Bellona workshop draws crowd, produces commitment on radwaste cooperation

Publish date: February 18, 1998

Written by: Thomas Jandl

BRUSSELS -- More than 50 government and industry officials from East and West met at the Bellona workshop on “Challenges in Ensuring Safe Handling of Nuclear Waste in North-West Russia” in Brussels on February 10-11. The most important agreement from the two days of formal and informal meetings and exchanges was to meet again, so that, in the words of Bellona’s managing director Frederic Hauge, a year from now, “we may not have found a solution, but we will have made progress.”

Russian and Norwegian parliamentarians set up a working group that will meet regularly and whose members will serve as intermediaries between their own and the other member states’ parliaments. Stepan Sulakshin was elected chairman of the working group, with Norwegian Storting member Erik Solheim as vice chairman. European and U.S. parliamentarians are expected to follow suit and join the group before or during its next meeting in May in Russia. Bellona will serve as a secretariat to coordinate activities between the four parliaments.

There are a number of problems in need of progress, although the ranking of priorities tends to differ between Russian and Western officials. In Russia, says Sverre Stub of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, insufficient funding is perceived as the main stumbling block. The West looks at a liability agreement and tax laws as the reasons why more funding is not forthcoming. Sulakshin, who chairs the Duma subcommittee on Military Industry and the subcommittee on Transportation and Energy, adds the “all but disappearing Russian federal budget,” and Hauge points to the “not in my backyard” problem that routinely befalls Norwegian lawmakers when it comes to Bellona proposals about intermediate storage on the Kola peninsula near the Norwegian border to Russia. These discrepancies in viewing the problem lead to a “cycle of frustration,” warns Stub.

Following is a run-down over the key issues that will be high on the agenda of the working group in the future:

Technology The technologies to store and/or reprocess nuclear waste are well understood. Problems will arise when it comes to deciding whose technologies to use for specific tasks, Russian or Western ones. American giant Lockheed Martin, teamed with Norway’s Kvaerner

Maritime, is willing to enter into joint ventures with Russian companies to develop tailor-made technologies for the spent nuclear fuel problems in Russia, and eventually to use Russian-made products in the United States. Such an approach would give Russian firms a foothold in the Russian cleanup program and potentially open lucrative Western markets for them as well.

Funding Despite statements to the contrary, the nuclear cleanup projects in NW Russia are not exactly swimming in funding. But project money is available from the European Union and Norway, and the United States is working in NW Russia through several agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency supports a liquid waste project, the Defense Department is engaged in Cooperative Threat Reduction (better known as Nunn-Lugar) projects including spent nuclear fuel management, and the Energy Department, responsible for U.S. nuclear military and civilian waste, is supporting research on the needed storage and transport casks.

In addition, Rep. Curt Weldon, who addressed the conference through a videotaped presentation, assures the audience of his continued support for what it takes to “tear down the barriers that prevent us from finding common solutions.”

Taxation Increased funding for any project in Russia will depend largely on Russian changes in the tax law. At present, technology that enters Russia is taxed at more than 50% of its market value, even if it is offered Russian partners for free.

Such taxes are almost certain to sink any technology transfer to Russia. “We don’t particularly like to pay to give away technology,” quipps Derek Taylor, the E.U.’s radwaste management policy chief. Similarly, in the anti-foreign-aid climate in the U.S. Congress, being taxed for a free-of-charge technology transfer will almost certainly raise opposition to any project.

As an alternative, the Western partner could retain ownership over its machinery and repatriate the materials after a project is terminated. This, however, is not to anybody’s liking. Russian and Western partners agree that the technologies used in cleanup projects should stay in Russia for use in nuclear waste management work in the future.

Liability Western officials took their Russian counterparts to task over the Duma’s refusal to sign the Russian Convention on liability for nuclear accidents. Russians countered that many Western countries, including the United States, have failed to ratify this convention as well. During the discussion, consensus emerged that solutions should not hinge on the Vienna Convention alone.

It is not important who signed what. What counts is that all parties accept the “channeling principle,” which holds that all claims are channeled to the operator of a facility rather than to the provider of individual pieces of equipment, says Norway’s Stub. Equipment makers fear that they could be held accountable without limitation for accidents caused not by but merely during the use of their products.

Russians, however, understand the importance of a signal. Vitaliy Shelest, an advisor to the Duma Committee on Northern Areas, for example, says signing the Vienna Convention would be helpful in attracting Western funding, although bilateral agreements would do the same as the Convention, and may even be better suited for individual projects.

But Taylor counters that bilateral agreements make participation from outside the signatories of such agreements difficult. He mentions a French firm that designs the equipment to remove spent nuclear fuel from the ship Lepse. France is not a party to any bilateral agreement with Russia, and French companies will not make their technology available unless they get liability exemption guarantees. There are, however, possibilities to channel funding through institutions that are covered by such agreements, thus effectively covering the third party as well, says a U.S. participant.

Time Frame One sticky point in finding solutions to the accumulation of radwaste on the Kola peninsula is the time frame for cleanup. Bellona has advocated intermediate storage in double-purpose storage/transportation casks which allow temporary storage and subsequent transportation to a final resting or reprocessing place without handling the fuel again. But the United States is unwilling to accept any solution that includes the possibility of reprocessing, while Russia wants to keep that option open. Says Vladimir Goman, chairman of the Committee on the Northern Areas: “We cannot solve the technical problems unless we solve the political ones first.” Goman is actively involved with U.S. Representative Weldon in smoothing over the policy differences between the two nations’ political leadership.

Another concern is that of mission creep. The United States certifies storage casks for 20 years, while Russia is talking about 50 years, in the hostile Arctic environment, says Robert Dyer of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Interim storage must be interim, and not turn into permanent by default, according to Dyer. Taylor, on the other side, believes interim solutions are none at all. The West has waited too long to develop a long-term solution, he says. "This is an ethical problem … The nuclear industry has always put off the difficult decisions for too long." And these delays have then led to the famous NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome, Taylor adds.

But how much more ethical is it to send the waste to Russia’s storage site in Mayak near the large city of Chelyabinsk, asks parliamentarian Solheim, now vice chair of the nuclear waste working group. "We must be sure not to dump nuclear waste on areas much more densely populated than the Kola region."

Bellona director Hauge goes a step further. “Nobody in the world has definite solutions, so if we wait for that, we will wait for 20 more years, and we don’t have that time. We have to secure the waste now. I am not afraid of a big bang, but of many little leaks. … Every day we wait makes it more expensive."

And for once, Taylor agrees. Calling Bellona’s Lepse project the “flagship” of the cleanup effort in NW Russia, he says the project has to move forward now. Everyone wants this project, it’s small, it’s compact. If we can’t move on this, so Taylor, people will ask, what can we achieve?