Nuclear repository could end up in Arctic

A near surface trench in the permafrost sandstones here at the southern island on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago is one of the options for a future nuclear waste repository.

Ten pre-selected locations in Northwest-Russia are now under consideration, including permafrost sites on Novaya Zemlya and Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Norway wants to have a say before any decisions are taken.


What happens if thousands of cubic meters of radioactive waste that need to be kept safe for thousands of years is buried in permafrost that could melt away due to climate changes? This is one of the tricky questions to be answered before nuclear waste repositories are built in the Russian Arctic.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom is working on a roadmap exploring where to build final repositories for nuclear waste.

The plans for Northwest-Russia were recently presented at the conference AtomEco 2013 in Moscow where both Russian and international experts on the issue participated. Key principles of environmental protection and radioactive safety policies were discussed.

Burying the waste directly into the permafrost on Novaya Zemlya or near the the coast to the Arctic Ocean in Nenets region are likely results of the ongoing examinations.

Norway wants insight and influence 
Neighboring Norway has cooperated with Russia for the last two decades on securing radioactive waste and scrapping Cold War submarines from the Northern fleet. The country’s radiation protection authorities want insight to Russia’s repository plans.

“Russian authorities have not raised the issue on localization of repository for radioactive waste with us lately,” says Ingar Amundsen to BarentsObserver.

Amundsen is head of section for international nuclear safety with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority and has a special responsibility for the cooperation with Russia.

“We have regular talks with Russian authorities on issues related to radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. We are interested in a dialogue on all aspects that may affect Norway. In this context, it is relevant to point to the Espoo Convention which lays down the rights of neighboring nations to be consulted in the environmental impact assessment work for new projects that may cause transboundary contamination,” says Ingar Amundsen. He says Russia has signed the convention, but not ratified it.

“This will be an important step, which we have clearly said to Russian authorities.”

Norway has from earlier years been informed that Russia is considering various options for building repositories for radioactive waste.
Eight locations in Barents Russia
Eight of the ten locations pre-selected to examine further are located in the Barents Region, while two are outside St. Petersburg.

When the final location for one or several repositories are selected, the plan is to move in most of the solid radioactive waste today stored at intermediate locations like the Andreeva Bay and Saida Bay on the Kola Peninsula, in Severodvinsk and at Leningrad nuclear power plant.

300,000 m3
In total, some 300,000 cubic meters of waste are expected to be awaiting the near-surface or deep-geological repositories by 2025, the year set for a repository to be up and running. 

Nuclear experts believe it is rather urgent to find a repository location for Russia’s radioactive waste. Today, potentially lethal waste is stored in containers partly outdoor at places like Andreeva Bay, Gremikha and Atomflot on the Kola Peninsula. Aleksandr Nikitin is Chariman of the St. Petersburg based Environmental Rights Center (ECR) Bellona and is advising Rosatom’s working group on finding a “final storage” for radioactive waste.

“There is no other way out. Radwaste cannot be stored in the temporary storages forever. The quantity of the repositories in the regions is calculated due to geological and economic conditions. Northwest-Russia needs in the nearest time at least 3-5 places for repositories,” says Aleksandr Nikitin to BarentsObserver.

Looking into the ten pre-selected locations Nikitin will not prefer one for another. “It is not possible to say precisely now. It will be clear after evaluation of all the places we have in the plan,” says Aleksandr Nikitin. 

The experts that met in Moscow reviewed organizational, economic and financial models of radioactive waste treatment systems. How to optimize the transport routes from today’s storages to the underrground radioactive waste repositories will also be studies closely. If sent to the Arctic, much of the transport will be by boats in harsh climate. 

Novaya Zemlya
It is not the first time Russia considers to bury part of the country’s nuclear waste on Novaya Zemlya. In the early 1990s, Minatom – the Ministry for Nuclear energy - made plans to use tunnels at the nuclear weapon test site as final repository. 

In the new plan, two locations on Novaya Zemlya will be examined. One location is in the Matochkin Strait dividing the northern and the southern islands of the archipelago. This is the area where Russia maintains a test-site for sub-critical tests of nuclear weapons. From 1963 to 1990, 39 real-bomb underground nuclear tests took place in tunnels and shafts in this area. A repository here will be drilled 600 meters into the mountain consisting of cristalline rock.

The second area to be examined on Novaya Zemlya is Belushaya Bay on the southwestern shores of the south island. This is the main settlement on Novaya Zemlya and the most suitable place for shipping since this part of the Barents Sea is normally ice-free year around. This repository, designed to take more than 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, will be a so-called near surface trench in the permafrost sandstones that are characteristic for the southern island of Novaya Zemlya. Planned depths are between 20 to 100 meters under the surface.

One of the challenges that will be studied in detail is how a potential melting of the permafrost, due to global warming, will influence a repository. In some areas, the depth of the permafrost can be several hundred meters. Nuclear waste consisting of long-lived isotopes need to be protected from the environment for thousands of years. 

Near Naryan-Mar and Arkhangelsk
Three other possible repository sites with permafrost are to be studied on the tundra in Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The locations are near the closed military airfield in Amderma and municipal region of Zapolyarny. 

In Arkhangelsk Oblast, two locations for possible nuclear waste repository are in the so-called White Sea plateau some 100 kilometers east of Arkhangelsk city, not far from where one of Russia’s largest diamond mines are located. At the Belomorsko-Kuloyskoe mountains the repository will be a near surface with a barrier of clay, while the location at the Shengaliskoye mountain would be a cristalline rock deep geological repository, according to the list presented in Moscow.

A third location in the southern part of the Arkhangelsk region is located in the Privodinskoye municipality in the Kotlas region. 

The last location that might end up with a nuclear graveyard is the Ust-Vymsky district in the republic of Komi.

Common for all locations on the list in Barents Russia are lack of nearby densely populated areas. 

Read more BarentsObserver articles on nuclear safety.