Proposal for foreign spent fuel storage in Russia

Publish date: May 30, 1999

A U.S. and German industry group has developed a proposal for shipping foreign spent fuel to Russia for long-term storage. The proceeds of the venture would be a minimum of $4 billion, coming from nations trying to rid themselves of spent nuclear fuel problems. Part of this money will go to help pay Russian pensioners and orphans.

The proposal to store foreign spent nuclear fuel in Russia will be sent to key Russian and U.S. officials in May, but it’s already known that the plans have been discussed informally with Russian minister of atomic energy, Yevgeny Adamov. Last week The Moscow Times quoted Adamov as saying, "Russia must fight for its share of the nuclear waste market."

Non-proliferation Trust Inc. (NPT) will manage the proceeds of the deal. According to the presented proposal, the project entails the shipping of 6,000 metric tons of spent fuel from various countries — like Switzerland, South-Korea and Taiwan — to a new storage in Russia, probably at Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26) in Siberia. The spent nuclear fuel, originating from the countries’ civilian nuclear power plants, will be stored in Russia for at least 40 years. After that, it would either continue to be stored in Russia, buried in a repository there, or moved to other international storage sites, like the Pacific atoll of Wake Island. In any case, the spent fuel will never be returned to the utilities, according to the proposed project. Minatom says they will also keep the door open for the possible right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel at a later stage. But the Americans say reprocessing is out of question.

Any expenditures would have to be approved by the development trust’s board, which would be headed by former FBI director William Webster, and include the two powerful Admirals Daniel Murphy and Bruce Demars. Adm. DeMars is former Nuclear Navy head, while Adm. Murphy is former chief of staff to Vice President Bush.

Local Greens protest the plan
Despite assurances from U.S. and German industry groups, many Russian environmentalist fear the foreign spent fuel could be reprocessed in the future. In any case, if the spent fuel should be buried in a repository in Russia, it will be met with scepticism from environmental groups, not only in the Krasnoyarsk region, but all over Russia.

Krasnoyarsk environmentalists have already described the proposed nuclear plan as a "dirty trick" between Minatom and the U.S. business group. Spokesman for a local anti-nuclear watch-dog, Vladimir Mikheyev, says no Greens in Russia will sell themselves out; saying it would be treasonous, even for U.S. dollars. According to his group, the existing storage for spent fuel in Zheleznogorsk already contains amounts of waste fuel comparable with 61 Chernobyl’s.

On June 1, the Youth Yabloko party and the Social Ecological Union announced a demonstration outside the State Duma in Moscow, protesting the plans to import nuclear waste from other countries.

Four possible repository sites
Russia, in common with a number of Western countries, does not currently possess a repository suitable for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Currently four candidate sites for such repository in Russia are under investigation:

  1. Disposal in permafrost at Novaya Zemlya.
  2. Deep disposal in granite formations at Kola Peninsula.
  3. Deep disposal in porphyrite at Mayak in Southern Ural.
  4. Deep disposal in granite at Zheleznogorsk in Krasnoyarsk region.

Future leakage of radioactivity from either of the above mentioned locations will effect the Arctic oceans, either directly or via the Russian rivers Ob or Yenitsey.

$4 billion to nuclear safety
The countries which will get rid of their nuclear waste by sending it to the planned new storage in Russia will be charged between $1,000 to $2,000 per kilogram, bringing the cost to $6 to $12 billion for the planned 6,000 metric tons. Of this, the proceeds of the venture will be a minimum of $4 billion (revenues minus costs). According to NPT, the $4 billion proceeds would be managed by a separate Minatom Development Trust and will be spent for both nuclear safety measures and social programs in Russia. The money is divided up for the following purposes:

  • Fissile materials and safeguards enhancements, including disposition of 50 metric tons of weapon grade plutonium ($1,8 billion);
  • Spent nuclear fuel decommissioning and disposition, including the development of a spent fuel geological repository ($700 million);
  • Additional non-proliferation programs and charitable programs administered by Minatom; ($600 million);
  • Pensions and salary arrears for nuclear and defence workers ($200 million);
  • Various Russian environmental programs ($200 million);
  • General pension payments for eligible retirees ($200 million);
  • Payment to orphans ($100 million);

