Nuclear and Radiation Waste: Prospects and Futility
Nuclear and Radiation Waste: Prospects and Futility

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant led to the largest ever release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Since then, solving the problems of radioactive waste management has been a priority task for Ukraine. A 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone was created around the ChNPP after the accident. And such a place exists nowhere else on the planet. A full life will not return to most of the Zone in the next 24 thousand years. In a word, it will never happen.

That’s why the presence of the Chernobyl Zone defines the strategy of Ukraine in the field of radioactive waste management. Most of the Zone is a deserted and abandoned area. Its part originally designated as a nuclear fuel waste storage facility. There is no civilian population in the Zone except for 135 self-settlers, living in 11 abandoned villages. Therefore, the Zone is ideal for creating a waste storage facility with their subsequent burial in deep geological formations.

The final disposal of nuclear waste is a matter of the future. The most developed countries are conducting research to identify the best technology for the final disposal of nuclear waste. Nuclear scientists from all over the world, including Ukrainian ones, are awaiting the conclusions of colleagues working with advanced technologies.

Until recently, all the fuel from the Chernobyl NPP has been stored in a “wet type” ISF-1. There are also 2 enterprises for radioactive waste management at the ChNPP. The first one is a complex for solid radioactive waste management. And the second one is a liquid radioactive waste processing plant. In addition, there is a near-surface storage of solid radioactive waste at the Chernobyl NPP. It’s operating on the basis of the Vector complex.

Nuclear fuel waste and radioactive waste: what’s the difference?

Not everyone understands the difference between spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and radioactive waste (RW). It’s not the same thing! RW contains radioactive isotopes of chemical elements that cannot be used. Thus, radioactive waste is the final product to be disposed of in accordance with special standards approved by the IAEA.

In contrast, most of the spent nuclear fuel consists of materials that can still be used (unburnt uranium and plutonium). SNF is characterized in some countries as high-level nuclear waste. Remains of nuclear fuel are widely used in industry, scientific activity, medicine, and agriculture. Initially, SNF undergoes “wet” holding for several years. It is kept in special storage tanks.

Until 2016, Ukraine has sent SNF to Russia for reprocessing and storage. This cost the Ukrainian budget a pretty penny: from 150 to 200 million dollars annually. Moreover, the cost of this “service” increased every year. As a result, the government decided to build on the territory of the Exclusion Zone its own storage facility – ISF-2 of a dry type.

In early September 2020, the new spent nuclear fuel storage facility began hot testing. On September 10, the first 9 spent nuclear units relocated from an old “wet” storage facility to the new one. Storing spent nuclear fuel for over 100 years is a big breakthrough for Ukraine. During this time, scientists will find environmental mechanisms for the final management of both spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

How did it all start?

History of the Ukrainian nuclear industry began with the development of uranium mining in the late 1940s. Then the USSR was just developing its military nuclear program. The Eastern Mining and Processing Plant started working in 1951. And the first kilogram of uranium concentrate obtained in 1959. Various branches of the Soviet atomic industry began to appear in the country, including in Ukraine. Most of them continue to function today.

In 1956, Turboatom manufactured the first turbines for test nuclear reactors. It became the main manufacturer and supplier of turbines for Soviet nuclear power plants. So, the construction of the first reactor in Ukraine at the ChNPP began in 1970. And in 1977 it finished. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were 15 operating nuclear reactors in Ukraine. In addition, 3 reactors were under active construction.

On April 26, 1986, an accident occurred at the 4th power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It greatly influenced not only the global nuclear industry, but also the fate of the USSR. A new concept of the development of Soviet society, Perestroika, gave impetus to the creation of a mass anti-nuclear movement. It coincided with the growing movement for independence in Ukraine. Later, the President, M. Gorbachev, said that the Chernobyl accident “became a root cause of the collapse of the USSR”.

So, being a part of the USSR, the Ukrainian parliament introduced a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors. The moratorium was cancelled in 1993 because nuclear power qualified as the foundation of the country’s energy independence. Ukraine set an ambitious goal to create a complete nuclear cycle on its territory. This would make it possible to produce nuclear fuel on the domestic market. Nuclear power qualified as a solution to the problems of energy sector. Why not? After all, Ukraine received nuclear fuel free of charge. However, we had to transfer nuclear weapons to Russia.

Ukraine’s nuclear independence: reality or fiction?

Today, nuclear industry in Ukraine continues to depend on Russia. The Russian Fuel Company TVEL is one of the suppliers of “fresh” nuclear fuel. So, Ukraine still sends most of its spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing.

Power units of Ukrainian nuclear power plants operate at their rated capacity. And 15 Russian-made power units are in operation at the nuclear power plants functioning in Ukraine. They work on fuel assemblies, which consist of tubes (fuel elements) filled with fuel pellets. Only uranium concentrate is produced at the facilities of the Eastern Mining and Processing Plant in Ukraine. However, the enrichment takes place in Russia, where fuel elements are produced from uranium raw materials. Then they are sold as ready-to-use assemblies.

Reducing dependence on Russia lies in Ukraine’s new cooperation with the American company Westinghouse Electric. As you know, TVEL had a monopoly on the supply of assemblies to Ukraine. But Westinghouse Electric could adapt its fuel to Ukrainian reactors. So, Ukraine was able to diversify its supplies. In 2018, only 60-70% of Russian fuel entered the country. In addition, a reserve developed. It will ensure smooth operation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants for 7 years. Nevertheless, Ukraine is still far from achieving full independence in the nuclear power industry.

The Chernobyl problem and the state of security of the Ukrainian nuclear industry caused serious concern to the governments of Europe and the United States. Since Ukraine gained independence, they have become involved in numerous projects to ensure Ukrainian nuclear safety. Special attention focused on the programs for implementation of the Ukrainian strategy for the safe management of nuclear waste.

The construction and installation of a new shelter over the destroyed reactor, a Safe Confinement, is an example of such international cooperation. It would be difficult for Ukraine to independently implement such large-scale projects. All kinds of failures that happened during the implementation of this process speak volumes. First of all, they demonstrate the inability of our nuclear industry to solve problems similar to those that developed in 1986.

Blackmail for the good?

Paradoxically, but Ukraine managed to use Chernobyl to develop its nuclear energy. And blackmail took place here. As you know, the world community began to demand to stop the ChNPP almost immediately after the accident. At that time, the 2nd power unit of the Khmelnytsky and the 4th power unit of the Rivne NPP remained unfinished in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian leadership began to manipulate the governments of the G7 countries with statements that there would be no shutdown of the ChNPP. Moreover, it would operate until funds were available in the country to complete the construction of new reactors. And blackmail worked successfully. The country received financial guarantees. So, the construction of two new rectors was over in 2004. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Atomic Energy Society financially supported this project.

After a long epic, the Chernobyl NPP stopped its work in December 2000. The terms of loans provided for the creation of an appropriate nuclear safety system in Ukraine. Also, they formulated the rules for further cooperation between the ChNPP and international donors. However, since most of the nuclear waste from the Chernobyl accident is useless, international cooperation is slow.

Russian armed aggression in the east of Ukraine and in Crimea has further complicated the situation. Ukraine has lost control over a nuclear waste storage facility in Donetsk and a nuclear research reactor in Sevastopol. However, it remained formally responsible for nuclear safety at these facilities. Moreover, hostilities are taking place only 200 km from the largest in Europe the Zaporozhye NPP. And there is a “dry” storage for spent nuclear fuel on its territory. The storage period for SNF located at the ChNPP in the “wet” ISF-1 expires in 2025. So, there is something to think about…