9 Oct 2020

Rostekhnadzor chief Alexei Aleshin: Arctic does not need large fuel tanks

Alexei Aleshin

Alexei Aleshin
Photo: Rostekhnadzor press-office

The head of Russia's Federal Service for Environmental, Technological, and Nuclear Oversight (Rostekhnadzor) Alexei Aleshin in an interview with Interfax spoke about the timeframe for the country's new industrial safety law coming into force, inspections of enterprises during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as what needs to be done in order to prevent accidents like the emergency that recently occurred at TPP-3 of MMC Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel).

Question: The government has returned the draft law on industrial safety to Rostekhnadzor for revision. What provisions need to be improved? Has the government held a series of consensus meetings, and have all the differences been resolved? Within what timeframe must Rostekhnadzor finalize the bill and resubmit it to the State Duma?

Answer: The draft law "On Industrial Safety" must be brought in line with federal law No. 248-FZ "On State Oversight (supervision) and Municipal Oversight in the Russian Federation" adopted at the end of July. We drafted it even before the start of the "regulatory guillotine"; therefore, taking into account the new law, it was decided to see how our draft law complies with it and what needs to be amended.

There will be no conceptual changes in the amended version of the bill. This means technical details that affect the way we exercise our powers.

We will be ready to submit the updated version in mid-October.

Q.: When should it come into force?

A.: Everything depends on when the State Duma considers and adopts it. We plan that some of the articles will come into force in 2021, and some a bit later. For example, everything related to the remote monitoring system. The launch of the system depends on the technical preparedness, not only ours, but also the supervised organizations; therefore, the draft law stipulates transition periods.

Q.: You mentioned the "regulatory guillotine". How many out-of-date legal acts will be eliminated as part of the regulatory guillotine? Are there any difficulties with doing this? How has the industrial community perceived the revision of the regulatory framework?

A.: In the area of industrial safety, 10 government decrees and 155 of our departmental orders (rules and regulations) have been annulled. In the area of safety of hydraulic structures, six government acts and 20 departmental acts [have been axed]. The numbers are large enough. Instead of annulled normative legal acts, Rostekhnadzor plans to draft new decrees and departmental normative legal acts. We have already drafted the projects with our working group, passed consideration by the subcommittee in the government, and submitted them to the Cabinet.

Therefore, the total number of regulations should be reduced by three times. Meantime, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that almost 90% of the requirements will remain, and we shall simply bring them into a more digestible form.

I have no doubt that by January 1, we shall cope with the task at hand, and issue the necessary departmental documents in all areas.

Q.: You have repeatedly supported reforming legislation in the area of using industrial safety expertise. As far as I understand, this aspect has also been touched upon in the new bill. Has the initiative found understanding within industry?

A.: In Russia now, about 70% of industrial safety inspections are related to the extension of the service life of technical devices. Worldwide, the functions of extending the life of technical devices is the responsibility of the manufacturer, and only it can take responsibility for such decisions. The company knows its product, the materials from which it is manufactured, and how it behaves when tested in different environments.

In our country, a so-called independent expert takes the decision on extending the service life of a technical device. However, is the knowledge of an expert who was not involved in developing and testing a device sufficient to take a decision on extending its service life rather than the actual developer taking the decision? How objective is the conclusion?

We are against this approach. We need the enterprise to operate an absolutely safe facility and bear responsibility for it. Therefore, we had the idea to move the solution to extend the life of the device to the company level. We have discussed this with the business community, and they have generally supported our proposal.

Q.: The accident at Nornickel's TPP-3 raises the question of the efficacy of supervision over hazardous production facilities. In this situation, we have seen that there are many legal loopholes, whereby companies could avoid inspections and continue to operate substandard equipment. How could you establish oversight for the operations of companies in order to avoid such situations?

A.: I would separate this question into two parts, the first one specifically about the case, and [the second] about the system as a whole.

The Nornickel case is unique. There have never been any accidents in Russia before when a reservoir tank toppled because the foundation was destroyed. The situation requires further study, such as why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, and how it should have been monitored. These are questions to be answered by the commission investigating the causes of the accident.

According to the documents, the tank had been in overhaul mode since 2016. To what extent the documents adhered to the actual situation, is also a question for the expert review panel.

What needs to be changed? The regulatory framework that now exists allows for the oversight of such objects in general. I think that companies must be offered the [the opportunity of] implementation of technical tools that could help monitor and prevent such events.

Most likely, we will prepare proposals to prohibit the usage of large-volume tanks in such environmentally important regions as the Arctic. The capacity of Nornickel's tank was 30,000 tonnes. What is the purpose of such tanks above the Arctic Circle?

Q.: Is there already a specific deadline for completing the analysis of the causes of the accident at TPP-3?

