Interview with Andrei Stsiapanau on the Politics of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear energy is a highly debated field and depending on the societal context usually either embraced or fully rejected. From an outsider position it sometimes seems as if there was no in between: you are either pro- or anti-nuclear. This does not solely apply to times of active nuclear energy generation, but it also affects the future and finding solutions for safe storage of nuclear waste. In today’s interview with Andrei Stsiapanau we will hear more about the nuclear debate in the former Soviet Union. Andrei is a guest in our Nuclearwaters project since January 2020 and he is a scholarship holder of the Swedish Institute Visby Scholarship Program for Senior Researchers. He researches how nuclear energy is being socially and politically debated in Russia, Belarus and Lithuania and he is especially interested in the politics of nuclear waste in Russia, Lithuania and Sweden.

Alicia Gutting: Andrei, could you please let us know what you have been working on in the past months?

Andrei Stsiapanau: During the last months I have been working on the nuclear waste management issues in Russia as well as in Lithuania and Sweden. When more and more nuclear facilities throughout the world enter the stage of decommissioning, it is becoming particularly urgent to find sustainable solutions to the issue of nuclear waste. The list of possible technical solutions for spent nuclear fuel and other types of waste include deep geological disposal after reprocessing (favoured in France, Japan, and UK); direct deep geological disposal (favoured in Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Germany, USA and Czech Republic); surface long-term storage (favoured in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain). Each of these solutions translates into different ways on how to communicate, classify and govern nuclear waste in a particular country.

My research is focusing on how nuclear waste issues are communicated in various techno-political contexts. While studying how nuclear waste issues are being negotiated with communities in Russia, I discovered that natural resources like clay are used within nuclear waste discourses to mitigate the risk of potential radioactive contamination. It was my starting point to investigate how natural resources are used in various discourses about nuclear waste to make it less dangerous and harmful for people and environments. In the cases of Lithuania and Sweden, I am investigating how, through awareness and information campaigns, risks associated with nuclear waste are mediated and mitigated to transform the hazardous nuclear objects into manageable waste.

AG: What role does clay play?

AS: According to numerous researches on the role of the natural barrier in the nuclear waste disposal system, clay as well as crystalline rock are considered as a retardation medium for radionuclides migration. The multi barrier protection within nuclear waste technology illustrates how natural barriers or the geology of the disposal site will retard or mediate for both fluid flow and radionuclides migration in case of the engineering layer decay. This kind of technical vision of the disposal process promotes the natural protection layer as a reliable tool for absorption and immobilization of radioactivity. Geological and chemical studies of clay rock in various sites in the United States, France, Belgium, Canada and Russia show that clay has a number of absorption properties valuable for immobilization of the radioactive elements in the geomedia in case of the technical barrier decay. Thus, clay has become employed as a part of the nuclear waste management process. It represents a tool for absorption, immobilization and confinement of radioactivity. Including clay in the whole process of the nuclear decommission and decontamination makes it possible to reconsider the role of natural resources and materials in nuclear waste technologies and multi-barrier protection discourses.

AG: Are there differences in the Swedish and the Lithuanian (political) approach?

AS: Nuclear waste management systems in Sweden and Lithuania are developing in the context of decommissioning and nuclear phase out but following different trajectories and guidelines. The final repository for short-lived radioactive waste located at Forsmark in the municipality of Östhammar started operating in 1988. Lithuania is only now entering the phase of the construction of the landfill repositories for low and medium radioactive waste, and the construction of the geological disposal is programmed for after 2045. The Swedish approach represents an advanced example of nuclear waste management, based on the long-term experience of scientific research, transparent decision-making and continued reliance on public opinion and participation. Some connections in sharing nuclear waste management technology and experience exist between these two Baltic Sea countries. The Swedish nuclear waste authority, SKB, has been involved in the assessment of the existing nuclear waste facilities at the Ignalina NPP site in Lithuania since the 1990s. Swedish nuclear research and governance institutions continue to contribute to the transfer of knowledge and expertise in nuclear waste management taking part in numerous joint international research projects (BEACON; EURAD).

