atomic energy sites in the Russian Federation

Table 19.2 Commercial atomic energy sites in the Russian Federation
Note: The table does not include proposed complexes where planning or construction has been stopped at Arkhangelsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Kostroma, Rostov, Volgograd, and Voronezh.
* VVER - pressurized water reactors; RBMK - graphite moderated reactors; LWGR - light water-cooled graphite reactors; LMFBR - liquid metal fast-breeder reactor

In 1993, the Russian government announced a programme to construct many more commercial reactors by the early 21st century. Construction would be completed on units at Kursk, Balakovo, and Kalinin, new reactors were specified for the Kola, Leningrad, and Novovoronezh sites, and new complexes at Kostroma and elsewhere were proposed (Marples, 1993a). This expansion of nuclear facilities is viewed as preferable to building additional fossil fuel plants with their heavy load of air pollutants. However, in view of budget limitations and public anxiety about nuclear power in Russia today, this may be an unrealistic goal (a public vote in 1996 has already turned down the proposed Kostroma facility).

All commercial power facilities store radioactive wastes onsite. At Kalinin, Leningrad, and Balakovo are plants that cement certain low- and medium-level wastes into permanent solid encasements (a preferred form of long-term storage). These storage facilities, if operated properly, do not produce offsite radiation.

A major site for subsurface storage of nuclear wastes is located near the city of Dimitrovgrad, about 100 km north of Samara (Kuybyshev). Here, wastes containing strontium, caesium, tritium, and other compounds have been pumped into deep formations since 1966 (Kedrovskii, 1991). No surface contamination has been reported at this site. Dimitrovgrad also has one of two facilities in the FSU producing uranium/plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuels for use in VVER and breeder reactors. These fuels are able to make use of some of the surplus plutonium being generated from the disassembly of nuclear weapons.

It was noted above that the USSR built numerous 'secret cities' which contained factories doing highly classified work on the design and manufacture of nuclear weaponry, and the production and reprocessing of the fissionable materials used in them. These industrial centres were never shown on any commercial maps produced by the USSR. The first of these cities was built in 1946 along the southern border of the Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) oblast, adjacent to the important Mordov nature reserve. Located about 70 km south-west of the city of Arzamas, it was given the code name 'Arzamas-16' (it is today called Sarov). Its function was to design and develop nuclear warheads; it now disassembles them (Rowland, 1996). Since 1991 it has received a considerable number of visits and attention (Zisk, 1995), perhaps because of its proximity to Moscow and because Andrey Sakharov worked there.

A second secret city in European Russia was called Penza-19, located in Penza oblast; it also produced nuclear warhead components. Not a secret city, but one that manufactures fuel rods for commercial reactors, is Elektrostal, located just 50 km east of central Moscow (Grey, 1994).

The central Urals region contains a number of very large nuclear facilities, and is the portion of the Russian Federation most heavily contaminated by nuclear radiation. The facilities are concentrated mainly near two of the Urals' 'secret cities' (Chelyabinsk-65 and Chelyabinsk-70, now called Ozersk and Snezhinsk, respectively), which were about 20 km east of the city of Kyshtym. Ozersk is the site of the Mayak Production Association, one of the facilities for producing fissile materials and reprocessing high-level wastes. A series of major accidents has occurred here, which will be discussed later in the chapter.

A more positive operation at the Mayak plant involves confining high-level wastes inside solid glass containment structures (a process known as vitrification). Research on vitrification has been carried out here since 1986, and by early 1997 the Mayak facility had vitrified 285 million curies of waste (Bradley, 1997). This represents a very strong commitment to the utilization of a technically superior process, and is a highly praiseworthy effort.

East of Chelyabinsk is one of the FSU's oldest nuclear power plant complexes, at Beloyarsk. Here is the Soviet Union's largest breeder reactor, known as the BN-600. Breeder reactors are designed to produce more fissionable fuel than they consume, and are technologically complex (they utilize liquid sodium as a coolant); the United States has never built a commercial one. A second breeder is reportedly under construction here; two older conventional reactors at Beloyarsk have been shut down.

Elsewhere in the Urals are three more secret cities. Two were near the city of Yekaterinburg ('Sverdlovsk-44 and -45', now called Novouralsk and Lesnoy). The former contained one of the USSR's four uranium enrichment plants, and the latter produced, and now disassembles, nuclear warheads. Further south is Zlatoust-36 (now Trekhgorny), which currently also disassembles nuclear warheads (Rowland, 1996).

Russia's Arctic region contains numerous sites with nuclear facilities, and locations where radioactive wastes have been stored or deposited. These include the Kola peninsula in and around the city of Murmansk, and in portions of the Barents and Kara Seas, particularly around Novaya Zemlya islands (one of the FSU's two nuclear weapons test sites). Murmansk and Severomorsk are home ports for the Russian Northern Fleet, which includes many nuclear submarines and icebreakers. South of Murmansk is the Polyarniye Zori power plant complex, which contains four small VVER reactors (Table 19.2). The situations at the submarine bases and on Novaya Zemlya will be discussed later.

The remoteness of Siberia made it, like the Urals, a preferred location for several of the Soviet Union's largest nuclear facilities. The two most significant ones were the vast complexes near the cities of Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, where Russia's only remaining defence industry reactors still operate. The secret city of Tomsk-7 (now Seversk) contains the Siberian Chemical Combine, which reprocesses and stores high-level radioactive wastes. Three defence industry reactors at Tomsk-7 were shut down by 1992, but two others are still in use.

An even larger nuclear complex exists at two secret cities near Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisey river. These sites are Krasnoyarsk-26 (now renamed Zheleznogorsk), and the smaller Krasnoyarsk-45 (now Zelenpgorsk). Krasnoyarsk-26 (Zheleznogorsk) lies partly in huge subsurface chambers, and had as one of its main functions the production of plutonium. The site was built in the 1950s and includes a tunnel over 2 km in length under the Yenisey (Izvestia, 11 January 1992). Zheleznogorsk has the largest budget of any nuclear facility in the FSU. Of three defence industry nuclear reactors built here, one still operates.

The other site, Zelenogorsk, is about 105 km east of Krasnoyarsk on the Kan river. Constructed in 1956, its main function was to enrich uranium (Rowland, 1996). A third Siberian site where uranium enrichment took place was at a plant near Angarsk, on the Angara river 40 km north-west of Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. Further to the east, in the small city of Krasnokamensk near the Manchurian border, is a substantial uranium mining and milling3 complex. In 1990, it was one of the largest in the USSR, and the only one in the Russian Federation (Grey, 1994). After the USSR's collapse, all of Russia's underground uranium mines were closed.

Finally, in the eastern Arctic, there exist at the town of Bilibino four small commercial reactors of just 12 MW (megawatts) each. They are the only source of power for this remote part of the Russian Far East, and are of a size not utilized elsewhere in the FSU.

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