Radioactive sources in lighthouse lamps: Removal and waste treatment

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Desolate areas along the Russian Arctic coastline contain hundreds of lighthouse lamps powered by strontium batteries (RITEGs) that pose a local pollution hazard. The absence of physical protection makes them readily accessible to unauthorised persons. A series of attempted thefts in recent years has shown that they could also be accessible to terrorists. Removing the sources and replacing them with solar cell technology brings them under the control of the authorities in Mayak and reduces the risk of them going astray. It also reduces the risk of pollution of the marine environment.

NRPA Report 04-2005: Assessment of environmental, health and safety consequences of decomissioning radioisotopic thermal generators in NW Russia

NRPA Bulletin 04-2005: Assessment of environmental, health and safety consequences of decomissioning radioisotopic thermal generators in NW Russia

NRPA Bulletin 07-2004: Dissmantling of RTGs on the Kola Peninsula

So far the total number of sources removed from Murmansk County is 65, while solar panels are installed in 37 lighthouse lamps under the direction of the County Governor of Finnmark.  The Norwegian authorities consider it highly important to ensure that the RTGs are replaced safely and securely. For this reason the NRPA carried out, in the spring of 2004, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to investigate the benefits of replacing the radioactive sources and putting them into waste storage. The EIA indicated that removing the sources would have a positive outcome for health, environment and safety. In 2004 fifteen radioactive sources were replaced with solar panels. The NRPA considered that the greatest potential for accidents was during helicopter transport of the RTGs, and that this was an acceptable risk compared with risk faced in not removing the sources. Even so the NRPA desired further information from Russian authorities. Based on the EIA, no need was found to recommend a halt to further funding of the work on replacing the RTGs.

Alongside the project for replacing RTGs with solar panels, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is funding the final disposal of removed RTGs. Both projects involve the joint Norwegian-Russian expert group set up to investigate radioactive contamination in the northern areas, and are headed by the County Governor of Finnmark.

A long-term objective will be to remove all strontium batteries in Russian lighthouse lamps in Norway’s near abroad and replace them with solar panels. At a rate of removal of twenty RTGs per year, it will take about eight years to achieve the objective of removing every one of them. In february 2005, The minister og Foreign affairs signed an international agreement with Russia with the goal to remove all remaining RTGs in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and nenets. There are plans to remove 31 RTGs in 2005 with Norwegian financial support.

In february 2005, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the NRPA and Finnmark`s County Governor, arranged  an international CEG-workshop, on the removal of RTGs, werein 80 individuals from 11 nations participated. There is now a great international willingness to contribute towards the removal of these radiostrontium sources in Russia and one of the results from the workshop was an initiative tabled to establish an international coordination group on this theme.

Facts on RTGs
A substantial number of radioactive sources are present in Russia and in the former Soviet republics. They have been used for a variety of purposes including medicine, industry, research and agriculture. Many of them are poorly secured and represent a hazard to the environment and to safety. The lighthouse lamps are powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) based on radioactive strontium-90 sources. RTGs are also used as power sources for radio beacons and weather stations and are found across wide areas of Russia and other former Soviet states.  The RTG-powered lighthouse lamps on the Kola Peninsula are owned and operated by Mintrans or the Northern Fleet.