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Russia: More Soviet-era radioactive accidents admitted

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 29, 2001) Representatives of the Zheleznogorsk Combine have now admitted that there have been accidents involving substantial radioactive discharges at the Zhelezhnogorsk plant (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26) which produces plutonium for military use. Earlier they had claimed that they had never happened.

(551.5293) Bellona Foundation - Fragments of nuclear fuel with very high radioactivity level were found on the banks of the Yenisey River in Siberia. Based on these findings, experts from Krasnoyarsk Biophysics Institute proved that Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine suffered at least two serious accidents 30 and 20 years ago. Nuclear industry officials have claimed until now that the combine is absolutely safe.

According to the Combine spokesman, Pavel Morozov, the discharges happened during the first years of the combine's operation when radioactive materials were dumped into the Yenisey River. "Yes, the operation of our combine can be traced down to Igarka [a town in the Russian Arctic], but those [traces] are just spots with high level of cesium-137 content," Morozov said. According to scientists, the Yenisey River is polluted with radionuclides for a length of 1,500 km, right down to the Arctic Ocean.

Currently the specialists of the Combine are working on eliminating the pools with liquid radioactive waste, which were generated during production of weapons-grade plutonium. The first of the seven pools has been already emptied, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the chief engineer, Yury Revenko, preparation for the liquid radwaste elimination began 10 years ago when two plutonium production reactors were shut down. Equipment was manufactured specially for cleaning the steel tanks filled with liquid radwaste.

The Russian nuclear waste import bill will be sent straight to Russian President Vladimir Putin for approval. This is because the Federation Council has not considered the bill during the 14 working days following the Duma's approval on 6 June (see WISE News Communique 550.5287, "Russia wants foreign nuclear waste; lack of exporters"). Under the Russian constitution, this means that the Federation Council has approved the bill by default.
AFP, 27 June 2001

Now Combine officials say they will turn their attention to the clean-up of the Yenisey River. 30 years of the Combine's operation led to high radionuclides content in river's sediments. Besides, several emergency discharges of radioactive water used as reactor coolant took place. At present, the Combine is making maps of the radioactive hot spots. The river clean-up, however, can begin only after the state allocates the proper funds, which as Revenko said seems unlikely now.

Zheleznogorsk, also known as "the Iron City", is situated approximately 50km north of Krasnoyarsk on the eastern side of the River Yenisey in Krasnoyarsk county, Siberia. The city has a population of 90,000 and was known by its code name Krasnoyarsk-26 until 1994. The Mining and Chemical Combine with its three plutonium producing reactors and a radiochemical plant are well shielded 250m to 300m underground. The first reactor was shut down on 30 June 1992, and the second followed on 29 September the same year and the third (AD-2) has been in operation since 1964.

In 1985, a facility to store spent nuclear fuel from the VVER-1000 reactors (third generation of Russian light water reactors) was taken into use. This storage facility is right next to the half-completed RT-2 reprocessing plant. At present the facility stores a total of 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel, though it has a capacity of 6,000 tonnes.

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