AG: What role does environmentalism play in the debate?

AS: As the two countries are at different stages of implementation of nuclear waste programs, it illustrates different levels of public engagement in the site selection process and environmental impact assessment of the radioactive waste disposals. In Sweden environmental issues are at the core of the public debate and concerns about the nuclear waste management program and are involving various actors, from local communities to International NGOs and leading national media outlets. In Lithuania environmental issues are less questioned, site selection is not contested and public participation is limited to local communities of the nuclear site with scarce media coverage. I suppose this situation will change with the start of a public discussion about the site selection for geological disposal of high radioactive waste and SNF and its environmental impact assessment. This debate will expand nuclear waste issues to the national scale. Considering environmentalism not only as participatory but also as scholarly concern, at the moment there are relatively few studies in environmental humanities and history about the uses of the natural resources in nuclear waste confinement and its impact on social and natural landscapes.

AG: Do people in the two countries differ in their risk perception?

AS: Different levels of public engagement in the nuclear decision-making illustrates different public opinion dynamics as well as public perception of nuclear risks. In Sweden due to the nuclear phase-out decision in 1980 and to the high impact of environmental movements, critical voices are prevailing the publicity concerning nuclear waste. In Lithuania the nuclear energy use became public only in the 1990s after the reestablishment of the independence and were associated mostly with Chernobyl disaster risks and anti-communist, sovereignty claims. During the transition period, the use of nuclear energy was considered as necessary for the economic and social developments of the country; political personnel, nuclear engineers and Lithuanian citizens embraced the energy produced by the Ignalina NPP as a national resource. The referendums about nuclear energy uses in Lithuania in 2008 and 2012 after the start of the decommissioning of the Ignalina NPP showed a rather radical change from pro- to anti-nuclear attitudes challenging the plan to construct a new NPP in the country.

NUCLEARWATERS welcomes Louis Fagon as a Guest

The NUCLEARWATERS project puts great emphasis on studying nuclear history globally. Therefore, it is of major importance to us to work with other researchers. This March we welcome French nuclear historian Louis Fagon, who will stay with us for one month. NUCLEARWATERS project member Alicia Gutting is curious about who he is.

Alicia Gutting: Louis, it is great to have you here! Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your research?

Louis Fagon: I am a PhD candidate in history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris since 2018. In my thesis The Nuclear Industry at the Rhône River (1950s-1997) I am researching the social and environmental effects of the excessive nuclear planning at the Rhône with a focus on the microscale. Using local archives, I try to narrow in on the regional nuclear history. So far, the national history of nuclear power of France has been studied, however, the regional histories still remain a desideratum. What connects my research to the NUCLEARWATERS project is the special interest in water. In my thesis I research water twofoldly: On the one hand as part of the environment and a cooling agent for nuclear power plants and on the other hand water offers a research access to the nuclear history of France. Researching nuclear power in France most often poses a challenge as almost all files concerning nuclear are classified. The water focus is one way to circumvent the issue of access. So, I have been taking a detour through water files in the archives, which have led me to nuclear files in the end.

AG: How did you hear about the NUCLEARWATERS project?

LF: This was purely coincidental. I attended a conference in Mulhouse on the future of post-nuclear territories. There I’ve heard about a group of international researchers studying nuclear power from a water perspective in Stockholm. I was thrilled to hear that there were also other people interested in these issues! This seemed to confirm the relevance of my choice of subject, but I was also eager to meet the group.

AG: What expectations do you have of your time here?

LF: The Rhône is a transnational water body and also an international resource. This means different interests can collide over the allocation of this resource. I am hoping to learn from the other researchers in the group as they all have different national as well as international perspectives on nuclear power. These other perspectives will hopefully contribute to my thesis work, assist me in asking interesting questions and also challenge the French notion of France being exceptional.

AG: Thank you for telling us a little about yourself and your research!

On 25 March from 1pm till 3pm Louis will give a seminar at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment and elaborate a little more on his research. This will also be the launch of our NUCLEARWATERS Seminar Series. Welcome to join us if you are in town!

