Lithuanians near old nuclear plant fear for their lives

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In October 2010, radioactive pipes connected with Reactor 1 in Ignalina burst during cleaning, leaking several hundred tons of radioactive sludge.

It didn’t breach the concrete rooms inside the building and no one was injured, but the accident caused alarm, particularly since the plant conceded in a statement that the cleaning technology “was in fact not tested in nuclear industry enterprises before.”

Dormant nuclear facilities potentially could pose a tantalizing prize for terrorists or smugglers of nuclear materials, and experts point to another worry: Only a handful of reactors worldwide have been fully dismantled, meaning the process is largely uncharted territory.

Tearing apart reactor cores, for instance, creates unknown challenges and potential risks given the level of radiation inside them.

Steven Thomas, an energy specialist at Britain’s Greenwich University, says taking apart the core will likely require robots that are not yet invented.

“The robots we have at the moment won’t do it because the levels of radioactivity will send them berserk,” he said.

Costly enterprise

Ignalina presents particular challenges. The nuclear fuel rod bundles, at 23 feet, are twice as long as those in conventional plants and must be sawed in half to fit into storage casts.

Spent nuclear fuel is by far the biggest decommissioning headache. It is extremely radioactive and will remain so for thousands of years.

In the U.S. and elsewhere it’s a political bomb because no state or county wants to store it. France chooses to reprocess its fuel for further use in reactors, while Sweden and Finland bury it in casks deep underground.

In the long term, Lithuania hopes to send its fuel back to Russia, where it was manufactured. But for now, it has nowhere to put many spent fuel bundles since the temporary storage facility that was supposed to be ready when the plant closed in 2009 is still not complete.

Decommissioning work in Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria has been held up by vague contracts, lengthy regulatory approval, commercial disputes and management changes, according to officials involved in the projects.

Since closing the plants was a condition for their joining the bloc, the EU is paying almost the entire bill, and for taxpayers: It’s huge — more than $2.6 billion so far, over half of it to Ignalina, the most troublesome.

The three countries have re-estimated total costs at $6.8 billion — up from the original estimate of $5.1 billion — and doesn’t include the toughest job, dismantling the reactor cores.

The job was to be completed between 2025 and 2035, but may take much longer and cost more.

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