Minatom indorses radwaste imports

Publish date: January 14, 1999

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom) has signed a protocol of intent with German and Swiss companies to import spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste to Russia for reprocessing and storage. Greenpeace Russia released information on this secret accord this week.

Greenpeace Russia has got hold of a confidential protocol of intent signed by Minatom officials and the ministry’s subcontractor Techsnabexport from the Russian side and German Internexco and Swiss EGL (Electrizitatagesellschaft Laufenberg AG) from the Western side. The protocol outlines perspectives for shipment of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste from Europe for reprocessing and storage in Russia. The upcoming deal is in head-on violation of the Russian envirolegislation.

Plans to amend envirolegislation
Both the Russian Environmental Law (part 3 of Article 50) and Governmental Decree no. 773 dated 29 June 1995, prohibit storage of foreign nuclear and radioactive waste on the territory of the Russian Federation. In addition, the governmental decree obliges Minatom to return any radioactive waste, generated in the process of reprocessing, to the country of origin within 30 years.

In the protocol of intent, Minatom assures its western partners that there are possibilities to amend the current legislation, or to adopt decisions on the governmental level making it possible to bypass the laws.

Swiss prefers not to receive return waste…
The Swiss partner of Minatom expressed a wish, documented in the protocol, not to receive waste generated during reprocessing, thus welcomes Minatom’s intention to amend the envirolegislation.

According to the protocol, Switzerland has 2,000 tons of reprocessable spent fuel, including 300 tons that are ready for shipment. The preliminary shipment schedules are defined for the period between 2000 and 2030, presuming 50-60 tons shipped on annual basis.

…and to store other nuclear waste in Russia
The Swiss company also asked the Russian side to accept 550 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste for final disposal. The waste will arrive in Switzerland in 1999-2010 and apparently derive from Swiss spent fuel reprocessed in Europe.

Russian protests – against the price
Minatom’s officials did not express any discontent towards the Swiss proposal, but asked to add to the protocol a line item expressing dissatisfaction over the price. The Russian side also stated that the price should be negotiated further, thus affirming the Swiss proposal.

Russian reprocessing sites in radioactive shambles
The only reprocessing facility in Russia – the Mayak plant in western Siberia – suffered severe economic constraints over the past years.

"We could earn more money [from reprocessing] but political decisions prevent us from operating at full strength," Yevgeny Ryzhkov, a Mayak spokesman, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the environmental situation around sites like the Mayak plant is more than alarming.

According to a report submitted last year to the Russian government by the Prosecutor General of Russia, Yuriy Skuratov, 400 million cubic meters of radwaste are stored at the Mayak plant, the Siberian Chemical Combine and the Krasnoyarsk combine. There are around 4.65 billion Ci of spent nuclear fuel and around 1.5 billion Ci of other radwaste in Russia (Chernobyl fallout was estimated at 50 million Ci).

"Mayak plant does not cope with the amount of spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed," writes Skuratov.

"Taking into consideration the urgency of these issues, the Government of Russia adopted Decree no. 773 dated 29 July 1995, which prohibits import of spent nuclear fuel into Russia unless the waste generated is returned to the country of origin," Skuratov’s report continues.

Calls to amend envirolegislation grow
The protocol of intent signed by Minatom is not the only attempt to amend the current laws in order to make it possible to import nuclear waste to Russia. Last autumn, the management at Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine and the local city administration both undersigned an application to the Krasnoyarsk County Deputies’ Council, to the effect that the Council should file a request to the State Duma to amend the Environmental Law. The Krasnoyarsk combine has a storage facility with a capacity of 6,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and a partly built reprocessing plant.

No immediate plans
"There were such talks [with Switzerland and Germany], but that does not mean Russia or Russian representatives have agreed to import or export anything," said Boris Nikipelov, Minatom’s marketing expert, in an interview with Reuters.

However, judging by the wording of the protocol of intent, there are no doubts from the Russian side that such "co-operation" is profitable and has big dollar perspectives. Thus, it can be a matter of time before the cash-strapped Russian government issues a decree which permits nuclear waste imports.