Vitalii Petruk: “We have modern storage facility for radioactive waste, but sometimes we do not have money even for gasoline to fill it”

Vitalii Petruk, Head of the State Agency of Ukraine on the Exclusion Zone Management, told UNIAN about activities conducted in the Exclusion Zone, which was arranged after the accident at Chornobyl NPP. He also spoke of the radioactive waste management system functioning in conditions of chronic underfinancing, and shared his opinion whether Ukrainians should illegally visit the Exclusion Zone as stalkers.

Radioactive waste management, one more important, but less known area, was under development along with the nuclear energy in Ukraine. The system of special plants was constructed in Soviet times for storage of such waste. However, the accident at Chornobyl NPP, the consequences of which Ukraine and the international community continues to fight to this day, adjusted its own requirements.

Within international assistance, Ukraine had constructed or currently completes construction of many modern radioactive waste management facilities in the Exclusion Zone. For example, the arch over ChNPP-4 will be commissioned this year, as well as spent nuclear fuel storage facility-2 and solid and liquid radioactive waste processing plants.

However, relevant financing is needed for proper operation of infrastructure constructed at the expense of foreigners. For these purposes, the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management has prepared bills to restore the intended use of the Radioactive Waste Management Fund. Vitalii Petruk, Head of the State Agency of Ukraine on the Exclusion Zone Management, told UNIAN about the legislative initiatives, the current state of radioactive waste management system and further fate of the Shelter.

Vitalii, what radioactive waste management system do we have in Ukraine today?

Once nuclear power emerged, there appeared another field of activity called radioactive waste management, which is one of the main directions of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management. Our Agency is also responsible for the creation of radioactive waste management infrastructure.

There is a following principle: those who produce waste have no right to dispose it.

Therefore, some legal entities produce radioactive waste and others deal with its storage and disposal. According to our legislation, radioactive waste is owned by the state, so the state shall ensure the system for its safe management. If the Energoatom Company (operator of Ukrainian NPPs – UNIAN) produced radioactive waste in its activities, it shall transfer it to the state. Thus, the state shall manage it in a way to ensure safety of people and environment. In connection with the activities of enterprises producing radioactive waste, the state now has a sort of the radioactive waste management system.

There is a complex of special facilities in Ukraine for radioactive waste storage. For example, all western region of Ukraine is within responsibility of the special plant located near Lviv. The central region is under responsibility of the special plant in Kyiv. Similar special plants are located near Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro and Donetsk (that is temporarily beyond control of the Ukrainian government). Special plants are state specialized enterprises included into the State Corporation Ukrainian State Association “Radon”. They have been created in the 1960s for long-term storage or disposal of radioactive waste and different radiation sources. For example, these are devices for medical procedures, where radioactive elements are applied. After service life expiration, they turn into waste.

Who produces radioactive waste in Ukraine?  

The Energoatom Company produces almost 95% of radioactive waste. For example, these are operational waste and waste of Chornobyl origin, i.e. those generated after the accident in 1986. It can be anything: reinforced concrete structures, metal or sand. Besides, radioactive waste is produced by industrial enterprises, medical institutions and research reactors (Kyiv and Kharkiv). Moreover, there are thermoelectric generators RITEGs in Odesa used on lighthouses for their off-line operation. These RITEGs are now located in the specialized plant in Odesa.

How is radioactive waste treated at special plants?  

Radioactive waste is just transported there. Physical protection is ensured around the plant perimeter, and waste is stored there. Ukraine has the state radioactive waste management program, which envisages that since the time when the Exclusion Zone has been arranged, near-surface storage facilities and other infrastructure would have been built on its territory, namely the Vector Complex. Everything accumulated at special plants during the 1960s shall be transported to the Vector Complex. It is necessary to state that 95% of radioactive waste has already been located in the Exclusion Zone. I mean waste generated after the accident at ChNPP. Therefore, special plants shall become places for temporary storage of radioactive waste. For example, if a radioactive item is detected somewhere at border in Odesa, it shall first be transported to the special plant near Odesa. Then, it would be put in a relevant container and it would be sent to the Vector Complex.

