Storage Facility of Discord: Spent Nuclear Fuel will stay in Ukraine

Please note: this article was originally published in Forbes Ukraine.  It has been translated into English for the purposes of this reprinting.

Will it be “a strategic raw material” or “nuclear waste” – the decision has to be made immediately

Inna Koval-July 31, 2015, 12:00

For the last six months Ukraine has not transported spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from its NPPs – South Ukraine, Rivne, and Khmelnytskyi – for processing and storage to Russia. Fuel assemblies are being stored at the in-plant cooling pools. The reason is: the Russian side tried to revise unilaterally the existing conditions of formation of the price for services on SNF management and correspondingly contract conditions.

In 2011–2014 the prices for these services were formed in rubles and an annual increase was only about 5%, that was significantly lower than inflation indicators in both Russia and Ukraine. These services in equivalent cost Ukraine the amount about $200 million annually. Today a political factor is added to the relations between two countries in addition to the economic factor.

According to International requirements on nuclear and radiation safety the reactor cooling pools should always have in reserve sufficient places for the complete unloading of the reactor core. If this space is not available, then a unit has to be shut down. In Ukraine, where 60% of power electricity is generated by NPPs, the shutdown of any unit will result in serious problems in total balance of electric energy supply.

In addition, starting of 2018 Ukraine is obliged not only to keep spent fuel at its territory but also to return from Russia all products of its processing as vitrified radioactive waste (VRW).

Everything in the house

In compliance with the “Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management” dated September 05, 1997 all nuclear waste and SNF belong to the country where they were used and should be stored at its territory. Ukraine has ratified this document in 2000.

That is why all the contracts with Russia for SNF processing contain the provision according to which Ukraine in 2018 should start to accept back the products of its fuel processing. Already today Russians very persistently requires signing a contract for return of such waste with strict penalties for non-compliance.

Already 10 years ago Ukraine has joined the option of “deferred decision” according to which SNF as a strategic raw material is sent for storage “till better times*. In December 2005 after the tender a contract was signed with American Company Holtec International for the construction of the Central spent nuclear fuel storage facility (CSFSF) in the Chornobyl zone.

In compliance with the contract the construction should have been started in 2007 with commissioning in 2010. However, the construction has not been started yet. Moreover, once elections in the country start or there is any move forward in the project, obvious and hidden forces come up compromising the project.

The CSFSF is an industrial site where a facility for SNF transfer from transport rail containers to stationary storage systems will be located. There will be 94 such systems in total; it is estimated for 16 529 fuel assemblies from Khmelnytskyi, Rivne, and South Ukraine NPPs.

Ukraine is the only country in the world which legally requires to use storage casks with two protective walls on its territory. Holtec International has developed and in 2008 presented to the Ukrainian side such cask – HI-STORM. The storage period in it is more than 100 years.

The transportation scheme will remain the same, but before SNF was being loaded in Russian containers and “nuclear trains” were carrying it through the entire territory of Ukraine to Russia for processing. After commissioning of the storage facility fuel will remain in the country. For the last five years Ukraine has already paid to Russia $1 billion for these services.

Broken Vase

Kiev recently hosted a series of events devoted to the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, where experts both from Ukraine and foreign countries were invited, as well as representatives of the “green” movement. It is the latter who the most loudly oppose the project of construction the Central Storage Facility. A representative of the Association of Greens of Ukraine Oleksandr Shcherban says that they are afraid of a new “nuclear explosion”, which can occur in the storage facility.

“Spent nuclear fuel does not explode. If one imagines the impossible that a cask will get some huge damage from outside, then it will just crumble to pieces, like a broken vase. The area under these fragments will get radiation contamination; and it will be in serious need of decontamination – that’s what could theoretically happen “– explains Olga Kosharna, the Director of Information and Public Relations of the “Ukrainian Nuclear Forum” Association.

