Is the Decommissioning of NPP Ignalina – Finally – on the Right Track?

February 24, 2016 | 00:00
Is the Decommissioning of NPP Ignalina – Finally – on the Right Track?
Is the Decommissioning of NPP Ignalina – Finally – on the Right Track?
It is only too understandable when Gunter Grabia, Senior Manager at the Nuclear Safety Department of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), tells EER with a sigh of relief, ”We do not want to look back, now we only look forward.” He has followed the decommissioning process of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP) in Lithuania right from the start, experienced all the confrontational strategies by the Lithuanian government and the different technical interpretations of the storage facilities’ and casks’ quality, all of which resulted in an almost total halting of the decommissioning process for at least the last seven years.

After the signing of two Contract Amendments, according to all partners involved, the process is now – finally? - on the right track. For the two main facilities the cold trials (with non-nuclear material) are under way; hot trials (with nuclear spent fuel) are planned for 2016/2017. About ten years after that Ignalina NPP will be able to provide the first worldwide technical program for the decommissioning of Soviet built RBMK-1500 reactors (Chernobyl type), and in 2038, the land accommodating the Ignalina NPP is expected to be in a position to be returned into a “Brown Field” (land that can be used again after been cleared of nuclear waste).

When, in 2005, the original contract for the “immediate dismantling” of Ignalina was signed, the operation was projected to be completed in 2010. “This timing was far too optimistic”, says Gunter Grabia today. The case had been preceded by a political struggle between the Lithuanian government and the EU. The EU made the closure of the two Ignalina reactors a precondition of Lithuania’s EU entry. The main argument for a closure was that the two reactors of “Chernobyl type” were not safe enough. Others argued that, because of essential investments, especially by Sweden, “Ignalina could now be compared with other types of reactors in the EU”. Nevertheless, Ignalina had to be closed; Unit 1 in 2004 and Unit 2 at the end of 2009. And so, Lithuania turned from a major electricity exporter (+30,7%) into the EU’s largest energy importer (-62,1%), mostly from Russia.

The European Union promised financial and administrative support to handle the transition of Lithuania into a new energy era and used the EBRD as a tool. Since 2001 the London based EBRD is supporting the decommissioning of INPP as well as electricity producing projects in Lithuania. “We do not use our own money, we are just the manager”, Gunter Grabia points out. The EU and 14 other countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) established the Ignalina International Decommissioning Support Fund, IIDSF. € 823 million has so far been committed, by far the largest contributor being the EU.

exterior_Ignalina NPP
Exterior Ignalina NPP

Trouble right from the beginning

At the nuclear power plant, the main task is focused on two facilities: the Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility (ISFSF), named Project B1, and the Solid Waste Management and Storage Facility (SWMSF), Project B2/3/4. Almost from the beginning the project ran into trouble. With hindsight, it is easy to state that insufficient regulations, divergent political agendas and technical problems resulted in a delay of over six years. The political “ice age” started in 2009 when the new government, the conservative Homeland Union, demanded to be given control over the decommissioning process. The then Minister of Energy Arvydas Sekmokas said, “We want to manage the plant ourselves, we are dissatisfied with the bank and the agreement”. Furthermore, the new Director General of INPP, Osvaldas Čiukšys, confronted the Contractor, the German consortium NUKEM/GNS, with the allegation, “Your casks are dangerous and rubbish”.

In 2012 a new coalition government under the Social Democrat Algirdas Butkevicius took over and appointed a new Ignalina NPP Director General in March 2013, the certified accountant and Master of International Business, Darius Janulevičius (42). “From 2013, the key decommissioning projects B1 and B2/3/4 were ‘driven from the dead point’”, he tells EER. The NEW INPP Management points at “mutual understanding and cooperation” to resolve issues arisen in the projects’ implementation period, and speaks about the “constructive cooperation” between the Contractor and INPP, as well as the positive evaluation of recent project implementation progress by the Contributing Countries, the EU and the EBRD. On the other hand, Darius Janulevičius does not hesitate to point out that the “78 months delay in the implementation of Project B1 has affected the entire decommissioning process”. He adds, “INPP and the Contractor had radically different and strict positions. Due to strong opinions on both sides it took so long to resolve all disputes in a peaceful manner”. According to the original contract, Project B2/3/4 was supposed to be completed by November 2009.

The thaw in relations led to quick results. Already on 18 December 2013 the INPP and the Contractor, NUKEM Technologies, signed a Contract Amendment for Project B2/3/4. The new agreement however exposed serious omissions in the original contract. The contract now includes the stipulation that, INPP “will be able to perform monthly work controls and assure duly and timely Performance Program implementation by the Contractor”. The Amendment covers total payments of € 55 million; its monthly “release will directly be linked to the Performance Program”.

On 24 November 2015 another major step towards bringing watertight conditions to the contract was taken. Another Contract Amendment, this time for Project B1 was signed with a consortium comprising NUKEM and GNS (Gesellschaft für Nuklear Service, Essen, Germany). Now, for the first time in this decommissioning process, the “new schedule and the deadline are legally binding”. The Director General points out that, “At the moment, the Contractor is implementing the Project without a legally binding schedule.” One of the most important points is that the Contract Amendment “does not increase the cost of the Contract. The Contractor does not acquire rights for any additional payments”. Should it not implement the works under the schedule agreed, INPP now has, for the first time, legal rights to apply penalties. The Contract price for decommissioning the Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility is to the cent € 193,903,451.97, according to INPP.