Income will be spent for nuclear warheads
While the American side looks into the planned storage project as a genuine way to fund nuclear safety and fissile materials safeguards in Russia, the Russian Minister of atomic energy sees a second option in the deal. After the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia started in March, the Russian Security Council ordered the development of a new generation of nuclear warheads. In mid May Adamov complained that "they (Security Council) told us to accelerate military nuclear programs, but said we should do that using our own sources of revenue." In response Adamov stated that without money coming from West as payment for nuclear storage, Russia cannot manage a new generation of nuclear weapons.

While the NPT project talks about a maximum of 6 000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, Adamov has a bigger perspective on the opportunities for Russia. He says that spent nuclear fuel collection from other countries and storage in Russia is a "$150 billion business". World-wide, more than 160 000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel have been produced since the nuclear age started some 50 years ago. Less than 10 percent of it has been reprocessed. Annually, 10 000 metric tons piles up. This means more and more spent nuclear fuel needs to be stored, and a growing international demand for nuclear waste storing facilities. "This is a golden opportunity for Russia," Adamov says.

German companies also involved
The initiators of the plan consist of several U.S. and German companies, in addition to private persons. Alaska Interstate Construction will have the responsibility for the construction and management of the new spent nuclear fuel storage, although a substantial part of the construction work will be subcontracted to Minatom. The German companies Wissenschaftlich-Technische Ingenieurberatung GmbH and Gesellschaft für Nuklear Service mbH participates with their knowledge in spent fuel storage constructions and casks development and monitoring systems. The planned storage in Russia will be modeled after the German storage facility at Ahaus. The German government recently said it will stop sending spent nuclear fuel from German power plants for reprocessing in France. It remains to be seen what kind of solutions for the German spent nuclear fuel will be chosen, but Russian environmentalists’ are afraid Germany might go for storage in Russia.

The U.S. shipbuilder Halter Marine will build the needed transportation vessel for spent nuclear fuel from the participating countries to Russia. The law firm Egan & Associates is a partner in the projects to take care of international nuclear regulations and agreements.

The time schedule for implementing the storage project is not yet clear. The main obstacles for the project today are current Russian environmental legislation, which forbids the import of nuclear waste from foreign countries. But the law might soon be changed. Russian minister of atomic energy Yevgeny Adamov is strongly lobbying to amend Russian environmental law in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports and he has the support from most Duma members, which are hoping to bring Russia into the billion-dollar world marked for nuclear waste management.

Today Russia imports spent nuclear fuel from countries using Soviet-designed reactors, among them Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Spent nuclear fuel from Finland was exported to Russia until 1996, but was stopped after political pressure from environmentalists, among them the Bellona Foundation.

The spent nuclear fuel from the VVER-440 reactors in Hungary and Finland was shipped to the reprocessing plant RT-1 at Mayak, while the VVER-1000 spent fuel from Ukraine is shipped to the storage near the planned RT-2 reprocessing plant at Zheleznogorsk.

In January this year, the Russian environmental group Social Ecological Union, released a document signed by Russia and a Swiss utility official expressing Swiss interest in sending spent nuclear fuel to Russia for permanent storage. The release of the document created huge protests from environmentalists who says Russia is already unable to handle its own nuclear waste left from the Soviet era.

U.S. environmentalist provide public policy advice
But the new NPT project is well prepared for protests from environmentalists and politicians in Russia. Thomas Cochran, a senior staff scientist at the Washington D.C. based Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC), is actively working for the project. In an interview with the newsletter NuclearFuel in May Cochran says the parts of the project devoted to help Russian pensioners ($200 million) and to help Russian orphans ($100 million) is necessary in order to win the support of key members of the Russian Duma. "I only provide public policy advice to NPT," Cochran said.