Spent fuel import project to be put on white paper

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) are working on a white paper that would examine the proposal filed by Minatom to store foreign spent nuclear fuel in Russia against payment. The white paper is scheduled to be completed by March 2000 or by the date of the next meeting of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on Technical and Environmental Co-operation, Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reported.

The task force, chaired by DOE Under Secretary Ernest J. Moniz and Minatom First Deputy Minister Valentin Ivanov, was formed at the request of Minatom Minister Yevgeny Adamov in March 1999. The first proposal regarding this project was filed by Adamov to DOE Secretary Bill Richardson in December 1998.

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, or NPT. The Trust was formed by a group of German and U.S. industry, an NGO and several well-connected former American governmental and Navy officials and assumed shipping the fuel from various countries (excluding the United States).

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. Washington has to give its consent to the deal.

Minatom later expanded the proposal suggesting to ship in an unlimited amount of fuel and argued in favour of reprocessing. This version of the project was submitted to the Russian Cabinet in August 1999 but was turned down and forwarded for additional study.

Parallel to that Minatom has been lobbying hard to amend the Law on Environmental Protection in favour of spent fuel imports. The current version of the law says that any import of radioactive materials is prohibited. Once ‘spent fuel’ and ‘radioactive waste’ are separate issue, fuel will be considered a resource eligible for import. But all attempts to get the amendments through the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, have failed so far.

The issue will be apparently handled by the newly elected Duma. The due white paper by DOE and Minatom will either undermine or promote this project. For the Russian part the support to the project has been granted so far even by the Federal Environmental Committee. On the other side, the project has been heavily criticised by the Russian NGOs and democratic Yabloko party.