Perhaps the highlight of these two new agreements is that both parties agree to resolve all claims that have been negatively influencing the Project’s implementation. That just shows how infected the atmosphere has been over the last few years and how effectively that has hampered the entire process.

The EBRD staff must either be born or be extremely well-trained diplomats. Even during the worst phase of the Ignalina process they stayed calm and avoided everything that could negatively affect the atmosphere. Their only comment at that time was that the two commissioning projects “have experienced problems for a variety of reasons, some technical but mostly commercial in nature.” And “we do not want to say more on this issue”.

According to Rytas Staselis, a Lithuanian journalist who has followed the process over the years, “currently the decommissioning of the Ignalina NPP is going smoothly and without public rows”. However, there are still some critical voices, though not officially. These critics argue that the new spent fuel casks, specifically their construction and safety, have never been physically tested. They passed the tests with the help of simulations. In general, as the sceptics see it, the Contractor was the wrong choice from the beginning because it is “incapable and negligent”. Moreover, from the Lithuanian perspective, coloured by a wide-spread anti-Russian sentiment, it is even worse that NUKEM changed ownership and is now a daughter company of JSC Atomstroyexport, which belongs to the Russian state owned Rosatom group. That makes, they stress, NUKEM “pretty inefficient and its financial and expert capabilities rather weak”. Furthermore, according to the critics there is not a single reason for the EBRD to be optimistic and positive.

Control room Ignalina
Control room Ignalina

Today’s situation

Indeed, the casks created a problem and caused a long lasting dispute. It was discovered that some physical features of the cask material did not match the criteria that had been set out in the Casks Technical Design. The Contractor, GNS, had to make changes and perform additional calculations. An additional analysis of casks safety features was also conducted. Even though the design was not altered, the material (Constorit) had to be modified. However, INPP claims, disregarding the critic’s argument, that “there was no need for physical tests”. In the summer of 2015, after the involvement of an independent expert’s commission, furthermore, the Lithuanian State Nuclear Power Inspectorate (VATESI) confirmed that the casks performed according to the safety and reliability regulations.

Regarding the Storage Facility for the Interim Storage of Nuclear Fuel, Project B1, the construction works and equipment installation have been completed. The cold trials started in October 2014 and were completed in June 2015. In January this year the cold trials for the handling equipment at the Units were started. Should everything go according to schedule, the start of hot trials, involving nuclear fuel, is planned for September 2016 and its completion for autumn 2017. In the end, the storage facility will house 17,000 nuclear fuel assemblies. For about 50 years, about 200 containers will be stored in this facility.

Today, the nuclear fuel rods from Unit 1 are stored in the Reactor Pool Hall, and those from Unit 2 they are partly still in the Reactor and partly in the Reactor Pool Hall.

For the other main project, the Solid Waste Management and Storage Facilities (SWMSF), the cold trials started in summer 2015, hot trials are planned for 2017 and full scale operation for autumn 2018. Built at a price of € 184 million. Besides solid radioactive waste from older facilities, this project will house 120,000 cubic metres of solid low and intermediate radioactive waste.

Overall, the EBRD has by now spent about € 434 million for all projects in support of decommissioning the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant.

There is a lot of talk of returning the land Ignalina is built on back into Brown Fields. Meaning, that in 2038 this land will be in a condition that will allow it to be used again for other industrial or civil purposes. However, this is only partly true. Today, the plant covers 82 ha, but for many years to come, the new facilities will stay under the control of VATESI. That means, only 37 ha will in fact be usable for new non-nuclear projects.

A new NPP?

Since the closure of Ignalina, the Lithuanian government has had plans for a new nuclear plant. Even though there were doubts from the beginning about the feasibility and the rationality of such a project, in 2011 the government selected the Japanese-US company Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy as a “Strategic Investor” for the planned Visaginas NPP Project.

However, in the meantime Lithuania has replaced the loss of Ignalia-produced electricity with electricity from other providers inside Lithuania and through interconnections, some with the support of the EU and EBRD. Recently, Lithuania was connected to Sweden through a 450 km long submarine power line, NordBalt, and on 3rd February the 163 km long LitPol Link started operation. Furthermore, it had always been doubtful whether Poland or the other Baltic States were ready to join the project. Then, in 2012 came another setback for the Visaginas supporters. In an “advisory referendum”, 62 percent of the Lithuanians said 'No' to new nuclear power. In a statement, the Ministry of Energy told EER, “Government and Parliament decided not to take swift actions and proceed with consideration.” Together with Latvia and Estonia Lithuania is searching for “possible means of the project’s economic improvement”. Furthermore, since November 2014 Lithuania is reviewing its energy strategy regarding the changing market perspectives. In reality, Rytas Staselis is not alone when stating that Vasiginas is right now “put on ice” and he sees no way that could lead to a new Lithuanian NPP. Although, the government cannot ignore the outcome of the referendum, it has obviously not given up on the idea. It is, so the rumours go in Vilnius, contemplating another referendum.

Images: Ignalina nuclear power plant. Coutersy state enterprise Ignalina nuclear power plant.

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