Belarus envoy says biofuels sector is key to cleaning up Chernobyl
Belarus is to construct a huge biofuels sector in an effort to finally rid its territory of the radioactive contamination which still remains, 26 years after the nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine, near its border with Belarus.
[UKPRwire, Thu Sep 25 2008] A senior Belarus diplomat told a conference in Brussels this week that his country's number one priority is to decontaminate the lands affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and that it will pursue this aim by building up a giant biofuels sector.
Mr Andrei Savinykh, deputy permanent representative at his country’s mission to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, told delegates at the conference that his government was convinced by scientific advice that repeated harvesting of biomass crops as feedstock for biofuel refineries would remove radionuclides from the soil in the contaminated areas.
He said it is possible that the construction of this new agro-industrial sector could result in radioactivity being removed from 50,000 square kilometres of land within 20 to 40 years, rather than the centuries which natural decay would take.
Speaking at a conference organised by Greenfield Project Management Ltd, which already plans to build a multi-fuel biorefinery in Belarus to produce bioethanol, biodiesel, biogas and green electricity, Mr Savinykh said his government would rapidly complete a planning phase for the revolutionary enterprise by the end of 2009, and that he hoped implementation would begin in 2010.
Saying that the government of Belarus was “fully committed” to the Chernobyl Bio-clean Programme, he stressed that the agricultural production cycle in the affected territories was unable to remove radionuclides via the cycle of ‘planting/harvest/process/food’. Even though plants absorb radioactive particles such as caesium 137 and strontium 90, these go back into the soil as straw and other crop wastes were put back on the land.
“The final stage, food, must be removed from the production chain,” he said, “and we must substitute instead an agro-industrial product in the form of biofuels. In addition, we must add safe processing and storage of radionuclides from the final waste. Then we can expect that repeated harvesting of biomass crops which absorb the radioactivity will remove it once and for all. Instead of centuries of natural decay, this process will cut the time to 20 to 40 years.”
Greenfield plans a multi-fuels refinery at Mozyr, Belarus, producing 550 million litres of ethanol annually along with biodiesel, biogas and electricity. Each stage can use waste from the previous stage along with fresh biomass feedstock. Initially, the fuels will use feedstock such as sugar beet and oil-bearing plants from clean lands, but following field trials and safety design all facilities will begin using contaminated crops.
Existing technologies will be applied to remove all radioactivity from the final products and from any effluents and emissions, leaving small quantities of radioactive waste to be stored in safe facilities.
“This land cannot be used to grow food crops,” said Mr Savinykh, “so we will not be competing with food crops or taking any food from even one person’s mouth. Instead, we will bring employment, incomes, and hope to these devastated regions, which have seen little improvement since the catastrophe in 1986.”
The Greenfield conference was attended by senior executives from companies interested in participating in the Mozyr project and others, including De Smet Engineering (Belgium), Genencor International (Netherlands), PM Group (Ireland) and GreenStream Network (Germany), an expert in carbon credits, as well as financial advisors and potential investors.
A seminar in Minsk will concretise plans for the enormous project, in conjunction with international organisations already involved with the Chernobyl problem, such as the UNDP, WHO, IAEA, World Bank, EU bodies, and NGOs. It will also reach out to the governments of Russia and Ukraine, whose territory was also seriously contaminated by the explosion at the Soviet reactor in 1986, the world’s worst civil nuclear disaster.
HERE IS THE TEXT OF MR. SAVINYKH'S SPEECH:
Presentation by Mr. Andrei Savinykh
Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Belarus to UN and other international organizations in Geneva
on the future implementation of the ‘Chernobyl Bio-clean Programme’
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today about 8 million people live in the territories affected as a result of the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986. These territories are distributed across three countries of the former Soviet Union: the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus.
About 155,000 sq. km of land in the three countries were contaminated, which is almost half of the total land area of Italy. The area of agricultural land affected comes to 52,000 sq. km, which is more than the size of Denmark.
Of the three countries, Belarus is the most affected with 23 % of its territory affected by the Chernobyl fall out (46 500 square km) or 80 % of the total fallout.
The radio-ecological situation in affected territories is defined by the effect of long-lived isotopes including the present time and near future. This includes caesium-137 (major source of gamma-radiation), strontium-90 (beta-radiation) and transuranium elements: plutonium-238, 239, 240 (alpha-radiation), 241 (beta-radiation) and americium-241 (alpha-radiation).
This contamination seriously influences the economy in these territories and throughout the country, its greatest effects being in the agricultural sector. This is the cause of great anxiety and social tensions among the population.
Thus, 22 years after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the situation in the affected territories remains the same from the radiological point of view as well as the condition of the environment, economy and social sphere.
The economic rehabilitation of the contaminated territories has become the number one priority for the Belarus Government.
This problem is unique: it has no historical analogue and is characterised by extreme complexity and enormous scale.