Volodymyr Kholosha, Deputy General Director on Establishment of an Integrated Complex for SNF Management, in his interview to the Forbes correspondent said that once the experts had modeled “a beyond design basis accident “, when three airplanes F-16 crash against the same point of the cask. And in this case the radius of spilling fragments will be up to one kilometer. But this situation is simply impossible, says our interlocutor.

The strength of the casks was tested by Sandia National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy. The casks can withstand a drop of all existing military and civil aircrafts and retain leak-tightness even with further fire of dozens of tons of aviation fuel.

In addition, in 2011 Holtec’s casks withstood the earthquake and tsunami on the coast of Japan. Fukushima NPP still cannot recover from the impact of the nature, but the casks nearby continue to function and keep the SNF without any issues or damages.

But the “green” are against  

Today, the technology of Holtec International is utilized in about fifteen countries on all the continents, including Sweden, Spain, the United Kingdom, Mexico and South Africa. Another five countries, including China and Brazil, are switching to use Holtec’s cask systems for dry SNF storage. In total, in the United States and abroad 740 storage systems are installed – both near-station and centralized.

Nils Boehmer, Executive Director of Bellona International Environmental Organization, has confirmed that the construction of centralized storage facilities is a general trend in the world, since this is the best way to ensure the safety of the fuel storage and a cost effective solution. This path has been already taken by China, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the UK, Switzerland, and Japan.

Bellona is one of the most respected “green” organizations in the world. It was established in 1986; headquartered in Norway, staff with field-specific experts for each sector of fuel and energy industry. Bellona monitors the nuclear industry worldwide.

But the Ukrainian “greens” have their own opinion. After all the speeches and reports on safety, Oleksandr Shcherban still stated to the nuclear specialists: “We understand your arguments and do not question your professionalism, but we do not like the way you conducted a public hearing in 2008”. Then Mr. Shcherban said that they had done their survey of 100-km area of the construction of the Central Storage Facility and found out that only 20% of people know that such a storage facility would be constructed. And the remaining 80% do not know this and expressed dissatisfaction that their opinions were not asked.

Volodymyr Kholosha recalled that as early as 2005 the Verkhovna Rada legislated its exclusive right to decide whether to build or not to build new nuclear facilities in Ukraine. On February 9, 2012 the Law of Ukraine “On Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Location, Design and Construction of the Central Storage Facility for Spent Nuclear Fuel form Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plants with VVER Reactors” was adopted. With regard to the public hearings, they were held in full compliance with legislation, otherwise the law would not have been adopted.

Secret interests 

However, behind the speeches of the “green” may be even more serious interests. Today the contract for the construction of the storage facility is divided – now all the design work at the site, running communications and access roads is being implemented by KIEP, while Holtec International supplies process equipment, the first batch of the casks, and transfers the technology.

The cost of works is 620 million UAH for the infrastructure and $300 million for the technology and supply of equipment from Holtec International. Funding must come at the expenses of Energoatom and a loan of US banks. However, the National Energy and Utilities Regulatory Commission of Ukraine still does not want to include the funds for the construction of the Central Storage Facility into the tariff of Energoatom.

As early as April 2014 the Cabinet of Ministers permitted the development of land management projects with further transfer to NAEK Energoatom for permanent use of the land plots for construction of the Central Storage Facility. But for more than a year Energoatom is failing to document the land.

“The Land Code requires that the project mandatory has a signature of the architect, but the site is in the Exclusion Zone, and an architect is not foreseen there according to the Budget Code. There are no architects who can endorse it”, – Yuriy Nedashkovskyi, the President of NAEK Energoatom, says about the situation, – “The only way that we can see to resolve this issue is to collect all sorts of comments from the ministries and agencies so that the Cabinet of Ministers would make a final decision”.

Plan “Anti-Bribe” 

Skeptical comments are sounded among some politicians regarding the cost of the contract with Holtec International as well. The fact is that the initial contract concluded 10 years ago estimated company service in the amount of $126 million, but today this cost has increased up to $300 million. Holtec International explains this by changed conditions at the global market, at the end the world economy passed the financial crisis of 2008–2009; crediting conditions have been a little changed also.

