Minatom lobby for spent fuel intensifies

Publish date: April 23, 1999

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Despite U.S. resistance and Russian laws against radioactive waste imports, Russia's Nuclear Energy Minister shows maniacal persistence soliciting support for the idea

More evidence of the determination of Atomic Energy boss, Yevgeny Adamov, to amend Russian environmental law in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports appeared in a March letter obtained by Russia’s biggest NGO, Socio-Ecological Union.

In the letter addressed to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Adamov expounds the merits he believes exist in the import and reprocessing of spent fuel from the world’s nuclear reactors. Adamov encourages Primakov to consider that the world’s nuclear power plants generate 10,000 tons of spent fuel annually, the Russian reprocessing of which would net huge sums of money.

"Management of this fuel has a potential of $10-15 billion a year," Adamov wrote, and concluded by suggesting the only roadblock to a dollar-green paradise is current Russian environmental legislation.

SEU’s Vladimir Slivyak, who obtained the letter, told Bellona Web that the letter was just a continuation of Adamov’s promotion of the idea in the government.

Early this year, U.S. Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, turned down a proposition from Adamov for the storage and reprocessing of US spent nuclear fuel in Russia filed in December 1998. Richardson reportedly cited a violation of U.S. non-proliferation policy in his rejection of the idea.

Tom Meartens, the American consul, confirmed the stated position of his government in a response to an SEU query. He wrote: "In accordance with our non-proliferation policy, the U.S. does not engage in plutonium processing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes and opposes the shipment of U.S. spent fuel to other countries for reprocessing."

Adamov’s proposal included the option of storing reprocessed waste permanently in Russia or sending it back to the U.S., as Russian regulations currently require. It came shortly after Minatom signed a confidential protocol with German and Swiss companies which outlined a plan for shipments of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste from Europe to reprocessing and storage facilities in Russia.

Environmental law faces May onslaught
Russian Environmental Law (Sec 3, Art.50) prohibits the import of foreign nuclear waste. Presidential decree No. 733 dated 29 June 1995 obliges Minatom to return any radioactive waste generated during the reprocessing of spent fuel to its country of origin within 30 years.

Minatom hopes to change the way spent fuel is classified under existing laws — from waste to resource or raw material — creating a loophole in environmental legislation through which spent fuel imports could pass.

Recent statements from Adamov suggest a concerted attack on environmental legislation is about to begin. Russian Duma member and deputy chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Commission, Vladimir Tetelmin, told Bellona Web that plans to divide nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel do exist for a revised edition of Russian Environmental Law. He said it would not bring about the import of foreign spent fuel.

"Waste from reprocessed spent fuel will be returned to the country of origin according to Russian legislation," Tetelmin told Bellona Web. "I doubt Western Europe would have it (spent fuel) back, therefor there won’t be any contracts."

Telinin’s assurances might sound foolhardy if Minatom is encouraged by a legislative victory that establishes a benign legal meaning for spent fuel. Tempted by such success, Minatom would likely seek a final victory by abolishing the presidential decree forbidding the permanent storage of foreign reprocessed nuclear waste.

"Minatom has crafty ways of misleading the Russian government in an attempt to turn the country into a world nuclear dumpsite. We appeal to all the state bodies responsible for the security of the country to stop immediately the criminal activity of Nuclear Minister Yevgeny Adamov,’ an SEU press release quoted Slivyak as saying.

Minatom’s activities have already received support in the Duma. Minatom lobbyists maintain that the logic behind importing radioactive waste is to secure funds for solving radiation safety hazards in Russia.

"We will have a minor increase of nuclear waste in comparison to what we have today by importing it to Russia, but this minor amount will help us to tackle the rest of the shit (radioactive hazards),’ a Minatom lobbyist argued.

Most Duma members are apt to subscribe to Minatom’s logic amid the country’s continuing economic crisis.