Enlargement

Soviet-era atomic plant troubles Lithuania

10.07.12 @ 08:57

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - Construction of a nuclear waste storage facility meant to house 15,550 spent fuel rod assemblies from Lithuania's decommissioned Soviet-era nuclear power plant, Ignalina, is almost four years behind schedule.

  • Dials inside the Ignalina's reactor 1 control room (Photo: EUobserver)

The facility will contain the rods on-site for 50 years in 190 dry-store casks, but funding disputes with the European Commission, Lithuanian political foot-dragging and overall poor planning have thrown it and possibly Ignalina's entire decommissioning project off schedule.

Zilvinas Jurksus, director general of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP), told reporters on Monday (9 July) that the risk of contamination is real if the rods are not properly stored.

"It is one thing to build a unit [reactor]; it is another thing to dismantle it. The further we postpone, the more it will cost," he warned.

The rods should eventually be removed from the temporary facility and then stored deep underground for hundreds of years. The location of the burial site has yet to be determined.

The storage facility comes with a €193 million price tag and should have been completed in 2009. But new cask designs led to delays first to 2011 and then again to December 2013, say INPP.

The German-based engineering company GNS, which is contracted to build the casks for the facility, also introduced "deviations" from the original design which could imperil their safety, claims Jurksus.

INPP says it needs the EU to disburse an additional €770 million in its next seven-year budget cycle to be able to continue dismantling the site. Their total estimated cost for up until 2020 would be €870 million, with Lithuania footing €100 million of the bill.

The European Commission, however, proposed €210 million in additional assistance and then only up until 2017.

Should the commission fail to front the extra money, INPP claims it will not be able to operate and maintain the "safe keeping and cooling of fuel in the rectors and pools," nor it will be able to operate and maintain the spent fuel storage facilities currently under construction.

"If we don’t get the financing then we'll have to dismiss two-thirds or more than 1,000 staff," says Jurksus. Around 700 would have to remain to operate the storage facilities.

The company also says the unusual nature of the Soviet-era reactors make them complex to fully dismantle.

The channelised large power reactors (RBMK) are a Soviet-era novelty and the only of its kind on EU soil. The Russians still have similarly designed reactors but are considerably less powerful, at around 1,000 megawatts.

Aside from the Lithuanians, no one has ever attempted to decommission an RBMK. Ignalina has two RBMK-1,500 megawatt units. The first was shut down in 2004 and the second in 2009.

"Nobody knows the state of the reactor. We are now working on the reactor core itself to find out," said Jurksus. He believes the graphite is probably highly contaminated.

The entire site, aside from few administrative buildings and the storage facility, should be covered in grass by 2029, but Jurksus says another ten years is more feasible, with possibly up to €50 million in additional capital per year needed.

The total allocated cost of Ignalina NPP decommissioning is already estimated at €2.9 billion phased over 2000 to 2029. Just over €1 billion has been allocated by the EU until 2014 with Lithuania contributing 12 percent.

Lithuania had agreed to shut down the first reactor under the terms of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) grant agreement in 1994.

They then agreed in 2002 to shut down the second reactor by the end of 2009 to help conclude EU membership negotiations.

Inside the core

Ina Dauksiene, a 16-year veteran of the site, led a small group of journalists through two changing rooms, a labyrinth of pink-coloured stairwells, hallways, and then down a 500-metre light-blue corridor before reaching the inside of the first reactor.

The floor, inside the towering reactor, is encased in graphite stacks and concrete with a water reservoir below. Tubes, some 10 metres in length, hang from the opposite wall.

A single engineer monitors the reactor from inside a control room that once employed 70 people. Dust has since collected on the analogue dials with inscriptions written in Russian Cyrillic above gauges, buttons and monitors.

Outside, the surrounding area is plush with pine forests and a vast lake, next to INPP, touches the shores of Belarus a short distance away.

The closest town, Visaginas, is only 8 km from INPP and was purposely built by the Soviets to house the engineers and workers who would maintain it. The town is reportedly run-down, with high unemployment.