Russia may quit reprocessing

Publish date: February 11, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

U.S. Department of Energy tries to get Russia to halt reprocessing that generates plutonium; Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy is indecisive but may turn the Energy Department's initiative to work for foreign spent fuel import project.

U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has announced a new deal with Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, that might end reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at the Mayak plant in the southern Urals. The agreement is aimed at securing of Russia’s huge civilian stockpile of plutonium, The New York Times reported.

In 1998 alone, Energy Department officials said, Russia’s 29 civilian reactors produced 789 metric tons of spent fuel. Fuel from Russia’s VVER-440 and BN-600 reactors, as well as maritime PWR reactors is sent to the Mayak plant for reprocessing. The outcome of the reprocessing is the so-called energy plutonium and uranium. Minatom says it plans to use the plutonium as a nuclear fuel, but the reactors designed for that are yet to be developed. On the other hand, the energy plutonium can as well be used to make nuclear weapon – the matter of serious concern for the U.S.

The United States through Co-operative Threat Reduction program has been working to secure Russian stocks of weapons grade plutonium since 1992. Department of Energy has now come up with the initiative that should prevent the energy plutonium falling into the wrong hands. The current Russia’s stockpiles of the energy plutonium, roughly estimated to be as high as 30 tons, are enough to make around 3.000 nuclear devices.

The incentive offered by DoE to Minatom is a $100 million joint research and aid package. The package will include, given Congress approves, $20 million for long-term joint research into devising civilian reactors and fuel, $5 million for research into the design and development of a permanent geological repository to store spent nuclear fuel. $45 million for the dry storage site and security upgrades for the stockpiles of civilian plutonium and $30 million for new efforts to safeguard material from the military sector.

Minatom indecisive
But the bulk of the money, $75 million, will be given in exchange for Russia’s decision to halt reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This particular precondition is quite a painful matter for Minatom. In an interview with The New York Times Yevgeny Adamov, the Russian nuclear minister, said that the energy plutonium is a valuable raw material for production of plutonium reactor fuel. He added, however, that Russia could declare a two-decade moratorium for fuel reprocessing. During the moratorium, spent fuel will be placed in a dry store funded by the United States. The location of the dry storage facility is not determined, but Adamov, according to The New York Times, was leaning towards Krasnoyarsk-26 – a closed city where Russia has a wet storage for VVER-1000 type reactors and half-built new reprocessing plant RT-2.

Officials at Minatom would not comment on Adamov’s words when reached by Bellona Web. They said their boss was to make a statement on it. The statement came indeed few days later and had been apparently cooked for the domestic consumption. In an article published in Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Adamov said that no agreement had been reached so far regarding the DoE’s initiative and no negotiations had been held on this subject. "There is just a mutual understanding between our to countries Russia and the U.S. on some questions in the nuclear field, including measures to prevent accumulation of separated plutonium at storage sites."

In addition, Adamov said a regular thing that Washington would be wrong to believe that a $100 million assistance package would prompt Russia to halt construction of a VVER-1000 reactor in Iran – a project that could be worth up to $1 billion. The U.S. has been quite nervous about the project believing that it would help Iran to develop its military nuclear potential.

The Mayak plant administration reacted negatively on the DoE’s initiative. "We are strongly opposing this agreement," Aleksandr Suslov, deputy manager of Mayak, said to AIV, the local environmental group. "This reprocessing is our work and bread, we don’t need doles," Suslov added.

Paving the way for spent fuel import
Regardless Adamov’s sentiments in terms of reprocessing – the practice ranked by Minatom to top the list of Russia’s "national prides" and referred to as economically profitable – accepting the deal from DoE would mean that fuel imports project proceeds as Minatom wants.

The project to ship 10,000 metric tons of foreign spent fuel to Russia and to lease storage space there for up to 40 years was initiated by American Non-Proliferation Trust, (NPT). The proceeds of the lease, according to NPT, would pay for design and construction of the central Russian radwaste and spent fuel repository, for remediation of radioactively contaminated areas in Russia and for social projects. NPT plans to raise between $6 billion and $15 billion from wealthy industrialised nations trying to get themselves rid of their spent fuel. NPT guaranteed that the fuel would not be reprocessed to avoid conflict with U.S. non-proliferation policy. Minatom later expanded the proposal suggesting to ship in an unlimited amount of fuel and argued in favour of reprocessing. Once Minatom gives its consent for moratorium on reprocessing, the projects would seem to have no roadblocks to go on.

Currently DOE and Minatom are working on a white paper that would examine the fuel import project. The white paper is scheduled to be completed by March 2000.

Should the white paper favour the project, the final drawback to remove would be the Russian environmental legislation that prohibits import of radioactive materials into the country. Last year, Minatom made several unsuccessful attempts to get the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to emend the legislation. This year, the process will be eased off due to the fact the Duma’s Environmental Committee is headed by a group of Minatom’s lobbyists.

The question remains, however, whether the United States Congress will be pleased just by the Minatom’s promise of declare moratorium on reprocessing or will demand a full halt in exchange for $100 million assistance package.