“Holtec International completely opened for NAEK Energoatom all the data on material costs, labor costs, rates, etc. The representatives of NAEK Energoatom audited all the expenses. Including the headquarters in Marlton, New Jersey, and at Holtec Manufacturing Facilities in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and Orrvilon, Ohio”, – this was the official answer from Holtec to Forbes’s request.

In reply to the direct question addressed to Holtec’s representative by Forbes correspondent whether a Ukrainian official could get a “kickback”, Dr. William Woodward said that there is a law in the USA aimed at prevention of attempts of bribery of foreign official by American business. That means that if a citizen of the USA is caught on bribing foreigners, he/she would be sued by USA legislation and could be imprisoned for decades. And nobody wants such developments.

“We strictly comply with all the requirements of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of the US Congress and expect unconditional coordinated activities of all employees of Holtec in the work with our clients and regulatory authorities while creating our products and services”, – William Woodward, Senior Vice-President on International Projects of Holtec International, officially replied.

To Keep on a Hook

Now the same company, Holtec International, continues another project of construction of a similar storage facility for fuel of Units 1-3 of the Chornobyl NPP in the Chernobyl zone, only 12 kilometers away from the site allocated for the CSFSF. This fuel is stored in reactor cooling pools and storage facilities constructed in the Soviet times. The time has already came to defuel the pools. Volodymyr Kholosha confirmed that the technology on both Holtec storage facilities is virtually identical.

In June this year at the territory of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, a new centralized storage of the “Radon” corporation was opened to accommodate nuclear waste. About 300,000 radioactive sources used in construction, medicine, engineering and other industries, will be transferred from regional storage facilities to the centralized one. Also in the Chornobyl zone there are three landfills for high-level radioactive waste and nine landfills for low- and medium level waste. Their capacities have almost run out; and soon it will be necessary to construct new ones.

No one speaks against these projects, although the information is publicly available, and these are the same “nuclear facilities”, as the CSFSF. However, these nuclear waste repositories are beyond the responsibility of NAEK Energoatom. It is important for the Company to start construction of the central storage facility. If it starts in 2015, then the first batch of spent nuclear fuel will be accepted by the end of 2017. Just in time of the expiration of the contract with Russia.

“Slight misunderstandings” of the issue of transfer of spent nuclear fuel does not occur for the first time. In early 1990s, the Ukrainian nuclear power plants faced the situation when the in-plant pools were filled-up with fuel assemblies and the question was what to do with it. After lengthy negotiations, on January 14, 1994 Ukraine and Russia signed an intergovernmental agreement on scientific and technical and economic cooperation in the nuclear energy industry.

Until 1998, the Ukrainian nuclear power plants exported SNF on their own under the contracts signed with Russian processing companies. The most far-sighted proved to be the Zaporizhzhya NPP – by 2001 there was a dry storage facility built for spent nuclear fuel using the technology of the US Company Duke Engineering. And today it is fully autonomous regarding the SNF management.

The other three nuclear power plants have remained Russian hostages. And today, someone really does not want to let them out of the zone of influence. And through them do the same to Ukraine. Even more, get Ukraine hooked on a penalty needle.

*Reference:

Nuclear reactors use only 3-4% of uranium of the fuel to produce electricity, and 96-97% remain in the pellet. For a long time they were sent for processing, in fact throwing away the most expensive component of fuel. Today, the whole world has recognized SNF as strategic raw materials.

The majority of the countries in the world, with own nuclear industry accepted the policy of so-called deferred decision – spent fuel is installed in storage facilities till the technologies in the nuclear energy industry become enough sophisticated. Today new types of reactors are being designed, technology is being developed, which will make the process of re-use of uranium from spent nuclear fuel economically feasible. It will take other 25-30 years for the world science to reach a new level in the nuclear industry. But the breakthrough may happen even earlier.

Publisher: Forbes Ukraine

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Written by Amy Grant

Amy Grant is a graphic designer and web developer. She is the founder of the Southwark Historical Society, a volunteer based group that studies the Southwark Historical District located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.