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Russia: U.S. May Oppose Moscow's Plans To Import Spent Nuclear Fuel -- Part 3

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Even opponents of Russia's controversial plan to import spent nuclear fuel say the package of three bills is likely to pass its second reading Thursday (March 22) in the Duma. But some observers are questioning what role the United States, which controls the majority of the world's spent fuel, intends to play in Russia's ambitious plan to store -- and reprocess -- up to 20,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel. In this last of a three-part series, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the politics and policymaking behind the proposal.

Moscow, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In December a government proposal to import spent nuclear fuel sailed through its first reading in the Russian Duma with barely a murmur from the opposition.

The proposal's second reading this week may not go so smoothly. The fate of the Atomic Energy Ministry's plan to import 20,000 tons of the world's spent nuclear fuel depends on Russia's internal politics.

The pro-import mood in Russia's lower house of parliament has cooled since the December reading. This is due largely to massive lobbying efforts by the plan's opponents, many of them regional politicians from Siberia, where the imported fuel will likely be shipped. Some experts also say that the United States may have the power to halt the Atomic Energy Ministry plan by forbidding the export to Russia of its own spent fuel.

Still, most observers say the plan -- which consists of three bills lifting a 1992 ban on spent-fuel imports and providing for revenues to pay for cleaning up Russia's nuclear industry -- is likely to scrape through its second and third reading.

They say the Duma, which has been largely submissive to President Vladimir Putin, will not be able to withstand Kremlin pressure on the issue. The action of a Duma committee, which last month threw out a number of amendments that would have imposed independent control over the plan's import process and financial flows, further suggests that the plan is likely to get a smooth ride.

Critics of the plan have spent the past three months gathering ammunition. Most recently, the Duma's anti-corruption commission published a report accusing Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov of illegal business activities, tax evasion, and appointing unqualified people to high ministerial posts.

Import opponents say the report -- which was forwarded to the Prosecutor-General's Office with an inquiry request -- has heightened existing concern that revenue from importing spent nuclear fuel would be misused or simply vanish into Russia's notoriously opaque nuclear sector to be used on defense projects.

Influential communist Duma deputy Anatoly Lukyanov told RFE/RL that the revelations about Adamov had done serious damage to the Atomic Energy Ministry's reputation and fed doubt among deputies over the wisdom of the import bill:

"There is such a [large] flow of comments [coming from our voters]. I think that this issue has yet to be settled once and for all. It will still be discussed, especially in the area of controlling the nuclear-waste imports."

Two separate news conferences by anti-import lobbies are being held before the Thursday reading. Sergey Apatenko, a deputy from the pro-government Unity faction and a conference organizer, says opposition to the plan has brought together deputies from across the political spectrum. But Apatenko says he doubts that opposition efforts in the end will have any serious impact on the vote.

"Even before the first reading, I spoke to a number of Communist deputies. I went to about 10 or 15 people. They all said they would vote against the plan. And now the situation is the same. I recently spoke to them as part of our group's activities and they said again that they will vote against. Well, when you've already been tricked once -- when they showed their true colors on December 22 -- there's no reason to believe what they say now. That's why I think the [lobbying] work should not be stopped now -- it should be intensified."

Observers say overall support for the bill is strong because many deputies accept the Atomic Energy Ministry's argument that Russia will not be able to overhaul its aging nuclear sector without the $20 billion in revenue the import plan is supposed to bring in.

The Duma's two largest factions -- Unity and the Communists -- are expected in large part to come out in favor of lifting the import ban. If the plan passes its second reading, it will have to go through a third and final reading before being sent to the Federation Council -- the upper house of parliament -- and the president to be made into law.

However, some observers point out that even if the plan becomes law, external pressure from the United States may still be able to thwart it by slashing its list of potential clients.

Officially, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will not comment on the policies of other nations, and has yet to issue a formal statement on Russia's import plan. However, the United States -- which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to cut down on available stocks of enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium -- has indicated that the proliferation risk posed by Russia's crumbling nuclear sector is an important concern.

With this in mind, Rose Gottemoeller, a Carnegie Endowment senior associate and former DOE official, says the U.S. will definitely oppose the Atomic Energy Ministry's plan to reprocess into plutonium the spent fuel it imports. Moreover, she says the U.S. will be able to curtail the Russian plan by vetoing the import of all spent fuel of U.S. origin:

"The United States is responsible for any fuel that was basically fabricated in the United States. And so the United States is going to have to agree to the long-term disposition of this fuel in Russia, because the United States, basically, when it fabricates and sells fuel to a nuclear utility anywhere in the world, retains the right to have a say in its final disposition."

Gottemoeller says the U.S. may exercise this right if the Russians fail to meet certain conditions:

"So the United States will have a say in whether or not this fuel can go to Russia. [And it will require some considerable negotiations to ensure that Russia will not be reprocessing this fuel because] under no conditions will the United States be willing to see this fuel go to Russia if it is going to be reprocessed. That will be just a basic condition. So then it will be up to the Russians to decide if that is an acceptable condition."

Gottemoeller argues that the U.S. could even veto Russia's storage of the spent fuel if it deems safety standards insufficient. Darwin Morgan, an Energy Department spokesman, told RFE/RL that countries currently holding fuel of U.S. origin include Brazil, the Czech Republic, India, Japan, Mexico, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the so-called "Euratom" group of 15 European nations.

However, Russian Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman Vitaly Nasonov says the import of spent nuclear fuel will be a profitable business for Russian even without these clients:

"There's nothing scary about [the possible ban on U.S.-origin fuel] -- then we just won't [import it.] I think that even without U.S. fuel, the market is still [big] enough."

But Nasonov did admit the ministry's original projected earnings of $20 billion from spent fuel imports was based on research that included the U.S.-origin fuel markets.

Some experts also doubt that the U.S. is, in fact, defending anti-proliferation principles and point to what they see as recent contradictions in U.S. policy.

One such apparent contradiction is a published DOE study laying out a "technical framework" for the storage of foreign spent fuel in Russia. Russian environmentalist Vladimir Slivyak says the study is a sign that the U.S. is actually toying with the idea of taking Russia up on its offer to import spent fuel.

The study was drawn up by the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a DOE affiliate. It is based on the hypothetical but potentially real example of spent fuel being shipped from Taiwan through Vladivostok in Russia's Far East to either of the two Siberian nuclear plants earmarked by the import proposal. It lists, in very general terms, the technical issues involved, like the need to build additional storage and transport facilities.

The study suggests that the storage program could be an extension of a U.S.-Russian agreement on plutonium disposition signed last year. The agreement provides for the United States to help Russia begin fabricating mixed plutonium-uranium oxide fuel, or MOX, using weapons-grade plutonium.

MOX, when burned in special reactors, can automatically recycle itself, creating a closed and infinite fuel cycle. It has been tentatively mentioned by the U.S. as a constructive way of using up excess weapons-grade plutonium, despite widespread concern about the plan's safety risks.

However, DOE official Morgan says the Livermore study was strictly hypothetical and does not reflect U.S. policy.

Russian nuclear expert Vladimir Kuznetsov, who has been an outspoken opponent of the import plan, says his fear is that in the end most countries will prefer to see their spent fuel shipped to a distant location in Russia rather than deal with disposing of it themselves. He says: "It is in the corporate interest [of every country's nuclear sector] to find a way to get disconcerting nuclear energy by-products -- spent fuel, waste, and other radioactive material -- out of the public eye."

It may be precisely this attitude that the plan's supporters are banking on if this proposal is passed and becomes law.

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