Russia - Plutonium Investigation n°12/13

Nuclear Imports

For many years Russia, when the USSR, has imported nuclear materials for both commercial processing, such as uranium hexafluoride from France for commercial enrichment, and spent fuel from its satellite states in the former Comecon eastern bloc. Recently there have been many stories and rumours suggesting:

  • Russia might import nuclear waste from Switzerland, substantiated by Greenpeace earlier this year with leaked documents from inside Minatom;

  • a major international store for foreign radioactive waste is being proposed by Pangea, a US-based company which has also proposed international nuclear dumps for Argentina and Australia;

  • new consignments of spent fuel from Bulgaria, which has brought objections from over 200 organisations inside Russia and other eastern European environment groups;

  • spent fuel from the United States and Japan;

  • and plutonium from both Japan and Germany in deals that would make Russia huge amounts of foreign capital. One proposal even involved the dismantling of an entire plutonium store and fuel fabrication plant from Hanau in Germany and reconstructing it in Russia. However, the proposal has been opposed by Minatom.

The difficulty is that most of these schemes are just - more or less wild - ideas, not reality. Some of the schemes that are real have led to trouble. The Siberian region around Krasnoyarsk last autumn banned a shipment of spent fuel from a Ukrainian power station. Aleksandra Kulenkova, deputy to Governor Aleksander Lebed, ordered the ban because the compensation offered to handling the fuel was well below international rates the local nuclear operators believed prevailed. Krasnoyarsk receives US$275 per kilo of fuel while the price elsewhere is closer to US$1,000 per kilo. Lebed has sought an increase in fees from US$103 million to US$168 million. The agreements on nuclear materials management and storage were signed on a country-to-country basis, without apparent consultation of the region.

The Bulgarian deal is the most realistic, as it appears that the spent fuel storage situation in Bulgaria is even more chronic than in Russia. According to Bellona, the price tag for reprocessing alone of the spent fuel, excluding transportation and insurance expenses, amounts to US$18.7 million. Bellona indicates that between 1979 and 1988 Bulgaria sent 21 shipments of spent nuclear fuel to the Mayak plant for reprocessing. Until 1988, Russia handled the spent nuclear fuel on the so-called 'zero-value' principle, assuming that the value of the plutonium and uranium extracted from the fuel covered the reprocessing expenses. A few years later the Soviet Union collapsed, and from 1991 the Mayak plant started to demand money for reprocessing. Bulgaria then suspended its shipments to Mayak, but in November 1997 the country, faced with a shortage of on-site spent fuel storage facilities, was forced to return to exporting its problem by renewing the contract with Russia. Transit countries have been less than thrilled. The first train consisting of eight carriages and carrying 240 VVER-440 spent fuel assemblies sealed in containers left Kozloduy in mid September 1998, heading for Mayak. Bulgaria pays US$640 per kg of fuel to be reprocessed, up to a total of US$18.7 million. Expenses for insurance and the transit through Moldova come in addition. Moreover, the Moldovan parliament went strongly against transit in summer last year. Permission was eventually granted, but only for one shipment.

The storage facilities for VVER-440 reactors' fuel are almost full, while the two VVER-1000 have some storage place left. Given no shipments to Russia, all the onsite storage facilities will be full by 2001. The second train to be sent to Russia was scheduled for the beginning of 1999. Bulgaria has sought ways to change the transport route, negotiating with Romania on this issue. Romania agreed in principle, although the question had to be finally settled in the Romanian parliament. In addition, according to decree no. 733, dated 29 June 1995 and signed by the Russian President, Bulgaria has to take back the waste generated during reprocessing within a 30 year period after shipment.

Bulgaria is among the four countries continuing to ship spent fuel for reprocessing at Mayak - the others are the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine. Another former foreign customer, Finland, decided in 1995 to build a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel generated at the Soviet-designed Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant. Hungary is likely to halt shipments as a new dry storage facility is under construction there.

By 31 March 1999, the Bulgarian State Committee on Energy, together with the Bulgarian Academy of Science, had to prepare a national strategy for the safe management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, covering a period of 30-50 years to come. The Russian government and some Duma members have been preparing the legal ground to permit a change to Russian nuclear law allowing the country to legally accept foreign nuclear waste for final disposal. Confidential letters, obtained by one MP and the Socio-Ecological Union and released in February 1999, show that the leaders of Russia's main political parties and heads of several key parliamentary committees are backing proposals to remove legislation banning the importation of radioactive waste for storage or disposal into the Russian Federation. These plans were strongly criticised by the environmental movement. The leaked correspondence shows that Duma State Member, Sergey Shashurin, received significant high level support for amending Article 50 of Russia's "Law on Protection of the Environment", which currently bans the importation of nuclear waste for storage and final disposal, to: "The importation, with the aim of reprocessing, storage or disposition, of spent fuel, radioactive waste and materials from other countries can only be realised with the permission of the Government of the Russian Federation in accordance with intentional rules and recommendation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (...) ensuring the economic benefit of the Russia Federation and the safety of the environment." Letters backing the new wording have been signed by the leaders of Russia's main political parties - except the social democratic "Yabloko" party. The proposal is clearly linked to clandestine talks being held between Minatom and representatives of the European nuclear industry. In other leaked documents, released earlier in 1999 by Greenpeace, the President and Vice-President of Minatom told representative of Swiss nuclear utilities that it "would like to offer world-wide services for final disposal. Proposed amount: US 10 billion equal to approximately 10,000t of spent nuclear fuel from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and possibly Japan." Each consignment of spent fuel imported would add to the existing stockpile of plutonium.

In other developments the Kurtchatov Institute and the US Science Applications International Corp (SAIC) of Virginia, have jointly proposed a monitored retrievable spent fuel store might be built at Krasnoyarsk-26. They are seeking funding under the US Energy department's Nuclear Cities Initiative. Valentin Ivanov, deputy minister of atomic power, has also announced he would like to take spent research reactor fuel from European reactors for processing at Mayak. In 1995 Russia took responsibility for the spent fuel recovered from Iraq's reactors as part of an international deal with the IAEA.

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