Environmental Effects of Radiation in the Russian Federation*
V. V. Kutsenko
Environmental Safety Administration of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources
Across the territory of Russia in 2002 the average concentration of radioactive substances in the layer of the atmosphere closest to Earth was practically unchanged from the levels in previous years; however, the potential danger from radioactive contamination and radiation accidents continues to exist.
Outside the regions contaminated as a result of the Chernobyl and Kyshtym disasters, average airborne concentrations of such radionuclides as cesium-137 and strontium-90 have practically returned to pre-accident levels. Practically everywhere except in those regions affected by these accidents, the gamma radiation exposure dose figures for 2002 were equal to background radiation levels.
The major radiation accidents of the past (Kyshtym in 1957 and Chernobyl in 1986) represent the clearest examples of violations of the stable condition of nature and sharp deviations in socioeconomic development. On the whole the period of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race left Russia with the most serious consequences in the form of radionuclide contamination of the natural environment, potentially dangerous atomic industry enterprises, and the lamentable results of the operating history of the nuclear submarine fleet of more than 30 years.
Rehabilitating areas contaminated by radionuclides requires decades of intensive work and capital investments comparable to those required for the creation of the modern nuclear weapons arsenal. At the same time we must realize that nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated in an instant, and neither can nuclear fuel cycle enterprises be shut down and dismantled or nuclear power be replaced by solar or other new power sources. Therefore, at present we must ensure the
environmentally safe operation of all industries involving the application of nuclear energy and radioactive isotopes.
As for the problems of ensuring environmental safety in the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, the opinion of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources is in support of projects and scientific innovations that facilitate the transformation of highly active nuclear materials containing long-lived radionuclides into short-lived materials. One temporary option is the creation of sites for the dry storage of spent nuclear fuel in special containers.
Taking into account that such projects are very expensive, each country must take steps on these questions to the extent allowed by its financial resources. However, in doing so countries must observe the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding radiation safety as well as national radioecological safety requirements.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS OF STORING AND RECYCLING EQUIPMENT USED IN THE NUCLEAR POWER INDUSTRY
Potential sources of industrial radioactive contamination of the environment in Russia mainly include facilities entailing danger from radiation, such as mining, chemical, and radiochemical complexes, enterprises that enrich nuclear materials or produce or dismantle nuclear weapons, special complexes for the collection and reprocessing of radioactive waste, temporary storage points, nuclear power plants, research reactors, shipbuilding enterprises involved in repairing and decommissioning nuclear-powered ships, and facilities of the Russian Navy and civilian icebreaker fleets.
The most serious problem involved in ensuring radiation safety lies in the presence of enormous volumes of liquid and solid radioactive wastes at radiochemical enterprises, such as the Mayak Production Association, the Siberian Chemical Complex, and the Mining-Chemical Complex. More than 90 percent of all the radioactive waste in Russia is concentrated at these three enterprises. The conditions under which the waste is stored create a real threat to adjoining areas, especially if extreme natural or industrial situations were to occur. The efforts of scientific and technical development efforts must be focused on resolving problems related to the safe storage of radioactive waste, and the financing of these efforts must be given top priority.
The decommissioning of Russian nuclear submarines that have been and are being taken out of service is another serious current problem of global scope. The radioecological situation that has been created at naval facilities and in areas where nuclear submarines are based, operated, repaired, and decommissioned is critical and fraught with the possibility that extreme situations may arise at any moment. Eliminating the consequences of such situations could require financial expenditures comparable to those needed to deal with the effects of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
In a time when massive numbers of nuclear submarines are being taken out of service, but the necessary financial and material resources for fully decommissioning and dismantling them are not being provided, it becomes unavoidable that these vessels will have to stand at anchor for long periods without their radioactive components being removed. This situation entails real nuclear and radioecological risks.
In the matter of reducing the level of danger presented by these sites, great significance must be attached to questions of ensuring environmental safety in the management of spent fuel and radioactive wastes, in the prolonged maintenance of reactor blocs in vessels at anchor, and in the long periods in which Russian nuclear submarines that have been removed from service are left standing without having their spent nuclear fuel removed. Meeting this challenge successfully depends not only on the amount of financing available but also on the technical capabilities of industrial enterprises to carry out an entire range of work involving radiation hazards.
The problem of managing liquid radioactive wastes has become somewhat less acute recently, and additional facilities for processing such wastes are being created in the Northern and Pacific fleets, including those created with the help of foreign investors (from the United States, Norway, and Japan).
A long path lies ahead if we are to resolve all the problems connected with radiation safety once and for all. The economic resources of the Russian state budget do not make it possible to resolve these problems in a compressed timeframe. Consequently, we must focus our efforts on seeking and putting into practice optimal technical innovations and low-waste technologies, making wider use of insurance mechanisms, and attracting foreign investment.