Staunton, August 28 – In words that recall the exchange between the US national security advisor and the Soviet ambassador at the end of the Tom Clancy movie, “The Hunt for Red October,” Russian officials now have acknowledged to the International Atomic Energy Agency that two of their nuclear power mini-generators are missing.
They were part of a large network of these “radioactive thermal generators” for light houses and beacons that the Soviet government had installed along Russia’s Arctic coastline. Although they have reached the end of their working life, more than 50 of them are still in operation. Those which have disappeared either washed out to sea or were stolen by vandals.
Reported in “Izvestiya” (izvestia.ru/news/555864#ixzz2cmzTsnsSbarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2013/08/two-nuclear-generators-missing-arctic-26-08), and in a IAEA report (iaea.org/OurWork/ST/NE/NEFW/Technical_Areas/WTS/CEG/documents/26th-IAEA-CEG-Plenary-Meeting/Paris_ENG_PDF/4.1_RTG_Program_Paper_Eng.pdf), this story is disturbing enough in its own right. But more important, it raises serious questions about Moscow’s ability to control nuclear materials and its promises to the international community.
That two of these generators were missing was determined only in the course of efforts financed by Norway and the United States, in the course of which the nuclear mini-generators were removed and solar panels installed as an alternative power source. Moscow plans to finish the search for these “mortally dangerous reactors” before the end of this year.
But as “Barents Observer” notes, for at least two of these plants, “the removal program comes too late.”
Russian officials and experts told “Izvestiya” that Moscow has been searching for the old radioactive thermal generators for some time and has determined, as reported to the IAEA, that two of them cannot be found. But the report said that 56 of these generators continue to function even though they are beyond their projected life expectancy.
One of these generators, an expert at the Moscow Institute of Geosphere Dynamics said, is presumed to have been washed out to sea, but the other may have been stolen by someone interested in selling its components for scrap. Anyone who did so might have received a lethal dose of radiation, the experts say.
The Norwegian Bellona environmental group reported earlier that between 1987 and 2004, there were nine cases of theft of such generators, two accidents in which they were broken, and three where there was a release of radioactivity. But since that time, relatively little attention has been given to this problem in the Russian or international media.
Several details provided in the Russian report to the IAEA suggest that there are serious reasons for concern. “In many cases,” the report says, “real operating conditions of [these mini-generators] were considerably worse than those provided for at the design stage. As a result … [when] exposed to the sea water, they were covered with pebbles, froze into the ice, etc.”
“In addition,” the report continues, “as a result of vandal attacks, [such generators] undergo beyond the design basis impacts: cutting the electric cables is the most common damages which switches the [generators] to the undesirable no-load operation; damage of the fitting pipes used to pump the inert gas … leads to depressurization and penetration of water into the active zone [and] breaking off the aluminum radiator fans, etc.”