Pacific nuclear waste project goes one further

In May, Bellona Web reported that a three year old proposal for building a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in the Pacific Ocean was gaining substance through Russian Minatom backing and negotiations with international companies like Siemens, General Electric and Westinghouse. Now the project has been taken one step further, as project initiator US Fuel & Security Inc. (USFSI) in July filed a request to the US government to lease Wake Atoll, situated some 600 km north of Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Prior to filing the request to the President and Congress of the United States, USFSI paid a visit to Moscow in the second part of June to gain support from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom). Company representatives had meetings with Russian State Duma deputies as well.

–The first criteria of both the industry, environmentalists and the government is to cut that bullshit and start with the facts. Thus began the presentation of the idea performed by project director Alex Copson.

The alleged facts were that facing the choice of reprocessing versus containerised storage of spent fuel, the USFSI supports the latter. Along with putting a stop to the hazardous reprocessing operations, USFSI simultaneously plans to solve the non-proliferation issue: The Wake Atoll complex is to include both a fresh fuel manufacturing plant and a central storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, making possible a full-cycle service. The nuclear power plants will lease, rather than buy, fresh fuel, and return it to the complex upon depletion.

–I am proposing that the company be called United States-Minatom. It will own, build and operate the facility. It will be a service to prevent the spread of fissile materials, stated Alex Copson. –I want to make my message very very clear to the environmental community: The only people that can stop commercial reprocessing that undermines global security is us together with Minatom.

According to USFSI, the construction costs of the complex will amount to 10 billion USD as a minimum, and 50 billion USD as a maximum. The company has already conducted negotiations with major banks in Europe and the US, allegedly gaining confirmation of funding provided that the company obtains long-term contracts with nuclear powerplants.

Strange project, strange support
–The project is facing opposition from the US administration, since it is quite unexpected. We, on our side, are basing our work on experts’ conclusions and must obtain permission from the Russian government. Minatom has adopted an official decision to support the project, stated Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy Valery Bogdan, in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The openly supportive position of Minatom is more than surprising.

While the proposed capacity of the Wake Atoll storage facility is 50,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, world stocks of spent nuclear fuel will amount to approx. 220,000 tons by year 2000, increasing to 600,000 tons by 2020. The proposed monopoly on fuel fabrication and consequent fuel leasing to nuclear power plants, does not take into account – for example – the use of nuclear-powered submarines. Given some 300 nuclear reactors currently in operation on-board submarines throughout the world, the non-proliferation advantage of the project is highly questionable.

The stop-to-reprocessing argument fails too, as Minatom has not stated that reprocessing is to be stopped in Russia. Rather to the contrary, work is underway to complete the new spent fuel reprocessing plant in Krasnoyarsk-26 (the RT-2).

The question of competence is quite acute as well, as upstart company USFSI lacks a track record of earlier achievments.

–We are a unique company. We are looking for unique projects in any area. This is our business, said USFSI’s Alex Copson to Nezavisimaya Gazeta. It seems strange that this level of expertise should be sufficient for high-ranking Minatom officials to enter serious co-operation and put the project on a governmental level.

Perhaps there is an explanation
Given a relatively up-start company’s lofty plans for monopolisation, the lack of Russian commitment to give up reprocessing, and the missing provisions for the nuclear submarine fleet in the current plans, the active promotion of the Pacific storage facility project from high-ranking Minatom officials tends to look rather baffling. One may easily speculate that Minatom in reality is pursuing another goal altogether:

While negotiations are carried out with the USFSI, there is an ongoing project to create a repository for radwaste on the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, former test site for USSR nuclear weapons. Having promoted the idea of the Pacific Atoll and having received a predictable "no" from US officials, Minatom would be expected to propose an alternative in regards to long-term storage of the spent nuclear fuel. And that alternative may well be Novaya Zemlya. To Minatom, then, the Pacific project may be no more than a decoy, to take focus away from the Novaya Zemlya project, while at the same time paving the way for that same alternative. But, as always: Only time will show.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no