Through the EU Technical Aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) programme a huge financial effort was displayed in the period 1991-2006 to improve nuclear safety in the Former Soviet Union countries. In addition to nuclear power plants design and operation safety, a significant part of the funding was devoted to other areas, including decommissioning of nuclear installations and radioactive waste management.
Whilst possessing many nuclear sites, at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had only one operating nuclear power plant, the prototype fast breeder reactor BN-350, in Aktau. This plant was shut down in 1998, and eventually defueled.
Another significant nuclear site in Kazakhstan is the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, where in addition to testing ground, several nuclear facilities (including research reactor) exist; some of these are still in operation. Closed in 1991, the Semipalatinsk test site still has several nuclear facilities and vast areas of contaminated land, as consequences of nuclear tests that have been performed.
Other nuclear facilities in Kazakhstan include a nuclear centre in the area of Almaty, with a research reactor and several uranium mining and processing sites in other regions.
Kazakhstan has been one of the minor beneficiaries of the TACIS nuclear safety programme. It has received assistance mainly for the planned decommissioning of the Aktau nuclear power plant, the treatment of radioactive waste at the Aktau site and selected assistance for the Semipalatinsk test site. Additional assistance das been provided by other international donors, including the UK DTI, IAEA and Nato. Most of such assistance however, was focused on nuclear material controls (safeguards) and the prevention of illicit trafficking.
Whilst the assistance provided addressed known or declared deficiencies (in particular, early assistance also addressed security of nuclear sites) no systematic review of the needs related to radwaste management has been undertaken. At the same time, it is known from several sources that the Aktau (where a large quantity of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste is stored) and the Semipalatinsk (where a proper site survey has only lately started) sites do need further assistance, along with other nuclear sites in the country.
Furthermore the institutional arrangements (including the definition of responsibilities) appear not to be well structured, indicating a further possible area where support is needed.
Kazakjstan has signed both the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, but has not ratified either.
Another important development to be pointed out is Kazakhstan’s declared intention to build a new nuclear power plant and to become one of the leading producers and processors of uranium. This places even more emphasis on the needs to establish a proper arrangement for radwaste management, including the regulatory framework.
Account taken of the above, the provision of further assistance related with the radwaste management sector and the decommissioning of Aktau nuclear power plant, and other nuclear facilities is recognised as a priority in the European Commission’s future actions in the frame of the Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC).
The aim of this project is to support the European Commission in undertaking an assessment of past achievements in the area of radwaste management in Kazakhstan and identifying the priorities for the future INSC programmes.
The project consisted of two important elements, one being the determination of the status and the needs in the area of radioactive waste management and decommissioning of nuclear facilities in Kazakhstan, and other being an assessment of institutional arrangements related to radwaste management.
The objective of the assessment of institutional arrangements was the determination of the responsibilities for the nuclear sector (radwaste management and decommissioning of nuclear installations) in Kazakhstan, including in particular organizational and implementation responsibilities. In particular, ministries, institutions, agencies and operators with specific responsibilities were identified.
The objective related with the review of the status of radioactive waste management and decommissioning in Kazakhstan was to determine the status and the needs for improvement. This encompasses a review of the completed assistance projects related to radioactive waste management and decommissioning and the identification of future needs, with a view to establishing long term institutional arrangements.
Specific activities included the following.
- The assessment of the status and results achieved by past ongoing assistance projects focused on radioactive waste management;
- The identification of the remaining important needs for international assistance in the area of radioactive waste management in Kazakhstan and the preparation of a Conceptual Work Plan and Project Description Sheets for future projects that are deemed to be of a high priority.
Some general points can be noted from the assessment of the past assistance in the area of radioactive waste:
- Relatively few projects related to radioactive waste management supported by international organizations have been conducted in Kazakhstan.
- Most of the internationally sponsored projects have been related to issues at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. They mainly address research issues related to the characterization, behaviour and transfer of radionuclides or modelling and assessment, rather than practical issues of radioactive waste and its management. Other topics addressed in international projects are related to the decommissioning of the BN-350 NPP, nuclear safeguards at the Ulba facilities and the security of highly active disused sealed sources.
- National projects include, in addition to those mentioned above in “2.”, the management of the uranium mining and milling waste, disused sealed source management and investigations for disposal sites.
- Few projects address the practical steps needed to render radioactive waste safe now and in the future, that is, waste treatment, conditioning, packaging, storage and disposal.
- It is difficult to establish the progress made in radioactive waste management in Kazakhstan from the waste management projects reviewed since the material available on many of the reports does not contain proper results and conclusions.
- No formal attempt seems to have been made to present the overall national situation with respect to radioactive waste management, that is, through a national inventory of radioactive waste and a plan for its management. It is noted, however, that the situation is expected to change in the near future when Kazakhstan ratifies the Joint Convention. This imposes, inter alia, an obligation for a national inventory of radioactive waste and, in addition, some sort of national plan for radioactive waste management will be expected.
On the basis of information obtained on the sources of radioactive waste in Kazakhstan, including decommissioning waste, on the existing measures being taken to manage the waste and on the existing infrastructure for radioactive waste management, a number of areas needing attention were identified. Subsequently, discussions with representatives of national authorities and of organizations responsible for radioactive waste management helped to focus these ideas and to confirm their potential as areas in which co-operation with the European Commission might be appropriate:
- Development of a national plan for managing radioactive waste in Kazakhstan. A well defined national plan would be useful in promoting consistency of emphasis and direction within all of the sectors involved in spent fuel and radioactive waste management. The absence of policy and strategy can lead to confusion or lack of co-ordination and direction.
- Strengthening the regulatory base for radioactive waste management in Kazakhstan. While the general legislative framework for radioactive waste management in Kazakhstan is considered by the regulatory authorities to be adequate, the more detailed and specific rules and regulations in this field are insufficient to properly cover all activities. For this reason, the relevant rules and regulations should be appropriately broadened and elaborated to cover all areas necessary for waste management.
- Planning for radioactive waste disposal. In the future, further radioactive waste will be generated during the decommissioning of the NPP and research reactors and the remediation of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. It is planned to put this waste into storage after appropriate processing, but in the longer term, it is recognised that arrangements must be made for the final disposal of radioactive waste in Kazakhstan and that appropriate plans should be developed for this purpose.
- Guidance on decommissioning activities. Decommissioning is already under way at the BN-350 NPP and consideration is being given to the need to decommission certain of the research reactors in Kazakhstan. The expertise being applied in this area has been largely drawn from other countries and it is desirable to develop the necessary expertise among Kazakhstan’s own experts; this applies both in the regulatory and implementation areas.
- Guidance on the Design and Operation of a Regional Radioactive Waste Management Centre. The Centre is intended to serve as the regional waste management centre for the Eastern part of the country and, at a later date, relevant experience and technologies would be transferred to other regional facilities to be established in the country. It is recognised that national expertise in this field is rather limited and that assistance and support from outside Kazakhstan will be needed for the purpose of establishing the facilities and technologies.
- The remediation of the parts of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site which were contaminated by the nuclear testing activities of the USSR is an issue being considered by the Government of Kazakhstan. In order to do this, some demarcation is necessary between the contaminated and the uncontaminated areas. National guidelines are being developed but the proposed values are considered by some to be impractical. Assistance may be needed on this topic in future.
The list may not be complete as it was not possible to interact with all of the organizations involved in radioactive waste management in Kazakhstan. In particular, the processing of the waste from the BN-350 reactor is an important topic and one in which assistance may be needed.