What situation is at the Vector Complex today?  

This is a complex of facilities under construction. Stage I has already been completed. Other facilities are from 70 to 95% completed. In general, it is still under construction and is not commissioned. The centralized storage facility for spent radiation sources has been built on this site. The storage facility is intended for long-term storage of radioactive waste in containers. Waste that cannot be processes will be stored here.

Will there be other facilities for radioactive waste processing?

Of course, there will be solid waste processing plant and liquid waste processing plant. These plants are locate on ChNPP site. This year, both plants shall be commissioned. It is necessary to state that liquid radioactive waste is primarily made solid (evaporated and cemented), then it shall be disposed of. This year is a key year for us, because we will complete commissioning of a new safe confinement (arch), spent fuel storage facility-2 (ISF-2) for ChNPP fuel and we shall commission two abovementioned plants. The state objective is to construct infrastructure in the Exclusion Zone territory for safe transport of radioactive waste from all the special plants. I will give an example for better understanding. The Kyiv special plant is located within the capital, that means the city with population over three million people. The control area of this plant covers 160 hectares and at the same time, the Exclusion Zone is located not far from it (at a distance of 100 km). I think, there shall be a better way to use this territory in the capital, than to store radioactive waste there.

What makes it difficult to transport all radioactive waste to the Exclusion Zone?  

Many facilities for radioactive waste management are constructed in Ukraine. However, all of them are constructed on donor funds. There is no facility built on budget funds.

For example, facilities at ChNPP are constructed on funds of the international community. Forty donor states send their funds to the Chornobyl Shelter Fund. EBRD acts as the manager and coordinator of these funds. Liquid waste processing plant, solid waste processing plant are constructed on these funds. The plant for production of barrels and containers for radioactive waste has been constructed on these funds as well. The centralized storage facility for spent radiation sources has been constructed on funds of Great Britain and European Commission.

It is necessary to add that the centralized storage facility for spent radiation sources costed about 12 million pounds. The storage facility is now in the hot test mode. Therefore, procedures for the storage of spent radiation sources are tested there. This year these tests will be completed. In future, we shall transport all radioactive waste from special plants to this and other storage facilities in the Exclusion Zone. This will give us an opportunity to improve strategic safety and decrease global risks.

Physical protection systems at special plants have been updated at the expense of the USA. Ukrainian party is responsible only for maintenance and operation of these facilities and whole infrastructure.

As a result, we have a situation, when all help us to build, construct, and then these facilities fall into the state ownership. However, the state funds them using the residual principle. Costs are allocated only for salaries and payment for utility services. Average salary of an expert having high professional level and working at the centralized storage facility for spent radiation sources is about six thousand hryvnias. At the same time, salaries in the Energoatom Company are much higher. Thus, we have a problem with staff retaining. The humor is that we have the most modern storage facility for spent radiation sources in Europe, but we do not have money for gasoline to transport waste from outdated special plants and fill it with such a waste. We construct the most modern facilities, but we do not have money for operation.

How is it possible to solve the underfinancing problem?

Currently, we have a legal and regulatory framework for proper functioning of radioactive waste management system. Moreover, we even have money.

The State Fund for Radioactive Waste Management (Radioactive Waste Fund) has been created in 2008. This fund operates on the principle “polluter pays”. According to Energoatom Company rate, the cost of each kilowatt includes costs intended for this fund. As it was planned, Radioactive Waste Fund should have been accumulated within the special fund of the state budget and spent only for the intended purpose, that is to construct and operate radioactive waste management infrastructure. This fund worked as expected only one year. In 2010, it was decided to terminate intended use of these funds. Since then, these funds began to be used for the maintenance of the Agency, Exclusion Zone, ChNPP, payment of salaries and other purposes according to the allocation by the Ministry of Finances. Therefore, these funds are transferred to the budget, from where they are allocated to current costs, but new infrastructure is not created. This creates a situation that the Energoatom Company has accumulated waste and shall give it to us, but we do not have enough opportunities to accept it. Moreover, we sometimes have conflicts with donors. The government of Great Britain notes that the centralized storage facility for spent radiation sources has been constructed, but we cannot ensure its operation at full capacity.