A.: We were due to finish the investigation by the end of September; however, a decision was taken to extend it until the middle of October in light of some technical difficulties. We needed to study the foundation of the tank, but tank had to be dismantled before this. Drilling is now underway, and samples are being taken. We hope that specialists will have enough time to conduct the necessary examination and diagnostics within two weeks. We have several research institutes operating there that specialize in permafrost studies and soil stability issues.

Q.: Will Norilsk Nickel face an administrative case or a fine following the audit?

A.: These decisions are taken based only upon the investigation of the causes of the accident. I would prefer not to speculate just yet. However, that, no one should doubt that the perpetrators will be identified and penalized.

Q.: As instructed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rostekhnadzor and Russia's Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage (Rosprirodnadzor) are checking oil storage and transport facilities, in particular in the Arctic, following the accident at TPP-3. What do the first results of auditing the company show? Is the equipment in good condition, is it being operated correctly? How do companies in general perceive such inspections? Are there any difficulties in accessing facilities?

A.: The inspection will affect 426 hazardous production facilities linked with the storage and transport of oil and petroleum products. These facilities include 2,300 tanks that range in volume from 400 to 40,000 cubic meters. Thus, Nornickel did not have the largest. We shall also inspect around 20,000 technical pieces of principal technological equipment. Of course, this is a very large figure.

We have currently completed inspecting 264 facilities. Nearly 2,600 violations have been discovered, 54 owners have been held liable, the operations of 15 hazardous production facilities have been suspended, and a total of 6.5 million rubles in fines has been imposed. I think that we shall have finished the majority of inspections by December. There are difficulties only with traveling to some areas, especially remote northern ones.

To date, 7.6% of tested facilities require repair or complete decommissioning, and 14.5% of equipment had been decommissioned prior to the start of inspections, as based on decisions taken by production-control services of the supervised organizations involved in our inspection.

This does not mean that all the facilities could have experienced the same severe accidents as occurred with Nornickel. We shall sum up the end-results when the inspection is over. However, we are currently responding to violations that could potentially lead to emergencies. Either we suspend operation of the facility, or the organization decides to decommission the facility itself. After the situation with Nornickel, companies are more attentive to these inspections.

Q.: You reported in July that Rostekhnadzor intends to initiate inspections of class-two hazardous production facilities. Has the agency received a corresponding order from the government? What specific cases have indicated the need for such inspections?

A.: The designation "class-two" in the name of a hazard class should not be misleading, as this is a very high degree. For example, the emergency tank of Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company (NTEC) is class-two. By law, we must inspect all these facilities no more than once a year. This year, owing to restrictions imposed by the government amid Covid-19, have not had the opportunity. Therefore, from the list of hazardous production facilities, we have selected 17%, which is over three hundred, where the risks are most likely, and we went to the government with a request to assign inspections. There is a rationale for each object that we have chosen. We have already received the corresponding order.

We intend to inspect those hazardous production facilities that have a high degree of physical wear-and-tear. We have information on these facilities. Also within the sphere of inspections are hazardous industrial facilities, where explosive gases and liquids are handled, including those under high pressure. The third group concerns the handling of chemically hazardous substances, such as chlorine, ammonia, acids, and others. Moreover, we plan to inspect mining conditions in hazardous areas, meaning those areas where there is deformation of rock layers, a violation of the integrity of the area, cracks, subsidence, landslides, seismically hazardous areas, etc.

Another group is the hazardous production facilities where accidents or incidents have occurred repeatedly in previous years, and the facilities, whose operation we have suspended, having discovered violations that pose actual risk to the life, health and well-being the population.

Q.: Accidents at oil pipelines always cause a wide resonance. Has Rostekhnadzor noted an increasing tendency for such accidents? Will the agency somehow tighten oversight in order to prevent accidents at oil pipelines?

A.: One should keep in mind that not all oil spills are classified as accidents. When talking about an accident, we mean the complete destruction of an object, a torch, and so on. With smaller oil spills, the main criteria are the volume and pollution of bodies of water, which are recorded as incidents. Since 2015, an average of two accidents have occurred. This year, there has been one.

Today, there are about 75,000 km of oil and oil product pipelines in the country. Most of them have been in operation for more than 30 years. Of course, it is impossible to replace everything overnight. After each accident, we investigate the causes and inform the organizations as to why it happened, how it happened, and what needs to be done to prevent it from reoccurring. Since 2017, we have developed 15 safety guides in this area. Of course, these are optional rules, but they are based on common sense, scientific knowledge, and the results of accident investigations. Companies follow these guidelines and place significant emphasis on trouble-free operation themselves. For example, Transneft is very active in pipe diagnostics, and they have quite interesting developments, effective in-house services, and repairs are conducted exactly where necessary.

In addition, with the development of remote monitoring, we will actively launch it on pipeline transport. This will improve the efficiency of supervision, as well as increase the speed of response to prerequisites for accidents.

Q.: You have said that the four-party agreements signed back in 2011 with oil companies must be revised, because the economic situation has changed dramatically. What provisions do you think need to be amended? How have the other parties to the agreement reacted to your idea? What have you managed to agree? Should the agreements be extended to the steel and coal industries?

