Remediation work on the facility has lasted 10 years and is nearing completion. The Estonian government has worked closely with its Nordic neighbours and the European Union to render the site – a cause for concern for all of the parties involved – environmentally safe.
“Sorting out the environmental problems related to the site isn’t only important to Estonia but to all of the countries on the Baltic Sea,” said Tõnis Kaasik, the director of AS ÖkoSil. “It has been one of the European Union’s regional pilot projects. The financing scheme put together to resolve the issue is unique for involving so many different parties, and it sets a great example of cooperation to others.”
An international conference titled ‘From the past to the future – a retrospective to the Sillamäe Radioactive Tailings Pond Remediation Project and a national preview of the nuclear energy possibilities’ is being organised by the Estonian Ministry of the Environment and AS ÖkoSil at the Jõhvi Concert Hall on 28 and 29 October to mark the completion of principal work on the site, presenting summaries and setting out plans for the future.
Those attending the conference will also be able to take part in a field trip to Sillamäe on 28 October to see for themselves the work that has been done over the last ten years.
“Nuclear safety issues won’t disappear from the agenda in Estonia once the Sillamäe site has been rendered safe, of course,” Kaasik said. “That’s why the second day of the conference will be dedicated to aspects of nuclear energy and nuclear safety that people are talking about today, in the context of Estonia and more broadly.”
Experts and representatives of the organisations connected with the Sillamäe project, environmental specialists dealing with similar problems elsewhere in Europe and decision-makers in the field of radiation safety and from the energy sector in Estonia are invited to attend the conference.
The project in brief:
The Sillamäe radioactive tailings pond is located on the western side of the town of Sillamäe in Ida-Viru County. At its closest point it lies just 30 metres from the shores of the Baltic Sea. The facility covers almost 50 hectares and contains around 12 million tonnes of waste from uranium production and oil shale ash stored here since a secret Soviet uranium plant went into operation in 1948.
The facility has long been a source of pollution. Everything left over from production was offloaded on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Attempts were initially made to produce uranium from local Dictyonema shale, but within a few years uranium ore was being shipped in from Eastern Europe.
Processing of uranium ore – both ground Dictyonema shale and the ore later imported from Eastern-bloc countries which was 100 times richer – produced hazardous and highly toxic waste: a grey-brown sludge containing uranium, heavy metals, acids and other chemicals. 12 million tonnes of this material (uranium waste mixed with oil shale ash) formed what has come to be known as Sillamäe’s ‘uranium pond’.
Work to clean up the site began in 1998 as a joint effort of the governments of Estonia, the Nordic countries and the European Union. To this end the Estonian government and AS Silmet Grupp worked together to establish a separate company: AS ÖkoSil, specialising in environmental technology and waste management.
The total cost of the remediation project was 21.4 million euros (334.5 million kroons) plus the costs incurred by AS Silmet in reorganising its production processes. The remediation project was financed through the European Union’s Phare programme, the Nordic environmental fund NEFCO and the governments of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in addition to Estonian funding from the state budget and via the Environmental Investment Centre.
The remediation of Sillamäe’s uranium tailing pond is the biggest environmental project of its kind ever undertaken in Estonia.