Therefore, priority of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine and our agency for 2017 is to restore intended use of the Radioactive Waste Fund. We want these funds to fall into a special fund and be used exclusively at enterprises of the Radon Corporation, and all the other things to be financed from the state budget as it is required by applicable law. The annual budget of the agency for 2017 includes two billion hryvnias, 800 million out of which goes to the Ukrainian contributions to the Shelter Fund, about 890 million out of which goes to the Shelter maintenance and ChNPP decommissioning. The Energoatom Company in 2017 can transfer about 800 million hryvnias, which could be in the Radioactive Waste Fund, but instead will go to the state budget fund. We have already developed and agreed in the central executive authorities two bills: one bill amending the Budget Code and another bill amending the Law “On Radioactive Waste Management”, which restore accumulating statues and intended use of the Radioactive Waste Fund. Currently, these documents are in the Cabinet of Ministers. In May they will be considered by the Government.

Are 800 million hryvnias enough to operate the infrastructure constructed on international funds?

Fair enough. It is necessary to note that this fund shall be of an accumulative nature and, during several years (under condition of limited use), it will accumulate a significant sum that will allow us to construct a new expensive facility. The budget of Ukraine is planned for one year. No facility can be constructed and commissioned during one year. The same applies to another radioactive waste disposal facility, which we shall construct according to the state programs, namely the deep geological formation for eternal disposal of high level waste. Such a facility will cost billions of hryvnias.

What is a geological repository?  

This is a well for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste drilled at a depth of over 500 m in granite or clay (granite and clay have good properties for radiation confinement). Ukrainian scientists study the possibility of arranging geological repositories, consider different regions and geological formations. The Exclusion Zone is also in this list. High-level waste from the destroyed ChNPP-4 (thousands of tons) shall be disposed of in such a geological repository.

Waste generated after spent nuclear fuel processing shall also be disposed in deep geological formations. If we do not restore the Radioactive Waste Fund, we will not be able to complete current projects. Therefore, it is too early to talk about financing and construction of the geological repository.

It is necessary to note that requirements for geological repository are such to ensure that radionuclides will not release through its barriers even after one million years. Construction of such disposal facilities requires large funds and many studies. It is a slow process worldwide. In my opinion, even your generation will not have enough time to create such a repository.

Let’s talk about the future of the Shelter. What will happen when the New Safe Confinement will be put into operation (after 30 November 2017)?

This process is called transformation of the Shelter into an environmentally safe system. This process is divided into three stages. The first stage was carried out at the expense of Ukraine and the international community. As a result of activities conducted in 1997-1998 and 2004-2008, we managed to achieve a significant decrease of the Shelter collapsing for a period up to 15 years till 2023. This gave us time to construct the New Safe Confinement over the destroyed ChNPP-4 and to take a set of other measures within the Shelter Action Plan. The second stage is the construction and commissioning of the New Safe Confinement (Arch) with operating life not less than 100 years, which will give an opportunity to proceed to the third stage. The third stage covers the dismantling of unstable structures, solution of the problem with fuel containing materials and radioactive waste of the Shelter.

When do you plan to start dismantling of Shelter unstable structures?

First two stages have been implemented with assistance and funding of the international community. The third stage is the responsibility of Ukraine. This year we will start to develop projects to understand our further actions.
The dismantling of unstable structures will be started in 2018. The process for dismantling of the old sarcophagus shall be as follows: inside the arch, there are cranes with carts that can lift loads. We are going to install robots on these carts that will cut parts of the old sarcophagus and move them to a safe container. Since the sarcophagus is very large, according to preliminary assessments, the process of its dismantling can take up to 50 years. However, according to the approved strategy, we shall remove unstable structures up to 2023.

