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Russia: Defense Sector May Benefit Most From Nuclear Spent Fuel -- Part 2

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The Russian State Duma will give a second reading to a controversial plan to lift a ban on the import of spent nuclear fuel. The plan, which proposes to import and reprocess some 20,000 tons of the world's radioactive spent fuel -- and to earn state coffers an estimated $20 billion in the process -- has been criticized by environmentalists and energy experts, who say Russia's poor nuclear safety record is reason enough to block the plan. Other opponents cite another major cause for concern: fear that the import plan will allow Russia to boost its production of weapons while exposing it to greater risk of accidents and terrorist theft. In this second of a three-part series, RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the dangers of possible proliferation.

Moscow, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry defends its plan to import and reprocess spent nuclear fuel by saying import revenues can be invested to make the country's nuclear sector safer. But nuclear and non-proliferation experts argue that safety concerns are not at the heart of the ministry plan. They and other critics say it is actually Russia's weapons producers who stand to benefit from the plan.

Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov has said that part of the $20 billion he estimates Russia will earn from importing spent fuel will go toward improving safety and environmental conditions in the country's nuclear power industry. He has also said that the spent fuel itself will not simply be stored, but reprocessed into plutonium-based fuel and burned in Russian reactors.

As Adamov sees it, the import plan succeeds on all sides -- money plus a nearly limitless supply of fuel. But critics say the plan is dangerous. They see the ministry's plan to reprocess, rather than store, spent fuel -- as a move that would pose a threat of nuclear proliferation.

Rose Gottemoeller is a Carnegie Endowment senior associate in Washington specializing in non-proliferation issues. Until last year, she worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, a key contributor to U.S. nuclear policy. She explains the potential threat in Russia's import proposal:

"As fuel is brought into Russia, it would be reprocessed and therefore create more plutonium which would be remaining here in Russia, and would perhaps in the future be used for energy production but in the meantime -- perhaps for 40 or 50 years -- would represent a real threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons, because plutonium, of course, is one of the key nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons."

Experts say they are particularly concerned that any reprocessed plutonium placed in storage for eventual use as fuel could easily fall into the hands of terrorists or black marketeers. Steven Dolley, an official with the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, a private watchdog organization, also sees a danger in Russia's plans to use extracted plutonium in its reactors:

"Anyone who really knows how to make a nuclear weapon says that you can do it with reactor-grade plutonium, so it's an issue of concern. Whether or not the Russian government would have such plans for this fuel, I couldn't say. I don't think that's the primary proliferation concern. I think a much greater proliferation concern is the possibility that a big part of this plan is to use revenues from the spent fuel import and storage to support a plutonium MOX fuel and breeder reactor program which would put tons and tons of plutonium into commercial circulation in Russia and significantly increase proliferation risks of theft and diversion."

The production of so-called MOX fuel -- that is, mixed plutonium-uranium oxide fuel -- is an especially controversial element of Russia's plans to reprocess its imported spent fuel. MOX is the final link in Russia's plan to create a complete fuel cycle. When burned in special breeder reactors, MOX fuel can automatically recycle itself by producing more plutonium. Ideally, pairing mixed-oxide fuel and breeder reactors could mean an infinite and cost-efficient source of atomic energy for Russia.

Critics, however, warn that the system would result in enormous amounts of plutonium -- which can come in the form of powder or small metal pieces -- criss-crossing the country as it traveled from reprocessing plants to fuel fabrication facilities and on to reactors. Dolley says the difficulty of assuring secure storage and accurate measurement of the material at each stage in its journey leaves it vulnerable to the threat of both theft and accidents:

"There's an inherent degree of measurement error in the technology used to keep track of plutonium which can't be overcome. And when you're talking large-scale -- of the tons of material that reprocessing plants and MOX fuel fabrication facilities call for -- the degree of uncertainty is up in the area of maybe even dozens of kilograms: enough for several nuclear weapons."

Cases of nuclear theft have already been noted in Russia. Vladimir Kuznetsov, a Russian nuclear expert and former inspector with state nuclear safety agency Gosatomnadzor, said a Russian researcher at the Luch Nuclear Institute in Podolsk in 1992 and 1993 systematically stole a total of 1.5 kilograms of plutonium. Kuznetsov said the theft was not detected at the time because the amounts taken always stayed within the margin of measurement error.

Carnegie associate Gottemoeller says the best possible option to prevent proliferation is the storing of unprocessed spent fuel, which cannot be used for weapons. She says the cumbersome spent fuel elements are to a certain degree self-protecting, because of the intense radiation they emit.

Dolley, however, says that safety hazards remain even with the storage:

"[There is] a sabotage scenario where conventional explosives would be used to destroy and disperse the spent fuel, creating a radiological hazard that would be possible to disperse a large amount of radioactivity over a great area."

Defenders of the import plan say there is little reason to expect Russia would ever use new supplies of plutonium to boost its weapons production. They cite official statistics that say the country already has 50 tons of weapons-grade plutonium in stock -- enough to make thousands of weapons.

But opponents say the projected $20 billion in import revenue could still prove a boon to Russia's sagging arms industry. Countries which might be looking to unload their spent nuclear fuel -- such as Taiwan, Switzerland, and Bulgaria -- could end up indirectly financing the weapons production.

Such logic is based on the historically tight-knit relationship between Russia's nuclear energy and defense sectors. Nuclear expert Kuznetsov explains:

"All the institutes who work on nuclear programs work, in some way or another, on arms projects. By giving money to this [import] program, it means you are giving money to these institutes. Only a child or someone who doesn't know anything about the nuclear sector here doesn't know this."

Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer agrees. In his weekly defense column in "The Moscow Times" newspaper, he cites a remark by Atomic Energy Minister Adamov that military nuclear programs should be accelerated using ministry revenues. Felgenhauer claims that such "acceleration" would be focused on developing new technologies like so-called "penetrator" missiles that are designed to detonate a nuclear explosive from deep under the ground.

Kuznetsov says the traditional secrecy surrounding Russia's nuclear industry may also facilitate the diverting of Atomic Energy Ministry funds to defense, rather than energy, projects:

"If [there were] strict [financial] controls -- for example, that a certain amount of the $22 billion went to ecological programs, a certain amount went to building new storage sites, and [a certain amount] to personnel [safety] training -- and if I could check them, then it wouldn't occur to me to think that [the money] would go to arms [programs]. But when I don't have that information, only one thing comes to mind: that this money will go straight to the military sector. Or part of it will. And the other part will be stolen."

The nuclear sector's lack of transparency was bolstered last month when a Duma committee rejected amendments to the waste-import plan providing independent controls over future import contracts. The Atomic Energy Ministry has also supported a government plan to strip Gosatomnadzor -- which opposes the import plan -- of its right to issue licenses to nuclear facilities. It has been proposed that the ministry assume all licensing rights in the future, meaning an end to any pretense of checks and balances within the Russian nuclear sector.

Some Gosatomnadzor officials (unnamed) say that -- short of privatizing the nuclear energy sector -- it will be impossible to break the link between Russia's civil and military nuclear programs. Still, rising political tensions over the issue may have soured the mood of the Duma since its conciliatory first reading of the import plan in December. In the third part of this series, our correspondent will look at how political factors in Russia and abroad may affect the fate of the Atomic Energy Ministry's plan to import spent nuclear fuel.