So what has been done to remedy the catastrophe?
Over the past 22 years the international community has created a sound legal and organisational framework to assist in remediation of Chernobyl consequences.
The most significant international documents on the international Chernobyl cooperation are the resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization.
In order to implement the resolutions of the UN General Assembly, in 1990 coordination mechanisms were established – the Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl and the Chernobyl Quadripartite Coordinating Committee.
The Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl includes 15 organizations and establishments of the UN system: UNDP, UNICEF, IAEA, UNFPA, UN HABITAT, UN EEC, UNSCEAR, IOM, UNIDO, UNESCO, WHO, WMO, and the World Bank.
In the process of international cooperation a number of strategic reports have been developed. Among them is the UN report ‘Humanitarian Consequences of the Accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant: a Strategy for Recovery’.
In 2002 the experts of the World Bank prepared another strategic document ‘Belarus: Review of the consequences of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and of the programmes to overcome them’.
Much work along these lines has been done, together with a vast amount of study. At the same time, it is clear that the efforts of the international players are inadequate to the existing problems.
I can mention at least two fundamental problems:
• Levels of financing,
• Lack of innovative approaches.
First, I would like to say a few words about financing. While in 1991, five years after the catastrophe, the affected nations requested nearly $646 million for 131 projects, they received only $8 million. In 1997, $90 million was requested for 60 projects. Only $1.5 million was pledged. Clearly, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done in the Chernobyl affected region.
Contributions do not yet meet needs.
Can we believe that in the coming years this situation can be changed? I doubt that. We need a different perspective and different financing mechanisms which can be constructed around the principles of public-private partnership.
The second problem is the lack of innovative approaches. Here I do not question the level of expertise or professionalism of all the specialists involved in the implementation of Chernobyl projects in the past. I also know that they did not have at their disposal the technologies which are available now.
Let me explain this position.
Agricultural production in the areas contaminated by radioactivity is one of the initial routes, and a major route, by which radioactivity can migrate along the chain "soil / cattle or edible crops / processing factory / food / human beings".
At present, agricultural projects implemented in the contaminated territories are mostly focused on the development of techniques and technologies which allow the production of agricultural products which can be relatively safe for human consumption. Here some progress has been achieved. The best example of is the development by the International Atomic Energy Agency of safe technology for the production of rape-seed oil from contaminated rape-seeds.
This approach has two principal weaknesses.
First, the producers operating in the Chernobyl environment are doomed to additional expenses and costs which make these economic entities unsustainable under normal market conditions. Their costs of production will always be higher than the costs of producers in other regions of Belarus, or elsewhere. This makes sustainable economic development in these regions into a “mission impossible” for an unacceptably long period of time.
Second, the agricultural technologies used in the process do not prevent the re-circulation of radioactive elements back into the soil again with agricultural wastes. Thus a vicious circle of repeated contamination is created, and no remediation occurs.
In fact, the use of these technologies cannot prevent a wider migration of small quantities of isotopes beyond the region. And nobody knows the consequences because we shall probably only be able to measure them 20 – 30 years later.
Our project, “Bio-Cleaning the Chernobyl-affected territories of radioactive contamination through the cultivation and utilization of biomass for industrial purposes”, addresses these two weaknesses in particular.
This can be done by changing the agricultural specialization of the region. It will be refocused on specializing in biomass production for industrial purposes. The basic principle here is to eliminate the category “food” from the production and consumption chain and the change the formula to “soil / biomass / bio-refinery / energy products”, as well as adding one additional component – the safe utilization of contaminated waste (after processing).
This approach, using repeated crop harvests, will allow the removal of a quantity of radioactive particles with every crop. We believe this will leave the arable lands “clean” after 20 - 40 years.
The decontamination of the lands affected by radioactive fallout through the use of biological technologies is the key component of the project. In this respect, one of the project aims is to establish to what extent different varieties of plants can absorb radionuclides from the soil to ensure its gradual remediation, and to develop a system of processing biomass to prevent the return of radioactive particles to the soil.
It is clear that this task demands a huge amount of financial resources if done in isolation from the market possibilities. Perhaps so much as to make it impossible.
The picture, however, is fundamentally different if we combine the “bioclean” activities with the creation of a large-scale biofuels industry.
The production of biomass for bio fuels becomes a solid economic foundation which ensures the economic sustainability of the whole process.
Currently there are many possibilities for the large scale industrial use of biomass suitable for achieving the bio-cleaning targets of the project:
• Production of fuel ethanol,
• Production and processing of oil-bearing crops into bio diesel,
• Production of biogas.
Today we have technologies which allow the production of radiation-free products (ethanol, biodiesel and biogas), leaving radioactive particles locked in DDGS and other forms of production waste.
Thus, the main element of the business model is – we create conditions conducive to the establishment of biofuels refineries which allow them to operate within the Chernobyl lands as if they are situated in the clean territories.