Mining, Waste, and the so-called nuclear fuel-cycle

Last Tuesday Nuclearwaters-colleague Andrei Stsiapanau and me have interviewed Dima Litvinov on his experiences in the capacity of Greenpeace representative in Russia. Among other issues, Russian nuclear waste handling during the chaos of the 1990s became our main topic.

While it was in itself an exciting event, two points kept me thinking. First the characteristics of the so-called nuclear fuel cycle and secondly the role of water in it. As Per Högselius has argued, in reality there is no such thing as a fuel cycle – proclamations of the nuclear industry notwithstanding. Instead, we actually have a linear concept. With the mining of uranium it has a clear beginning and with the storage of nuclear waste it has its ending. The actual amount of recycled fuel elements can prolong its lifetime, but they will ultimately end as waste. Dima shared with us his experiences of both the mining and the storage aspect. It became apparent that water stayed a very crucial component in both. Unfortunately, water is often the carrier of radionuclide-emissions in both instances. Whether it is used as cleaning agent in the mining process, or as medium for storage in the case of waste-dumping into the sea.

This proves that water stays crucial in the system of a nuclear power plant – also apart from cooling purposes. If we want to improve nuclear safety, water as this crucial aspect needs to be accounted for in our studies.

Roman Khandozhko joins NUCLEARWATERS

The NUCLEARWATERS research group is expanding! Today we are welcoming Dr. Roman Khandozhko as a new project member, to work with us for a period of one year as a senior researcher. Roman’s employment at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology takes the form of a unique cooperation between two ongoing ERC projects: NUCLEARWATERS and GRETPOL (the latter led by Peder Roberts).

Roman holds a PhD degree in history from Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He has extensive earlier experience of researching the history of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union, most recently through his participation in the impressive “Nuclear Technopolitics of the Soviet Union” project at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In his new position at KTH Roman he will contribute to our regional case study on the Soviet Union’s nuclear waters.

Exploring the nuclearized Po River basin

From 24 to 27 October NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius participated in the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), wich was held in Milan this year. The history of nuclear engineering played a prominent role at the meeting, featuring an impressive 25 presentations analyzing nuclear technologies in energy, medicine and war. Our project featured in a special session organized by ERC representative Flavia Cumoli, with the double purpose of spreading the word about three ongoing ERC projects in the history of technology – the other two being led by Maria Rentetzi and Mikael Hård – and seeking to inspire other historians of technology to apply for the ERC’s generous research grants.

After the meeting we decided to take the opportunity to explore Italy’s nuclear past through an excursion to the Po River basin. The area around and between Milan and Turin is heavily industrialized, while also being a key agricultural region. Water flows play key roles for both industry and agriculture, and the region has a proud water history, with a mesmerizing network of tributaries to the Po, artificial water ways, irrigation systems and so on. Rice cultivation, being highly dependent on water, has a long tradition in the region.

Several key nuclear facilities were built in the Po River basin. We went to see, in particular, the once so proud Trino Vercellese nuclear power plant, one of the world’s first-ever pressurized water reactors (PWRs), which went operational in 1964. At that time Italy was on the forefront in nuclear energy developments. Not far from here, in Saluggia, where the famous Cavour Canal meets a major Po tributary, the Italian nuclear engineers constructed the EUREX facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. As noted by Davide Orsini in a presentation at the SHOT annual meeting, that site soon became problematic due to repeated problems with severe flooding of the whole facility.

In another SHOT presentation, Elisabetta Bini analyzed the new surge in nuclear construction in Italy that followed after the two oil shocks in the 1970s. One of the main new projects in the 1980s was to build two new powerful nuclear reactors just next to the existing Trino site on the Po. However, internal technical problems and fierce opposition from the side of the general public, and in particular from the local rice farmers, who feared local climate changes and water shortages, caused the new projects to stagnate. Then, in 1986, the Chernobyl accident occurred, and in a referendum the year after Italy opted radically to phase out its entire nuclear programme. And so by 1990 not only had construction of the new reactors at Trino been stopped, but also the original Trino facility built in the 1960s was being permanently closed down. However, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power Plant, as it is also called, is still there to be seen, beautifully situated on the swiftly flowing Po, in the dreamy fog of history.

