Would it be practical and safe to construct an integrated storage facility for spent nuclear fuel within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone?

With the objective to ensure nuclear safety in the country by way of effective functioning of the NPPs operating in Ukraine and fulfill “Energy Strategy of Ukraine till 2030”, the State Enterprise “National Nuclear Energy Generating Company “Energoatom” intends to construct the Integrated Storage Facility for Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) from WWER reactors located at the Ukrainian NPPs. It is planned to construct the storage facility within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

The question is not an easy one and requires a detailed answer. Therefore, we’ll try to divide our answer into several parts.

Practicability of the construction (is it necessary to construct?)

Majority of the Ukrainian citizens have no doubts in nuclear power advantages. Under the conditions of a rash increase in prices of gas and oil, nuclear power plants ensure stable generation of energy and compensate almost 50% of power consumption in our country. The world’s nuclear power also seems to change from the period of stagnation lasting since the Chornobyl accident to a development phase. Currently, there are over 440 operating power reactors in the world, number of the countries wishing to build NPPs is continuously increasing and many of them proceed from declarations to actions. China, India, Finland are constructing NPPs now, Lithuania and other states plan to build nuclear power plants in future. Some forecasts predict operation of approximately 1000-1500 NPPs in 2050. And this is an immense increase. However, as well as any other production activities NPP produce waste also. Its volume is significantly lower then the one of other productive industries, though the hazards imposed are much higher; thus, they require a specific treatment. Then, the key problem emerges: what to do with spent nuclear fuel? As per official predictive estimates of the IAEA, in 2020 accumulation of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) waste shall amount to an enormous figure – 450 000 tons. In 2006 the whole bulk of SNF was estimated to be approximately 200 000 tons. Hence, the problem of SNF management is critical for all countries.

There are two accepted ways of SNF management in the world. The first one considers SNF as terminal (required by nobody) waste and proposes to finally dispose it in deep geological formations. The other option refers to SNF as a valuable raw material and proposes to temporary store and further process it with the objective to extract valuable products and finally dispose only the residual (insignificant volumes of) high-level waste. Our country has accepted the so-called “postponed solution” for SNF management envisaging interim (50-100 years) storage of SNF. Why such a decision has been made? The point is that the NPPs operating in Ukraine were designed and constructed in the 70 th of the preceding century. It was then suggested that SNF from these NPPs would be returned to a fuel production plant and reprocessed there, i.e. valuable products (particularly plutonium, etc.) would be extracted and the rest of the waste would be disposed. Since the sovereignty was gained, such a solution turns to be too expensive, costs of transportation and processing are continuously increasing, high-level waste should be returned to Ukraine and disposed in this state anyway. All these cost much. Economical benefits of the SNF postponed management are based on the following reasons: the state shall preserve a valuable resource and save money on transportation of SNF and the waste residual after its processing.

There are two ways of such storage: “dry” i.e. storage of fuel assemblies in special metal and concrete containers filled with neutral gas and “wet” i.e. storage of fuel assemblies in special water-cooled pools. Dry storage is a widely accepted option of SNF storage, for example, since 1986 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued 40 licenses for more than 800 containers. It is presumed that in 2010 there will be over 50 storage facilities of such type. Though scientists have not reached a consensus on the safest type of storage, “dry” storage facilities are in the lead in terms of their cost-efficiency. That is the reason why a “dry” storage facility has been constructed at the Zaporizhzhia NPP; also “dry” storage facility is under construction at the Chornobyl NPP. And the decision to build the Integrated SNF Storage Facility of “dry” type for the rest of NPPs has been already made. Consequently, an unambiguous answer may be given to the question “to construct or not”: it should be constructed; otherwise there will be no room for spent nuclear fuel.

Is it possible to construct?

Safety assessments based on many scientific investigations and performed for storage facilities of such type demonstrate ability of their structure to ensure complete safety of public and the environment at their localization points. For instance, according to Canadian researchers (Ontario Power Generation dry fuel storage) even on condition the accident worst possible scenario takes place involving damage of 30% of fuel inside a container and damage of the container itself with a 30% release of radioactive gases, the public dose shall not increase 0.2% of an authorized (safe) level of exposure. That is the reason why storage facilities of such type are currently under construction throughout the world, both in densely populated Europe ( France, Spain, Czech) and in the USA. They are completely safe.

Thus, the first part of the question can surely be answered: construction is possible and necessary.

Now, the story is about localization of the Integrated SNF Storage Facility within the Chornobyl Zone.

The problem of a facility location is always a point at issue, because it is usually extremely difficult to find a solution to satisfy everyone. Basing on general principles for a construction site selection, the following factors are usually taken into account: convenient location (i.e. well-developed, the most comfortable, etc. transport roads accessing the site), an area should be enough to accommodate the construction and should not incur extremely high expenses for its arrangement, and finally, a site shall be of a reasonable cost (that is, to be cheap). Geological, hydrogeological, seismic and climatic conditions should allow performing design activity. Apart from the abovementioned criteria, the following safety factors shall be determinative for construction of a nuclear facility: a distance well removed from large cities, low population density, factors defining transport of radionuclides to a man and in the environment, and many other factors, including creation of new jobs, minimization of the cargo traffic associated with the activity and construction.

I am sure, the Integrated SNF Storage Facility should to be constructed exactly within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

In my opinion, one of the major points deciding in the favor of locating the Integrated SNF Storage Facility’s construction site within the Chornobyl Zone should be sought for among economic factors . As in such a case, first of all, the cheapest land taken out of economic use shall be used for the construction process. Management of this land is entirely in the competence of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine (the Law of Ukraine “On legal status of the territory, which was radioactively contaminated as a result of the Chornobyl accident”, Article 5). In case the Integrated SNF Storage Facility is constructed exactly within the Chornobyl zone, extra funds will be obtained for liquidation of the accident consequences, this is because the construction will bring the lands within the zone into limited, though economic use, and thus finally contribute to the accident aftermaths elimination; and this is in full compliance with the abovementioned Law. I mean decontamination of a certain area within the zone, renovation of Ovruch – Semihody – Slavutych railway. Finally, the construction project within the zone will secure employment for some of the Chornobyl NPP personnel, redundant as a result of the power units decommissioning, and increase employment in the Polissia and Ivankov Districts due to servicing of the traffic (renovation of the railway) and involvement into the construction process. The site within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone completely meets the localization requirements established for nuclear installations and RAW storage facilities, as it provides for protection of public and the environment against the effects produced by the Integrated SNF Storage Facility (the factors are: current use of lands, favorable geology and hydrology, climate, territorial peculiarities of radionuclides migration, relief peculiarities, distribution of population density, and possibility of emergency and protective measures implementation, etc). Moreover, we should not forget the necessity to construct a geological storage facility, and conditions for its construction are also available within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Subsequently, it will be much easier to transport nuclear fuel waste and high-level waste. In other words: we should think about the future.

In conclusion, it should be mentioned that construction of the Integrated SNF Storage Facility within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone shall in no way interfere with or affect both operation of the facilities existing in the reserved fund of Ukraine and arrangement of a special conservation area within the Chornobyl Zone, which is mentioned in the Conclusion of the State Expert Assessment performed by the Ministry for Environmental Protection of Ukraine. This is because the northern boundary of the conservation area is located no less than 20km to the south from the prospective construction site and none of the construction noise shall disturb animals in the nature reserve.

(The question was answered by Boris Ia. Oskolkov, Doctor of Science, Senior Research Assistant, Head of Industrial Ecology and Expertise Department of the International Radioecology Laboratory subordinated to the Chornobyl Center)