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Russia: Plans To Import Spent Nuclear Fuel Prompt Safety Concerns -- Part 1

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's lower house of parliament is scheduled to vote on March 22 on the second reading of a controversial plan to import spent nuclear fuel. The plan, which has the active support of the atomic energy ministry, proposes to lift Russia's 1992 ban on nuclear-waste imports. It swept easily through its first reading in December, outraging both domestic and international environmental groups. While the largely submissive Duma looks likely to pass the plan, many doubts remain about the feasibility, safety, and political import it. In this first of a three-part series, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the details of the ministry's proposal and whether it can actually work.

Moscow, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One of the most worrisome after-effects of the industrial world's weakness for atomic power is spent nuclear fuel. Worldwide, nearly 200,000 tons of spent fuel from nuclear power plants are sitting in temporary containers as scientists and government leaders debate the best way of disposing of the radioactive and non-biodegradable waste.

With no simple solution to the problem, Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry proposal to dispose of some 20,000 tons of the world's spent fuel might seem like a reasonable option. The ministry has argued that Siberia's vast stretches of uninhabited land are an ideal temporary repository for spent nuclear fuel -- and Russia's key to earning billions of dollars from countries looking to get rid of their waste.

According to the ministry's market research, the project could bring as much as $20 billion to the country's cash-strapped coffers. Minister Yevgeni Adamov has said that a part of the profits could cover the cost of boosting safety and environmental standards in the country's own nuclear industry.

Advocates of the plan have an additional benefit in mind: reprocessing the spent fuel to extract plutonium, which can then be burned in converted nuclear reactors instead of more traditional low-enriched uranium.

By the ministry's logic, the plan will allow Russia to have its cake and eat it too. It will make money and receive the raw materials for an endless source of energy at the same time.

Adamov is so convinced of the merits of the plan of creating a self-perpetuating energy system that pays for itself that he even refuses to refer to spent fuel as "waste:"

"We don't plan to import nuclear waste. And whoever uses that word to describe spent nuclear fuel -- the most valuable source of energy and the most strategically valuable raw material, since other types will eventually run out -- either has a bad memory or confuses things on purpose."

But regardless of whether it is called waste or raw material, critics say spent fuel is not something that Russia -- with its dubious nuclear-safety record -- should be importing. Adamov's plan has been attacked by a number of environmental groups as well as Russia's state agency for nuclear safety, Gosatomnadzor. Andrei Kislov, who co-authored the agency's analysis of Adamov's proposal, says any move to lift the 1992 import ban would be premature:

"If nuclear fuel is imported now, it will be stored in conditions that are not up to existing safety demands."

Kislov says that the two existing Siberian sites that have been earmarked for the project are run-down and not prepared to either reprocess or store large quantities of incoming spent fuel. He says Russia should set up proper reprocessing facilities and storage space -- as well as pass laws governing compensation for damage in case of nuclear accidents -- and only then lift the ban:

"The sites that exist at Mayak in the city of Ozyorsk [in the southern Urals] and at the chemical plant in Zheleznogorsk [in eastern Siberia] aren't made for such large additional quantities of spent nuclear fuel. They just don't have the capacity to store this safely. So the task is to build the necessary [storage sites] and, if also required, reprocessing facilities. For the moment these things don't exist, so we at Gosatomnadzor think that it is too early to change the legislation to allow imports of fuel."

The question of storage is further complicated by reprocessing, which creates waste that is even more radioactive and difficult to store than the original spent fuel. This second-generation waste, which can come in liquid, solid, and gas form, must be stored in special ceramic containers buried deep underground in order to avoid the risk of contamination.

An additional problem is that no one reprocessor can handle the wide variety of the world's spent fuels. Mayak's RT-1 reprocessor, for example, is built to accept spent fuel from Russian nuclear submarines and certain pressurized water reactors, but would most likely have to be adapted to process fuel from nuclear reactors in potential client countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Switzerland. Russia currently does not have the necessary resources to either restructure its existing plants or build new ones.