Nuclear Waters at the Centre of a Soviet Technocratic Culture Analysis

“In designing the water-graphite reactors used at Chernobyl’, Soviet nuclear engineers chose specific design features that made serious – albeit not catastrophic – accidents all but inevitable.”1

Soviet nuclear power plants in the vast majority of cases depended on water as a necessary and safeguarding coolant. But where should one get enough of it in such an inaccessible and land-locked landscape, encompassing steppes, forests, mountains, deserts, and arable land featuring one of the harshest continental climatic differences between summer and winter in the whole world?

For Soviet technocratic planners, this did not pose an unconquerable obstacle. Over the centuries, the country’s grand rivers, for example the Volga, Don and Dnepr have hosted numerous settlements with different industries and economical endeavours as well as some of the respective area’s biggest population centres. So why not using their immense powers for harnessing a new and even greater power – that of the mirnij atom?

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet civil nuclear programme was one of the most ambitious of the world. Before 1986, the year in which Chernobyl struck, the nuclear industry held grand prospects for further investment and development. Being a country as vast as the USSR, in which 75% of the population lived in the West while 80% of national (mostly fossil) energy resources were located in the Far East, technocratic planners envisioned nuclear power as one way to secure a stable energy supply, especially for industrial hotspots in western Russia and eastern Ukraine.2

Soviet projections in the 1980’s stated nuclear energy would be together with coal the only realistic choice for the future production of energy, leaving hydro power deliberately out of the picture.3 Facing these circumstances, the nuclear inner circle decided to turn a blind eye to possible detrimental consequences to both the natural environment and human populations, in order to reinvigorate an ailing Soviet economy to facilitate the advent of Communism.

In 1979 only 4,5% of the energy mix of the USSR actually derived from atomic electricity production.4 Instead, the country was despite developed hydro power stations fully dependent on fossil fuel and stayed so until her end.5 Economically speaking, Soviet technocrats had mobilised tremendous resources into the development of the nuclear industry in order to further diversify the Soviet energy mix. On the union-level central planners agreed to increase nuclear power production from 16 GWe in 1982 to 90 GWe in 1990 and then even further to 200 GWe in 2000, hence aiming to increase nuclear power output 12,5 times in just 18 years6. In fact, in 1990 prior to her collapse, the Soviet Union had succeeded in installing 38.3 GWe.7 Although falling considerably short of the planned goal, these numbers show how technocratic planners in the Soviet Union succeeded to implement their vision of nuclear future for their country.

But how did they use the water network to their advantage? Rivers, lakes and the sea-shore could be prepared to host nuclear power stations, but each of them had important implications for local stakeholders, such as fisheries, agriculture and local municipalities. It is both clear, that water was on the one hand the limiting factor for the construction of nuclear power plants due to the necessity of sufficient coolant, and on the other an everything connecting trans-systemic agent, which incorporated the nuclear into the Soviet socio-economic utopia. My part of the Nuclearwaters-Project strives to investigate this linkage between Technocratic Culture and water, between central planning ambitions and atomic waterways and between communist historic-materialist ideals and nature’s essence of life. Only by investigating this complex of ideology, culture and material environment scholars will come closer to understanding the Soviet nuclear industry. If we want to judge nuclear safety in Europe’s East, this is necessary.

“Science demands sacrifices.”8

Petrosyants, chairman of the State Committee for the Use of Nuclear Energy in the USSR on 6 May 1986, 10 days after the explosions of reactor 4 at Chernobyl.

1Geist: Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl’, p. 107.

2Semenov: Nuclear power in the Soviet Union, in: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin Vol. 25, No. 2, June 1983, p. 47.

3Medvedev, Z.: The Legacy of Chernobyl, New York a. London 1990, pp. 300-301.

4Margulis: Atomnaya ėnergiya i radiatsionnaya bezopasnost’, Moskva 1983, p. 125.

5CIA: USSR Energy Atlas, Washington a. Springfield 1985, p. 7.

