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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Radioactive Contamination

<<< Nuclear Facilities in the Russian Federation | Environmental Problems Index | Contaminated Regions Resulting from the Chernobyl Accident >>>

Other Republics of the Former Soviet Union

The Baltic republics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - represent the portion of the FSU that most wishes to minimize future ties to the Russian Federation. This is made difficult, at least for Lithuania, by the necessity of maintaining a relationship with the Ministry of Atomic Energy in Moscow concerning the operation of the large Ignalina nuclear power plant. The Ignalina facility was planned in the 1970s for a site near Lake Druksai in the north-east corner of Lithuania. The facility was to contain several RBMK-1500 reactors which, at 1500 MW each, would be the largest individual nuclear reactors in the world. The first of these giant reactors went on line in 1983, and the second in 198 7. Initially, four such units were projected; this was later reduced to three at the insistence of Lithuanian scientists, who feared that thermal pollution caused by the discharge of cooling water from the plant would significantly alter heat balance of Lake Druksai (Dawson, 1996).

Ignalina's RBMK reactors are larger versions of the reactor design used at Chernobyl, Kursk, and other sites. Anti-nuclear protests in 1987 and 1988, plus several small fires at the station in 1988, led to a decision to halt further construction on unit No. 3. With the independence of Lithuania, the completion of the third unit became less likely. Earlier calls to shut down the entire complex have faded, however, as Lithuanians realize they have no other major source of electrical energy to fuel their nation's economy. According to Lithuanian press reports, 50 kg of uranium were stolen from fgnalina in 1992 and not recovered until 1997, presenting a serious potential for civilian contamination.

Latvia is the Baltic republic with the least nuclear development. This republic has only a nuclear research centre, at Riga, with one research reactor.

Estonia, however, has not been so fortunate. A processing facility was constructed in 1948 near the city of Sillamae, to extract uranium from phosphate which is mined nearby. Although this can be done safely, radioactive releases have been reported from this facility (Bradley and Schneider, 1990). A navy training facility with nuclear reactors formerly existed a short way east of Tallinn at Paldiski, but has since been disassembled and the reactors removed. There are radioactive waste storage facilities in various areas of Estonia, including sites near Tallinn. Millions of tonnes of wastes have reportedly been deposited near Sillamae in a huge pool, which is still in use. On occasion, winds have carried contamination to nearby areas, with radiation measured up to five times normal background levels (Nuclear Waste News, 7 May 1992). Estonia does not have the internal financial resources needed to stabilize these wastes.

Nuclear contamination in the Ukraine has become synonymous with the word Chernobyl (spelled Chernobyl in Ukrainian), and the situation at Chernobyl will be looked at later in the chapter. Besides Chernobyl, there are four other atomic power complexes in Ukraine, as well as a major uranium mining centre.

Except for Chernobyl, all the other nuclear complexes in the Ukraine (Rovno, South Ukraine, Khmelnitsky, and Zaporozhye) utilize pressurized water (VVER) reactors (Table 19.3). The Khmelnitsky reactors export about half of their output to north-central Europe. The other four Ukrainian nuclear power complexes have experienced no catastrophic accidents, but they have not been problem-free. In 1992 alone, there were operational problems at the Khmelnitsky, South Ukraine, and Zaporozhye plants, all of which required unplanned reactor shutdowns.

Commercial atomic energy sites in the Ukraine

Table 19.3 Commercial atomic energy sites in the Ukraine
* VVER - pressurized water reactors; RBMK - graphite moderated reactors

Major uranium deposits were discovered in 1959 at Zheltyye Vody in the central Ukraine (just west of the Dnieper), and were soon under development. They remained one of the USSR's major mining and milling sites for three decades. Following independence, uranium production in the Ukraine decreased substantially; however, since several commercial reactors still operate, some production at Zheltyye Vody may continue. The Ukraine has no enrichment plants, so ores must be shipped to Russia for processing into fuel.

Mention should also be made of the numerous ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) complexes that the USSR located in the Ukraine. They have all now been shut down, the Ukraine has declared itself a non-nuclear state, and the nuclear warheads were sent in 1994 to Russia for disassembly (Babak and Degany, 1994). Little contamination should exist at these sites. Also within the Ukraine are several nuclear research centres, which involve minimal contamination risk to the public.

Belarus also contained a smaller number of ICBM launch sites, which have been shut down. With them eliminated, Belarus might have been essentially nuclear-free. Chernobyl, however, has rendered Belarus one of the most contaminated countries in the world. (The nature of the problems there will be discussed in the next section.) Despite this predicament, there are reports that Belarussian officials are proposing the construction of two nuclear power plants, for reasons of economic necessity.

Moldova has no significant nuclear facilities, only relatively minor quantities of stored low-level wastes.

Within the three Transcaucasian republics (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), the only major nuclear facility is the atomic power station at Medzamor in Armenia. Although the station has only two VVER-440 reactors, it has been of concern because of the seismic instability of the region, especially after the devastating earthquake of 1988. Seismic concerns caused the plant to be closed in 1989, but the energy crisis resulting from the armed conflict with Azarbaijan necessitated a reopening of Unit 2 of the facility in 1995 (Dawson, 1996). Its output is now essential to the republic. Apart from the Armenian reactor, there exist only relatively minor research facilities in Georgia, and low level waste disposal sites near the capitals of each of the three Transcaucasian republics (Table 19.1).

Central Asia, however, is much more complex. Three of the four southern republics (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) were the source of most of the USSR's raw uranium ore, and Kazakhstan had virtually all types of atomic activity taking place within the republic, including the other nuclear weapons test site.

Within Central Asia are several major uranium deposits. Development of them began in Tajikistan in 1952, in Kyrgyzstan in 1954, in Uzbekistan in 1964, and in Kazakhstan in 1968. Near each of these sites was an ore processing plant, including milling facilities at Navoi, at Aktau in Kazakhstan, at Kara-Balta (near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan), and at Chkalovsk in Tajikistan. In the post-Soviet period, several of the mines, and some of the milling plants, have been shut down (Potter, 1993; Pryde and Bradley, 1994).

In 1972 the USSR completed construction on its first commercial breeder reactor, located at Shevchenko (now Aktau) in Kazakhstan on the shore of the Caspian Sea. It is smaller (135 MW) than the one at Beloyarsk, and is used in part to desalinize Caspian Sea water. This is the only commercial atomic reactor facility in Central Asia. It is under the control of the newly created Kazakhstan Atomic Energy Agency (Shkolnik, 1995). Kazakhstan was also the location of numerous cold war ICBM complexes. Like those in Belarus and the Ukraine, these sites have been deactivated and the warheads transported to Russia for disassembly.

In the post-Soviet period, the uranium industry in the former Soviet republics has begun to internationalize. The uranium production concerns at Bishkek, Khujand, Navoi, Aktau, Lermontov (in the North Caucasus), Zheltyye Vody, Yekaterinburg, and Krasnokamensk have formed an inter-republic uranium mining enterprise called 'Atomredmet' (Nuclear Waste News, 2 January 1992).

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