Vladimir Kuznetsov is a specialist in nuclear energy. Having worked as an inspector at both Gosatomnadzor and the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, he now spends his time lobbying for a total overhaul of what he says is a decrepit nuclear infrastructure.

Kuznetsov states his position bluntly: the import of spent nuclear fuel will multiply the risk of accidents. He says Russian's bargain-basement reprocessing prices -- which the Atomic Energy Ministry has called one of the plan's key selling points -- is evidence of the country's unsafe and outmoded facilities:

"If in France or Great Britain it costs $1,500 to reprocess a kilogram of spent nuclear fuel, [Russia currently] charges Ukraine $200 to $300 per kilogram. These prices are much too low. If we had the same security standards, the same environmental protection standards, and the same salaries for the people working on these sites [as those in the West], the price would be higher. [Our] prices are low because we have 1950s' technology."

Reprocessing the waste is only one problem. Transporting the waste raises another set of difficulties. The fuel, which is contained in hundreds of tiny cylinders strung onto rods and stored in 8-meter-long hexagonal units, is very radioactive and cumbersome to transport.

Russia now has only a single four-car train equipped to transport spent fuel. Kuznetsov says as many as 20 transports are required for Russia's own spent nuclear fuel each year but that in reality only three or four transports are made. The process, he says, is simply too complicated -- and at $1.5 million per transport, too expensive -- for Russia's current capabilities.

That, combined with the dilapidated condition of Russia's railways and almost nonexistent safety training for workers, makes people like Kuznetsov worried about the outcome of an import program. He and the Russian non-governmental Social-Ecological Union co-authored a study concluding that accidents in transporting radioactive material are two to three times more common in Russia than in Europe.

Kuznetsov recalls one such "accident" he was sent to inspect at the Bilibino nuclear power plant in Russia's far eastern Chukotka region in 1990:

"Some technicians were instructed to take a dummy unit -- that is, one without spent nuclear fuel -- and try as an experiment to cut it into smaller pieces, because eight meters is difficult to transport. So what did they do? In their simple-mindedness, they took a real spent [fuel] unit [from storage]. When it hasn't been used it's a silver color. When you take it used out of the reactor, it's really black, like it's from hell. So they took it and cut it into pieces. And our little friends who did this work were put into an ambulance [with severe radiation poisoning] and then taken by plane to Moscow."

Kuznetsov adds that the traditional secrecy surrounding the country's nuclear industry make safety issues that much more difficult to address. In short, he says, Russia is barely capable of handling its own spent fuel, and is definitely not ready for a full-fledged import program.

Vitaly Nasonov, an Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman, agrees that Russia must address many issues before a spent-fuel import program can get off the ground, adding that so far there have been no serious negotiations with any countries looking to unload their spent fuel. But, he says, passing the legislation first is the only way to get the decades-long project moving:

"According to the initial plan, the import in itself can begin quickly -- in a year or two -- so that we can get the financial resources, [the payment for taking the spent nuclear fuel]. But as for when the technology will work, it's difficult to [predict] just like that. You have to prepare the whole infrastructure, reorganize the sites where [storage and reprocessing] will take place, build containers. Everything will depend on financial possibilities and support, and what the disposition in state structures will be towards it. And while you're moving over to the system of reprocessing the fuel that you imported, you'll have to store it for about 20 years. [But] until the legal, legislative issues are solved issues, no one will begin to work on those things."

The Atomic Energy Ministry has not said how much the necessary overhaul of Russia's nuclear storage, reprocessing and transport systems will cost. But outside estimates have put the price of even minimal upgrades to existing storage facilities -- a tiny link in an enormous project -- at over $50 million alone.

Some critics suggest that the ministry's avid support for the expensive and complex plan has to do with more than just increased revenue and potential fuel supplies. In the second part of this series, our correspondent will look at how the proposal may also serve to breed new and dangerous levels in Russian nuclear-weapons proliferation.