This means, despite the fact that the arch has been constructed, the most difficult issues are still ahead?

Exactly. Even after dismantling, we will need to decide what to do next. We even do not really recognize what is inside. For example, there are approximately 1,500 tons of fuel containing masses. The development of further action strategy is a scientific issue, but it shall obviously include obligatory and clear stage covering the dismantling of unstable structures of the Shelter. Therefore, negotiations with the EBRD are ongoing.

When the tender will be announced to select a company that will do the dismantling?

This year we plan to complete the project, which will describe the dismantling itself. After this, we would be able to talk about the preparation and tendering.

What are you going to do with these unstable structures of the Shelter?  

First, they will be located inside the confinement, then they will be fragmented and moved to that infrastructure that we already have. We also consider a possibility to store these structures in ChNPP-4 turbine hall located under the Arch.

This year, Vakulenchuk facility resulting from Soviet military programs was liquidated. What are your further actions on this program?

Today we have three such facilities; Deliatyn in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Vakulenchuk in Zhytomyr Oblast and Tsybuleve in Kirovohrad Oblast. Vakulenchuk is the radioactive waste storage facility on the territory of the military unit. We retrieved waste out of there and transported a part of spent radiation sources to the Kyiv special plant for temporary storage. Another part (solid radioactive waste) was transported to the Exclusion Zone. We do not have enough money to immediately transport all radioactive waste to the Exclusion Zone. We expect that with the support of NATO we would be able to liquidate “Deliatyn” and “Tsybuleve”.

Do you fix cases of restricted access violation, for example, export of scrap metal or other items from the Exclusion Zone?

Responsibility for the protection of the Zone is assigned to the National Policy. We actively cooperate with them. Such cases are recorded occasionally, but they are not widespread. Another problem is more serious, when young people called stalkers are trying to get to the Exclusion Zone. They want to get to facilities of the Exclusion Zone, to the abandoned city of Prypiat. The problem is that stalkers can take something with them, for example radioactive substances, or probably injure themselves while staying there.

What is the responsibility for illegal entry into the Zone?

If you get to the Exclusion Zone illegally and did not take radioactive items or substances from there, you will be brought to administrative responsibility (fee). If you left the Exclusion Zone with such substances, that is spreading radioactive substances on the territory of Ukraine, you will be brought to the criminal responsibility.

As far as I understand, staying in the 10-km zone of ChNPP is the most dangerous?

Yes, because it is contaminated by radioactive plutonium whose half-life is 24,000 years. This territory will never be fit for human habitation or agriculture. It can be only of industrial use. First, the nuclear power plant itself is located here. Second, the Vector Complex and many other radioactive waste storage facilities, including near-surface facilities used for the disposal of low- and intermediate-level waste are also located here. This includes about thirty clay trenches, through the walls of which radionuclide release is not fixed. This year we will additionally conserve two of such trenches. It gave us the opportunity to improve general environmental safety. On the same territory, the Energoatom Company is preparing the site for the construction of the Centralized Spent Fuel Storage Facility.

Speaking about the use of 10-km zone around ChNPP, it is necessary to state that we developed a bill to amend the Law “On the Territories Exposed to Radioactive Contamination after the Accident at Chornobyl NPP”. This bill defines the status of 10-km zone as the area where only industrial activity and radioactive waste management activities will be permitted and that will completely exclude the possibility of human habitation or agriculture. This bill is now being prepared for the submission to the Cabinet of Ministers.

Why is it necessary to set exclusively industrial use of this territory at the legislative level?

All radioactive waste storage facilities are located in this area. Current law established strict requirements for near-surface facilities in territories where a human can live. According to these requirements, radioactivity of all radioactive waste shall reduce to such levels so as not to pose threat to human life and the environment. The new status make requirements less strict, because people will never live there.

Dmytro Sydorov “UNIAN”