6Vorob’ev et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4, April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 290.

7https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/CountryStatistics/CountryDetails.aspx?current=RU [25.04.2019]). Also IAEA: Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (Reference Data Series No.2, 2018 Edition), Vienna 2018.

8Medwedew, G.: Verbrannte Seelen. Die Katastrophe von Tschernobyl, Munich a. Vienna 1991, p. 222.

Workshop in Dounreay, Scotland

Dounreay nuclear station was in operation between 1955 and 1994 and houses two fast breeder reactors and one thermal research reactor, along with fabrication and reprocessing facilities. Next to it is a military nuclear establishment with two reactors for submarine developments, in operation between 1965 and 2015. Taken together, there are no less than five reactors located directly on the dramatic shore of Scotland’s northern tip, where the North Sea meats the Atlantic Ocean and create some of the most dangerous water fairways in the world.

During the second week of September, about fifteen scholars and heritage professionals, among them NUCLEARWATERS’ Anna Storm, met in Dounreay and the nearby town of Thurso to engage with the legacies of the nuclear establishment, among them a flourishing community life but also severe contamination problems. The liquid radioactive waste produced by the nuclear research experiments was often simply discharged into the sea through an underwater pipe, while the solid residues were dumped into a deep shaft on site, originally stemming from the building of the emission pipe. After an explosion in the 1970s, it was acknowledged that the shaft was not an acceptable storage, not least since it was unlined and open to ground water flows.

All transportation to and from the Dounreay site go through the nearby Scrabster harbour. Scrabster has a long fishing tradition and remains one of the top landing ports in the UK for whitefish and shellfish, including brown crab, lobsters, prawns and scallops. During our visit, trucks went in shuttle service to customers southward, not only in the UK but on the European continent. Around the Dounreay nuclear site however, there is an effective fishing prohibition for a radius of two kilometers, and the levels of contamination at the closest beach of Reay are still unclear.

Alicia Gutting presents her PhD project

Today NUCLEARWATERS doctoral candidate Alicia Gutting presented her PhD project plan in the Higher Seminar series at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

Alicia Gutting holds a diploma degree in theatre, film and media studies and a master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology, both from the University of Vienna. Before joining KTH she also worked as a junior researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In her PhD project she explores the making of the Rhine as a highly nuclearized transnational river basin from the 1960s to today. Key to grasping this history, she argued at the seminar, is to study the transnational perception of risk in the borderlands between Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. She sets out to do so from a healthy diversity of empirical angles, ranging from fears of floods and droughts and the consequences of heatwaves – the latter phenomenon was dramatically illustrated during the past two summers as Rhine nuclear operators were forced to lower electricity production in the face of water scarcity – to clashes between nuclear cooling requirements – of exisential importance for preventing nuclear core meltdowns! – and equally existential drinking water needs and, not least, powerful agricultural interests and fears of local climate change.

Nuclear Waters on Holiday: Power Plants along the Autoroute du Soleil

It is the summer holiday season! A period in which people try to relax, de-connect, and forget about work for a while. Yet, work sometimes has its funny ways of following you.

My family and I have the tradition of spending our holidays at the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. We load the car as full as we can and hit the road for a full day (normally by night or on a Sunday to avoid the traffic jams).

Since this year, the first year of my PhD (which is about the global governance of water-related nuclear risks), this drive has become a bit more interesting than before. After you have passed Lyon, the highway to the Côte d’Azur, popularly called the “Autoroute du Soleil”, runs through the Rhône valley, where a lot of nuclear power plants are located.

It reminded me of course of Sara Pritchard’s book ‘Confluence’, which tells the history of the transformations of the Rhône during the post-war period. It is a key publication for our project. Not only does it theorise the connection between technology and the environment, it is also (and especially) a powerful account of the human use of water and the management and conflicts of interest that this entails.

Nuclear power plants are one of the key users of the river. Not less than 6 nuclear power plants have been constructed on the banks of the Rhône. ‘Confluence’ describes the controversies this entailed and the effects this had on the river. Even if the scope of nuclear energy in France is huge, 6 nuclear power plants along one river is still a enormous concentration.

