What should countries do with their nuclear waste?
This question has been tormenting scientists and politicians since the early days of nuclear energy. Proposals have ranged from storing radioactive material in polar ice sheets, burying it in the ocean floor, or even blasting it into space.
Although such ideas can sound amusing today, the amount of nuclear waste building up around the world is no laughing matter.
A pending treaty between Russia and the United States could provide a solution but faces resistance in both countries.
The agreement, which could go into effect this month, would enable the two nations to cooperate on civilian nuclear energy by removing Cold War restrictions in that sector.
It would allow the United States to transfer its spent nuclear fuel to Russia -- an idea that has been under discussion for more than a decade. U.S. fuel that was used in power plants in third countries and remains under U.S. control could also be sent to Russia. Altogether, as much as 80 percent of all spent nuclear fuel scattered across the globe is U.S.-obligated.
Russian environmentalists have fiercely opposed the pact, which they say will turn their country into a nuclear wasteland.
Formally, this fuel would be reprocessed, but in practice it would simply be buried.
"If this agreement comes into effect, it will lift the last hurdle to the transfer of spent nuclear fuel from countries such as Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea to Russia," says Aleksei Yablokov, one of Russia's top experts on nuclear safety who once served as an adviser on environmental issues to late President Boris Yeltsin. "Formally, this fuel would be reprocessed, but in practice it would simply be buried."
Yablokov, along with dozens of prominent Russian nongovernmental groups, sent an open letter to U.S. legislators in July urging them to block the agreement and prevent Russia from becoming "an international radioactive waste dump."The Nuclear Waste Dilemma
Supporters say the 123 Agreement, so-called because it falls under Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, is a win-win deal potentially worth billions of dollars in trade. If it comes into force, the United States will gain access to Russia's vast uranium fields while Russia will be able to offer its uranium-enrichment services to the lucrative U.S. market.
In terms of nuclear waste, Russian authorities estimate that spent-fuel-management services could generate $20 billion over a 10-year period. Russia's willingness to take over foreign spent nuclear fuel, in turn, would be a boon to countries lacking permanent reprocessing and storage facilities.
These include the United States, where spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are stored at more than 120 temporary locations across the country.
U.S. President Barack Obama last month effectively scrapped a decades-old project to store the country's millions of kilograms of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel inside isolated Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. By writing the project out of his 2011 budget as too costly, Obama effectively left the United States without any long-term strategy for its growing nuclear-waste stockpile.
Russian activists of the opposition Yabloko party demonstrate near the German Embassy in Moscow against nuclear-waste traffic in Russia.
Concerns nonetheless remain in the United States about Russia's ability to safely handle such vast amounts of nuclear material. Russian environmentalists have long warned that their country lacks the technology and infrastructure to operate a global disposal center.
"There certainly is a hope that, before the United States enters these long-term contracts, Russia would have the ability and the infrastructure to manage the waste in a responsible way," says Steve Pifer, the director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative and an advocate of the 123 agreement. "But it's hard to make the investment in infrastructure until you understand what possibility there is. You don't just go ahead and build the infrastructure and then negotiate the contracts. It's a process that is being worked out currently."
In Washington, a small group of Republican and Democrat members of Congress has rallied against the 123 Agreement with Russia. They fear Moscow could share the fruits of nuclear cooperation with traditional U.S. foes such as Venezuela, Syria, and particularly, Iran, where Russia helped build the Bushehr nuclear plant.
The agreement had been stalled on political grounds before U.S. President Barack Obama submitted it to Congress in May. His predecessor George W. Bush had initially signed the deal in May 2008 but withdrew it from Congress following Moscow's brief war with Georgia three months later.
Since then, the U.S.-Russian "reset" has re-energized bilateral ties. Russia's support for recent UN sanctions on Iran and its refusal to sell Tehran S-300 air-defense systems have also helped restore trust in Moscow. Many U.S. foreign policy experts predict the deal will pass without much difficulty.
U.S. Senator John Kerry (left) and Senator Richard Lugar (right) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet to speak about the New START, a nuclear disarmament treaty between the United States and Russia.
It will automatically go into effect after 90 consecutive days in Congress unless lawmakers adopt a joint resolution of disapproval, which requires majority votes in both houses. If lawmakers sit for three more weeks this year the agreement could become law in December, otherwise it will have to be resubmitted next year to the newly elected Congress.
The idea to set up an international nuclear reprocessing and storage center in Russia is not new. The Russian Federal Nuclear Agency, Rosatom, has been promoting it for more than a decade. One of its arguments is that Russia, with its extensive uranium enrichment facilities left over from its Cold War nuclear program, is well placed to build and operate such a facility. Rosatom has also said it would use some of the revenues to upgrade its ageing nuclear facilities.
Despite a 2001 Russian law allowing the import of foreign spent nuclear fuel, Russia has so far been unable to access U.S.-controlled fuel due to the lack of a 123 Agreement.
Strong domestic opposition has also made Rosatom more cautious about publicly endorsing such plans in recent years.
"There is no word in the 123 Agreement about waste, spent nuclear fuel from the United States or American fuel sent to third countries," Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov told RFE/RL. "Today, our stance is not to import any spent fuel of foreign origin to Russia as long as the economics of such deals are not fully calculated."
But Russian environmentalists say they are not duped.
Besides, the text of the 123 Agreement clearly cites "radioactive waste handling" as one of the areas in which Russia and the United States would be able to cooperate under the deal.
"What we are talking about here is chiefly irradiated, spent nuclear fuel, which is the world's most dangerous radioactive high-level waste," says Vladimir Chuprov, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace Russia. "Nuclear lobbyists have come up with all kinds of schemes to prove this will not constitute trade in nuclear waste. And according to the documents, to the law, it will not. But what is really taking place in Russia's nuclear sites is the storage of foreign nuclear waste, in other words -- trade in nuclear waste."
Greenpeace says Russia is already home to some 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel inherited from the Soviet era. Some of it has been reprocessed, but the bulk remains buried at a facility close to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, one of the country's six main burial sites.
Some experts estimate that in terms of radioactivity, the spent fuel currently stored in Russia is equivalent to at least 100 Chornobyls.
Then there's depleted uranium, a byproduct of uranium enrichment also found in reprocessed nuclear reactor fuel. Russia has imported more than 100,000 tons of depleted uranium from Western Europe for reprocessing over the past 15 years.
If the 123 Agreement comes into force, Russians are likely to see nuclear facilities mushroom across their country, as Rosatom seeks to take pressure off its already overloaded existing sites.
According to environmentalists, the northern Murmansk region, the Siberian Krasnoyarsk region, the arctic Novaya Zemlya archipelago, and the Pacific Ocean's Kuril Islands are among the Russian regions that could soon become new repositories for the world's nuclear waste.