They will be purchasing biomass at normal local market prices. And the additional expenses attributable to the safety measures to grow and process biomass and to utilize and bury or store the waste will be covered by the Government of Belarus and international organizations and voluntary donors.
The structure of the business model, as I mentioned, is a public-private partnership (PPP or Tri-P), as pioneered by Greenfield with the Mozyr and Bobruisk Joint Ventures which you already know of and have been discussing today.
In fact, we see that these two projects will be the first steps in the Chernobyl Bio-clean Programme. And in addition, the agreements between Government and the Greenfield JVs can provide a model for further Tri-P enterprises in biofuels as part of the Bio-clean Programme.
We also think it will be possible that we shall be able to offer biofuels refineries an even better deal. Why is this?
Using the Chernobyl lands creates a unique opportunity to build up large-scale ethanol, biodiesel and biogas production without having any effect on the market for food.
The production of biomass will be shielded from price fluctuations in the food market simply because it can’t be used for food. This means that the possible “inconveniences” for biorefineries related to the processing of contaminated biomass will be rewarded by long term price sustainability of supply.
How will this model affect the cost of the whole “bioclean” process?
I believe dramatically. According to our preliminary estimation we shall be able to cover the bulk of the costs of the overall cleaning process due to our partnership with biorefineries.
In my estimates, I have not included a number of further possibilities which can have a sound market potential — simply because it is too early to do so.
For example, one of the key components of the project should be the safe use of contaminated industrial waste. This can be achieved through the use of technologically modified CHP (Combined Heat and Power) Plants with built-in capacity to capture radioactive particles from exhaust air and from ash.
This, combined with the local use of biogas and with carbon trading, can narrow the margin of additional resources even further.
There is also the possibility of conducting large-scale trials of different varieties of plants. Special attention should be paid to the plants with increased absorption capacities which can effectively “clean” the soil of radionuclides, heavy metals and other types of industrial contamination and which at the same time can be used to produce high yields of biofuels.
This could be a very promising avenue of research into creating bio-technologies for industrial waste elimination and nature conservation worldwide.
In our vision we see the whole “Bio-clean Programme” as a tool to create a consolidated, green energy-producing cluster of enterprises whose combined market power will provide them with a high level of long term sustainability.
Now let me focus on the immediate future steps and stages for the project development.
My recent consultations (in August) with Government bodies in Belarus clearly show that, at the early stages of project development, there are several key partners at the national level:
1. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
2. the Ministry of Emergency Situations with its subordinate organizations – the Radiological Institute and the Committee for Rehabilitation from the Chernobyl Catastrophe
3. the National Academy of Sciences
4. The Mogilev and Gomel Executive Councils (regional councils).
Their role will be crucial for the development of a common position for the adoption of the project. In the immediate future we believe they will take an active part in the following preparatory activities:
1. The Preparation of a ‘Chernobyl lands’ assessment report
The document will include general information on the contaminated land (area, levels of contamination, types of soil, fertility, etc).
The report must also include economic and territorial descriptions of the farms situated in these territories.
2. Designing the business model for local contractual relations for biomass production
The report should provide an overview of the economic health of the typical farm and the regulatory environment in which the farm operates. It should contain a detailed proposal on the architecture of contractual relations, inputs needed, and a risk management model.
Special attention should be placed on the assessment of economic outcomes of traditional agriculture and of the projected energy agriculture to show the advantages of the new approach.
If it is not possible to make this assessment for all contaminated territories, two or three case studies should be carried out for typical farms at different levels of economic development (poor, medium, good).
It will be highly advisable to develop a model contract as an integral part of the report.
3. Preparation of a report on possible isotope management and processing systems
This report should be focused on the issues of radiological control during the implementation of the project, and will cover the entire production cycle (field, production site, utilization site). Special focus should be paid to methods of waste management, operative safety, and safe utilization and storage methods.
We have a lot of experience related to these issues in Belarus.
4. Preparation of a report on the rotation of crops and varieties of plants
This report should focus on the best existing possibilities for crops rotation and varieties of plants.
5. National seminar: ‘The possibilities for remediation of the Chernobyl lands offered by emerging biofuel technologies’
We plan to organise a seminar in Minsk. All stakeholders, the representatives of international organizations and affected regions will be invited to discuss the findings and provide their views on further steps.
We hope that it can occur before the end of this year. In parallel, we plan to initiate consultations with international organizations, European scientific institutions and private sector on their possible participation in the project.
We shall aim at creating awareness about the project goals and obtaining expressions of interest from different stakeholders.
The outcomes of these activities both at national and international level should provide us with a solid foundation for the beginning of the planning stage of the project.
The successful completion of the planning stage will lead to the implementation stage from the beginning of 2010.
Company: Greenfield Project Management Ltd
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