RTGs Removed Successfully from the Baltic Sea

A Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG)

13 March 2012 | The last Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) were successfully removed from the Baltic Sea in Russia, as a result of joint international efforts by Norway, Russia, France, Sweden, Finland and the USA.

These RTGs contained extremely powerful strontium-90 (90Sr) radioactive sources to provide energy for lighthouses along the Russian coast of the Baltic Sea, where they served for navigation purposes.

Ninety-three Baltic RTGs were located in remote areas along the coastline without sufficient physical protection of their powerful radiation sources. Therefore they posed a potential risk to people and the environment. Moreover, all RTGs had exceeded their service life and needed to be decommissioned without delay.

RTGs contain 90Sr radioactive sources with the total activity of up to 20 x1015 becquerel. Inside RTGs the heat resulting from 90Sr decay is converted into electricity to power lighthouses.

International Programme

The need to establish a solid international programme for RTG recovery was addressed by the IAEA Contact Expert Group for International Nuclear Legacy Initiatives in Russia (CEG), whose members established successful joint projects for RTG decommissioning. First steps were already taken in the early 2000s to secure RTGs from North-West Russia and the Russian Pacific coast with funding from the USA, Norway, and Canada.

The programme for a massive removal of Baltic RTGs started in 2009, when Norway and France allotted significant funds for its implementation. Earlier, the US provided satellite alarm systems for RTGs to enhance security before completing the removal process. Later, Sweden and Finland joined the Norwegian initiative.

Safety issues were given special attention. Norwegian and Russian regulators jointly upgraded the regulatory framework for the safe decommissioning of RTGs. The work was carried out by Russian organisations including the Navy, the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, and a number of companies of the Russian State Corporation Rosatom. The total cost of this Baltic RTG programme amounted to over 13 million Euro.

Complicated Procedures, Many Stages

The decommissioning of RTG is a complicated procedure consisting of many stages. It starts with dismantling RTGs from their sites, then taking them by helicopters on board of navy ships which transport them to collection points. From there, RTGs are taken by train to specialised companies in Moscow, where the 90Sr heat sources are retrieved from RTGs in hot cells and packed in transport containers. The heat sources are then sent by train to the Mayak plant located in the Urals, where they are placed in a storage facility in containers together with vitrified high level waste.

As a result of the successful international programmes, the majority of the 1007 RTGs were safely removed from the vast Russian coast line. Currently, only 119 RTGs are left in Russia, mainly in the remote Arctic areas. The remaining RTGs will be removed from these areas within the next two years.

Contact: Mr. Oleg Goroshko, Executive Secretary, CEG

Related Resources:

Photo Essay: Removing RTGs from the Baltic Sea

CEG Workshop on Problems of Decommissioning Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (2008)

Norwegian cooperation with Russia on nuclear legacy issues (Report)

The US National Nuclear Security Administration, Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI)

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