And interestingly, there is no better way to observe this than driving past them. When you leave Lyon, you almost immediately see the power plant of Cruas, which is a bit hidden in a valley but still visible from the highway. From there it only takes an extra 45 minutes to see the next nuclear power plant, Tricastin, located right next to the highway. From Tricastin the next nuclear power plant, Marcoule, is not even 30 (!) minutes away. The “Autoroute du Soleil” is really an “Autoroute Nucléaire as well.”

The Tricastin nuclear power plant, seen from the “Autoroute du Soleil.” It has four reactors and is located very close to both the nuclear power stations of Cruas and Marcoule. Due to record temperatures this summer in France, EDF closed down the power plant temporarily.

This is perhaps just a geeky enjoyment during a tedious 14-hour drive, and maybe at best a nice anecdote to tell my fellow nuclear scholars. Yet, it has also left me with some questions. Is it actually safe to build nuclear power plants that close to each other? Is there enough water for them to use? Does the water not heat up too rapidly? And does this heavy nuclearisation of rivers not render nuclear power more vulnerable (and thus more risky) to droughts and heat waves? This year again, Electricité de France (EDF, France’s energy operator) closed down several reactors because the cooling water was diminishing and heating up, including two along the Rhône.

I cannot help but wonder whether this was at some point on the political agenda of either the French government or an international organisation such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Euratom, or the Nuclear Energy Agency. In any case, it is something I hope to find out in my PhD!

Chasing after shadows – or – The nuclear power plant never built in Estonia

Sometimes interesting intellectual journeys can start with literally one small dot on a map. This happened to us when Achim was looking at a book that featured the map of nuclear power plants planned for the Soviet Union. Do you know anything about this dot on the territory of Estonia, he asked. I did not.

The dot was somewhat misplaced geographically and timewise, it seems, but nevertheless opened a question: what about that power plant planned for Estonia? There never was “a real” nuclear power plant in Estonia, although ESSR had some nuclear infrastructure: for example, 90 and 70 mW reactors in Paldiski, meant for training nuclear submarinists, or the uranium processing facilities in Sillamäe. Any bigger nuclear power plants were never built.

Anto Raukas (standing) giving an opening speech at a conference in the honour of F. G. Bellingshausen’s 200th birth anniversary in 1978 (almost a decade later than this story unfolds!). Academician Ilmar Öpik to his right. Estonian National Archive, EFA.774.0.411333

A closer look reveals a story that talks to the core of the NuclearWaters project. Some time between 1966-1968, The Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to enquire about the possibility to build a nuclear power plant at Lake Võrtsjärv and summoned a series of meetings in Estonia. Three Estonian experts were apparently involved in the meetings, all from the Estonian Academy of Sciences: Ilmar Öpik, Harald Haberman and Anto Raukas. Document trail of these negotiations is hard to pin down but luckily Academician Raukas is still in good health and could meet me and Achim in early May to talk about the parts that he remembered.

Võrtsjärv may look big on a map but it is extremely shallow. Initial plans envisioned an RBMK of the size of 4000 mWatts! What would this do to a lake with a volume of less than 1 cubic km? The three Estonian Academicians summoned help from the limnology specialists and together they reached a conclusion that even a 1000 megaWatt reactor would heat the lake by 10 degrees, causing a major ecological collapse. According to Raukas, raising the level of the lake was not considered, in order to protect the fertile agricultural lands of Rannu collective farm.

Yet loads of questions remain that guide us into new avenues and archives. How important was rivalry for water resources between the energy sector and agriculture in the early Soviet Union? Would food security really weigh more than energy supply in the central planning documents? How would the experts calculate the impact of the reactor type that had never been built before? When the impressive 10 degrees calculation was done, no RMBKs had been built yet. Why not think of a river or was that the realm destined for hydroelectricity only? Why did they consider lakes and not sea? Sosnovyi Bor was eventually built on the Baltic coast so why not go for the Latvian coast if the purpose of the NPP was to provide energy to Riga? While memories are elusive and many documents will never be accessible, the journey continues…