A.: We suggest transferring full control to modernize the refinery to the Energy Ministry, and to summarize the implementation of the four-way agreements.

The agreements were signed in 2011, and their main purpose was to incentivize companies to increase the depth of oil refining and the yield of light oil products, and to improve the environmental performance of motor fuels. They were necessary to improve the competitiveness of our industries. This is so that exports are not only oil, and that they would be products of higher-added value as well as be an export commodity, and that we, not our partners, would earn money on this. I would like to indicate that this is a voluntary document. Failure to comply does not mean sanctions. Companies have assumed, so to speak, socialist obligations of their own free will.

As of today, 63 installations for deep oil refining have already been built and, although according to the plan, there were somewhat more, with the lag being because of objective reasons, including the fall in oil prices. For the same reason, the relevance of the 2011 agreements was called into question. In addition, the Energy Ministry has developed rules for concluding agreements on modernizing oil refining capacities and monitoring their implementation. The rules came into force on January 1, 2019, and approved a list of oil secondary processing units that may be the subject of agreements on refinery modernization. Because the document significantly duplicates the four-way agreements, Rostekhnadzor has sent a proposal to the government on summarizing the implementation, as well as transferring control over the further modernization of the refinery to the Energy Ministry. The Federal Anti-monopoly Service (FAS) has supported our proposal.

There is no sense in such agreements for metallurgical and coal enterprises. For example, in the United State's market, anti-dumping investigations are conducted against our companies, and it turns out that they work more efficiently than U.S. companies there. The products are competitive and in demand on the international market.

Q.: Rosatom has announced plans to build new facilities at the Leningrad and Smolensk NPPs. Has the company submitted documents to obtain the licenses, and have they submitted documents to extend the service life of the NPPs?

A.: Rostekhnadzor has not yet received documents for granting licenses for the construction of power units at Smolensk NPP-2 and Leningrad NPP-2.

In July, Rostechnadzor issued a license to Rosenergoatom to operate power unit No. 2 of Leningrad NPP-2. Now the commissioning of the power unit is at the stage of "physical start-up".

In total, during the period 2019-2020, Rostechnadzor issued (extended) eight licenses to Rosenergoatom: for the operation of power units 1,2,3 of the Beloyarsk NPP; as well as for the operation of power units at the Smolensk, Kalinin, Kola, Novovoronezh, and Bilibino NPPs.

We are currently considering an application to extend the license to operate power unit No. 3 of the Bilibino NPP from December 2020 to December 2025; we check the accuracy of the information contained in the documents for license renewal.

In addition, by the end of the year, Rosenergoatom plans to submit an application for a license to operate power unit No. 4 of the Bilibino NPP during the additional period (from December 2021 to December 2026).

Q.: In terms of introducing remote monitoring, which is still in test mode: How is the implementation of the system progressing? How did the pilot project perform? Are you satisfied with the result, and what is next?

A.: For several years now, together with our supervised organizations, we have been introducing a remote monitoring system of production processes in various industries: petrochemicals, refining, and the coal industry. We are actively working on this topic with Gazprom.

Until now, we have studied the technical capabilities of the system and its effectiveness. We got good results and realized that with its help we can get all the information we need about the state of a hazardous production facility.

At the next stage, we plan to implement this system and make it an integral part of our supervisory activities. We would really like to see the results that can be obtained thanks to it, become legally significant. The main idea is not to check the information that we will receive through the remote monitoring system. So that a priori it was considered that they were verified and we received the necessary information. This is a big plus for the state: there is no need to do the same job twice. For the same reasons, it is beneficial for enterprises, in addition, remote monitoring significantly reduces the risk of accidents, and in the end it is also money and often huge.

There is also the "Electronic Inspector" system. This is no less interesting thing, because 70% of any check is the study of papers that are in the operating organization. Filling them out also takes a very long time. We want to use this program to create documents in your personal account in electronic form, and the system could check them and indicate errors. Launching the system will free our inspectors from routine activities and help them focus on work that requires direct human participation. Supervised organizations, in turn, will be able to carry out self-checking in a continuous mode, it will be technically impossible to "forget" something.

One more point is also important. It is impossible to "negotiate" with a computer, the launch of digital solutions significantly reduces the risks of committing corruption crimes.

Q.: When should the remote systems be launched?

A.: Rostekhnadzor has been testing elements of these systems for a long time in cooperation with supervised organizations. The design of the state system "Digital Platform of Rostechnadzor" has been completed. We are starting to create it, and we are currently in the process of posting information about the corresponding competition. The launch date for the first stage is mid-2021.

Q.: How much do you estimate the cost will be to create the system and implement it?

A.: We need to hold a competition, study the proposals, and then the amount will be clear. As for the implementation, the numbers will depend on the scale of the enterprise, but absolutely sure - they will not be critical for anyone.