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Czech Republic: U.S. And Russian Officials Discuss Nuclear Waste Disposal

One of the legacies of the Cold War was the dangerous nuclear waste left behind as the U.S. and the Soviet Union raced to develop nuclear weapons. Officials from both countries are meeting this week in the Czech capital Prague to look at ways to clean up the mess left behind.

Prague, 12 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- This week in Prague, officials from the U.S. Department of Energy are due to meet their Russian counterparts in what has become an annual event for the last 10 years.

Dr. Carolyn L. Huntoon, the assistant secretary for environmental management, told reporters at the start of talks today the meetings are an opportunity for officials to assess progress to date and to discuss further measures to clean up nuclear waste sites. There will also be a symposium looking at contamination in Central and Eastern Europe.

Gerald G. Boyd, deputy assistant for science and technology office of the U.S. Department of Energy, highlights the successes so far of cooperation between the Americans and the Russians:

"There's been a lot of progress made between U.S. and Russia on approaches and ways technologies can be used to deal with high-level waste. We've also worked with [the Russians] on things like decommissioning and decontaminating and dismantling facilities."

Boyd says Russian know-how and technology has been indispensable to tackling some of the more difficult issues surrounding nuclear waste cleanup. One of the biggest Russian contributions went into developing the "pulsating mixer pump," now being deployed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States. The pump is used to retrieve highly radioactive sludge containing cesium and strontium. The waste is then immobilized in ceramic or glass containers and stored.

Huntoon says, however, that Russia's financial difficulties leave Moscow struggling to meet the challenge of cleaning up nuclear waste. She says U.S. officials have much more expensive equipment at their disposal.

She recounts a recent meeting in Washington with a delegation from the Russian parliament (State Duma) in which the delegates expressed surprise at American know-how:

"We have this isolation project down in New Mexico in a salt mine deep in the ground [for storing] waste that has been put in containers for it to decay. Normally, this would take many years as you know. [The Duma delegation] was quite fascinated with that. [They] don't have that kind of capability, no place to put the waste once they get it."

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, U.S. scientists are continuing to assist in cleaning up the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. In 1996, both countries established the Chornobyl Center for Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste, and Radioecology. A few months ago, the Pioneer robot, jointly developed, was delivered to Chornobyl. It will descend into the sarcophagus, entombing the reactor.

"We believe what it can do is to provide a lot of characterization information of what's inside of that sarcophagus; it's not an environment to which you want to send human beings. [The robot] has the ability to do optical imaging. You can physically see what the inside looks like as well as taking radiation readings and sort of map the whole inside to determine what needs to be done."

Officials hope such state-of-the-art technology, and, more importantly, the sharing of it, will go a long ways to cleaning up the nuclear waste.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.