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Expert raises questions over state of the nuclear industry in Siberia

By Olga Gertcyk & Derek Lambie
02 May 2015

As closed city prepares for construction of new reactor, one scientist calls for an inquiry to address environmental concerns of past 50 years.

Prof Rikhvanov, from the Department of Geo-ecology and Geo-chemistry at Tomsk Polytechnic University, has insisted that before Russia commits to a new technology, all concerns about the previous nuclear plant and its impact must first be addressed. Picture: Dmitry Kandinsky/Vtomske

An eminent nuclear expert has called for an investigation into the environmental impact of the industry on a closed Siberian city over the past 50 years.

Professor Leonid Rikhvanov says he has a number of questions about the potential damage to the community from reactors that have been used since the Soviet Era.

His plea comes as the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk, a secretive city located 15 miles north of Tomsk, prepares for the construction of a new experimental fast reactor.

Known as BREST-300 it has a heavy liquid metal coolant and according to Rosatom, the State Atomic Energy Company, it will revolutionise future of energy supplies.

But Prof Rikhvanov, from the Department of Geo-ecology and Geo-chemistry at Tomsk Polytechnic University, has insisted that before Russia commits to a new technology, all concerns about the previous nuclear plant and its impact must first be addressed.

He said: 'I have a lot of questions. For example, the technology supposedly being used there hasn't been used elsewhere in the world, and it's known that the French nuclear industry for some reason decided not to use similar reactors. The question is why are we launching a fully-fledged facility without trying it out first? 

'I would also like to raise the question of conducting a complex study on how the SCC's reactors have affected the environment over the past 50 years. Before making a decision on new projects, it'd be worth estimating the outcomes of the old ones.

'Third, I'm very concerned about where the new project’s waste will be going to. It's known that liquid waste will be put underground, and that the construction of a plant for processing liquid waste and producing solid waste is only being considered. I would insist on building it straight away as it would be safer in terms of water.

Explosion in Seversk


Explosion in Seversk

Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk, a secretive city located 15 miles north of Tomsk, prepares for the construction of a new experimental fast reactor. Pictures: Rosatom

'And lastly I would ask about warheads [housed at SCC as recently as the 1990s]. Have they been replaced or not? If not, in what conditions are they kept?'

He added: 'I'm not radical and I support the idea of nuclear energy. But the approach to its use, and to estimating risks, should be totally different. Russian nuclear enterprises as they are now are so dangerous that it'd definitely be better if they didn't exist at all.'

On April 6 it was reported in Seversk that construction was already under way of a pilot plant for the production of fuel for the experimental BREST-300 reactor.

The new reactor will work on special 'pills' made from the spent nuclear fuel and taken from the old reactors, with officials saying it will allow waste-free production of energy.

It is thought the pilot plant will begin operating in 2017, with the full new BREST-300 reactor up and running from 2020.

Prof Rikhvanov stressed that he is not anti-nuclear but insisted that it has to be used correctly with the proper safety and environmental considerations in place. An accident at a new plant at the Siberian Chemical Combine in February resulted in an employee receiving burns to his hands.

And, of course, a massive explosion at the site in April 1993 resulted in the release of a radioactive gas cloud in an incident listed as one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.

Prof Rikhvanov was one of the experts flown into Seversk following the incident, allowing him a rare glimpse inside the secretive city to analyse the state of the plant.

'First of all, we got to see what is there,' he recalled. 'I visited all the production facilities, I saw the reactors, the well where the waste is put to, and the warehouses where the nuclear warheads were stored with my own eyes.

'I saw about 23,000 decommissioned warheads stored there. And I doubt they have been moved elsewhere since then. By the way, at the time, they were stored in terrible conditions and I don't know what it is like now.'

The professor also found out that a facility for storing liquid radioactive waste in aquifers was located near to where the water supply was sourced on the Tom River.

Seversk


Seversk

Space image of the site on which stored containers of uranium hexafluoride in Seversk. Centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride enriched in the isotope U235. Pictures: Greenpeace, Atomsib

As far as he is aware, the situation remains the same. He said: 'We pump water from aquifers on the left side of the river, and store some of the most hazardous elements humanity has ever created in aquifers on the other side of the river.  

'There is a risk that it can get in to the water facilities under certain circumstances. Fortunately for now it's just a potential risk but if the problem is not tackled timely, it will arise sooner or later. And it will actually be an ecological catastrophe.'

Prof Rikhvanov said the easiest solution would be to build water facilities in a different location, or to stop producing liquid waste. Another concern he has is that the city is 'still not prepared' for a mass evacuation in the event of a major incident.

'The road to Maryinsk is terrible, the second branch of the railway hasn't spring out yet,' he said. 'There is also no separate railway to ship the radioactive materials to SCC without going through Tomsk. Such freights are now going through city railway station which creates additional risks.'

And how does he compare the state of the nuclear industry in Russia with Europe?

'I don't know. I have a feeling that we're moving backwards,' he said. “The industry has the same Soviet-times approach to everything related to the environment and health.

'I'm convinced that the discovery of atom is the greatest humanity's achievement. One uranium atom, a tiny particle invisible for the naked eye, produces as much energy as you get by burning a bucket of diesel oil. It'd be a sin not to use it. The question is how to use it.'

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