NATO helps Ukraine clean up radioactive waste
Ukraine is no stranger to radioactive contamination, having endured the Chernobyl disaster that shocked the world in 1986. But the Soviet era left a number of smaller radioactive security threats of a different nature, including six former military bases that were transformed into disposal grounds for radioactive waste. Unfortunately, they were left without proper documentation in sub-standard storage containers, without enough qualified and equipped people to manage them. NATO is embarking on a Trust Fund project to help Ukraine clear up the most vulnerable of these sites.
On 18 September at NATO Headquarters, Ukrainian Minister for Ecology and Natural Resources Oleg Proskuriakov signed an implementing agreement with the NATO Support Agency (NSPA), which will be the executing agent for the project. Once the agreement has been ratified by the Ukrainian Parliament, it will come into force.
“On behalf of the Government of Ukraine, I would like to express our gratitude to NATO and the NATO Support Agency principal officials for their active engagement in solving the critical issue of ensuring safe management of radioactive waste in Ukraine,” said Minister Proskuriakov.
"This Trust Fund project exemplifies the close relationship between NATO and Ukraine and bears testimony to the spirit of mutual assistance which characterises our relationship. Germany as lead nation will be strongly engaged in the implementation of the project," said Ambassador Martin Erdmann, Germany’s Permanent Representative to NATO.
A Cold War legacyTwo hundred kilometres west of Kyiv lies Vakulenchuk, an urban settlement of some 2,000 people. A thick forest near the town once provided cover for military warehouses during the Second World War, after which the Soviet leadership began using the site to store nuclear weapons. Sometime in the 1960s it became a burial ground for radioactive waste.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine inherited a number of radioactive waste sites, such as the one at Vakulenchuk, that threaten the security of the local population and environment with radioactive contamination.
At these sites, sources of ionising radiation were buried in containers made of wood or metal mixed with concrete, with little or no documentation as to what was in them. In Vakulenchuk, the containers were then buried in a concrete well with a wall 20 centimetres thick and covered by a concrete lid.
Two sites have already been cleaned up by Ukraine with the help of the United States. Six remain – five of which fall under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the sixth, at Vakulenchuk, under the Border Guard Service.
In April 2011, a team from NATO visited Vakulenchuk and another site, Tsybulyevo, which they assessed as a lower risk because it is heavily guarded by the Armed Forces and its containers are in better condition.
Vakulenchuk is more vulnerable as the Border Guard Service personnel are less equipped to properly manage the site and the physical protection measures in place fall well short of Ukrainian or international standards.
Previously unwanted and uncontrolled radioactive materials – often referred to as ‘orphan sources’ – were found near the site. This underlines the risk of possible illegal tampering and consequent security risks.
Restoring the landWith a planned contribution of €500,000, Germany is the lead nation for the project. Luxembourg, Switzerland and the United States are also contributing to the project. Once the initial amount of €620,000 is in place, the NSPA will begin work on restoring the land at Vakulenchuk.
The clearing process will follow the same procedure used for two other former Soviet military sites that held radioactive sources in similar conditions. With support from the US Department of Energy, Ukrainian companies dug up the storage compartments at Makariv-1 and Zherebkove and packed the units into sealed containers. These were then transported to an interim storage facility where they await final disposal at the “Vector” radioactive waste facility at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
In Vakulenchuk, the soil and groundwater will be tested to measure radioactivity. Then the sources and their containers will be extracted in one piece to avoid damaging the containers. The soil and groundwater will again be tested to ensure the surrounding area is in an acceptable condition to be passed onto the local civil authorities. The extracted material will then be transported to Radon State Corporation as interim storage before finally being moved to Vector Facility for long-term storage.
Why NATO?NATO’s relations with Ukraine date back to 1991, when Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (now Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council). In 1997, the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership was signed, establishing the NATO-Ukraine Commission.
With several years of cooperation with Ukraine on defence reform and demilitarization, NATO stands in a unique position to help with this project. The Alliance has been assisting with the destruction of obsolete landmines, arms and ammunition. It has also been supporting the retraining of retired army staff. The radioactive waste disposal project is another area of practical cooperation.