Russia to open new plant for processing depleted uranium

radioactive symbol Radiation symbol. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

An electrochemical plant run by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has announced the construction of a new uranium hexafluoride handling unit, doubling the enterprise’s capacity to process the controversial substance, which many have called radioactive waste.

The facility will be built at Zheleznogorsk, a former closed city for nuclear weapons production located in the central Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, the trade publication Nuclear Engineering International reported. For years, facilities in the city have been able to process some 10,000 of uranium hexafluoride annually. As part of a new government program, however, the new facility will boost that throughput to 20,000 per year by 2023.

That program became a source of controversy when, in November 2019, environmentalists and journalists revealed that Tenex, Rosatom’s nuclear fuel exporting subsidiary, had inked contracts to import several thousand tons of the toxic compound, breaching a promise made in 2009 to cease doing so.

The revelations unearthed old debates about whether depleted uranium, also called uranium tails, should be considered nuclear waste, as a number of national nuclear regulators do, or as a valuable raw material for further nuclear fuel production, as Rosatom has claimed.

In Bellona’s opinion, the revelation of the new import contracts between Tenex and German nuclear fuel producer Urenco constituted a breach of the public trust. When our concerns became public, Rosatom convened a special session of its public council – a consultative body comprised of environmental organizations – and formed a working group, of which Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin was appointed the head.

This group has now had numerous meetings, which have drawn together environmentalists, scientists from Russia’s nuclear fuel services and officials with Rosatom. While several points of disagreement between environmentalists and nuclear officials still persist, the late February meeting offered at least some evidence that the corporation is trying to meet its critics halfway.

Indeed, much of the purpose behind the new facility in Zheleznorgorsk is to reduce Russia’s own stockpile of depleted uranium, which is estimated at 1 million tons.  The facility will assist in the defluorination of the depleted uranium, converting the substance into chemically safe uranium oxide powder.

In this form, depleted uranium, which is much less radioactive than natural uranium ore, can be stored for a long time in a solid state in containers in open areas with few risks to the environment, and which Rosatom says is safe for transportation.

Rosatom officials have said that defluorination technologies turn the accumulated reserves of depleted uranium into a valuable raw material for future, newer generation reactors. Depleted uranium is used to make uranium-plutonium for fast reactors, in particular, mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, currently used in the BN-800 reactor at the Beloyarsk NPP, as well fuel for the Brest-OD-300 reactor under construction at the Siberian Chemical Combine at in Seversk. Earlier this year, Rostekhnadzor issued a license for the construction of the Brest reactor as part of the “Proryv” (or ‘Breakthrough) project to demonstrate a closed fuel cycle.

“Modern recycling technologies are already making it possible to return DUHF to the fuel cycle and, in the long term, resolve the issue of the resource base of the nuclear power industry for centuries to come,” said Mikhail Zarubin, senior president for production at TVE, Rosatom’s fuel fabricator. “This is relevant primarily for Russia, where the strategy of two-component nuclear power with thermal and fast neutron reactors is being implemented.”