Minatom’s strategy for spent fuel imports outlined

Publish date: March 13, 2000

Minatom comes up with a strategy that will more than double the present amount of spent nuclear fuel stored in Russia in a short period of time. The project may turn the country into an international nuclear dumpsite.




The strategy plan by the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy (Minatom) on how to overtake the world market of spent nuclear fuel is finally revealed. The plan, kept confidential for months, outlines how Russia can get 20,500 metric tons of foreign spent fuel within the next decade, of which 16,000 tons may be reprocessed. The waste is likely to remain in Siberia for good. Several ministries and state committees have approved the plan.

By offering cheaper storage and reprocessing prices for spent nuclear fuel from countries around the globe, Russia wants to turn its Siberian backyard into the biggest nuclear dumpsite on earth. The red line in the plan is to offer the countries of origin not to take back the nuclear waste after the reprocessing after paying an extra fee to Minatom. On the national stage, Minatom lobbies for its proposal by claiming it would bring a profit to the cash-stripped federal budget of as much as $7,5 billion. And the internal lobbying works: six federal ministries have already approved the plan, including both the State Nuclear Regulatory (Gosatomnadzor) and the State Committee on Environment. The final step will be to have the State Duma, lower house of the Russian Parliament, to amend article 50 of the Russian Federation Law on Environmental Protection. Today, this law forbids import of any kind of radioactive materials.


Potential customer countries
Minatom believes in two major groups of customer countries willing to accept the offer. First of all, the ministry counts on continued agreements with the East-European countries operating Soviet designed VVER-440 reactors, like Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Minatom also focuses on the countries in Asia where nuclear power is still growing, such as Taiwan, South Korea, China. Finally the strategy extends to the countries that plan to build nuclear power plants, such as Thailand, Vietnam and even Iran. The second group of countries includes those that today have reprocessing deals with Sellafield (UK) and LaHague (France), and, according to Minatom, are looking for cheaper prices, among them Germany, Spain, Japan and Switzerland. These countries have today an annual accumulation of spent nuclear fuel that equals 2,400 tons. This number is expected to increase up to around 3,000 tons by 2015.

Storage capacity to be increased
Minatom operates two storage sites for spent nuclear fuel in Siberia: one at the Mayak plant (southern Ural) and the other at the city of Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk Krai). Two wet storage facilities at Mayak have capacity to keep around 2,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel from VVER-440 and PWR maritime reactors. The wet storage facility at Zheleznogorsk can hold 6,000 tons of spent fuel from VVER-1000 reactors and will be 50 per cent full by the year 2001.

According to the Minatom’s strategy paper, only minor reconstruction of these storage sites is necessary in order to accept foreign spent fuel. The reconstruction would provide the storage at Mayak with additional capacity of 1,600 tons (total 4,100 tons), while the storage at Zheleznogorsk would be increased by 3,000 tons (total 9,000 tons). To upgrade those two sites, it would be necessary to invest $44 million and $12 million respectively.

Moreover, two additional storage sites for spent nuclear fuel, designed also to hold fuel from abroad, are under planning. A dry storage facility with the capacity of 9,000 tons will be built at Zheleznogorsk by 2004. Construction of another storage site with a capacity of 10,000 tons that would be able to hold fuel packed in containers is scheduled to start in 2004. The location of this storage site is not specified. The price tag for this storage is $125 million.


Contaminating reprocessing to increase
One of the most astonishing ideas of Minatom is the expansion of the capacity at the run-down RT-1 reprocessing plant at Mayak. Launched in 1977, the plant has been reprocessing spent fuel from naval, research and VVER-400 type reactors, discharging huge amounts of liquid radioactive waste into the environment north of Chelyabinsk in the southern Ural. RT-1’s design annual reprocessing capacity is 400 tons, but since the middle of 80-s the plant’s workload has been in steady decline. Today, it is down to some 35 per cent of its capacity. During the last decade, there have been cases when the plant was not operating at all.

Minatom plans to spend $58 million to upgrade the RT-1 plant in order to restore the reprocessing capacity back to 400 tons a year by 2006. After upgrade, the plant will be able to reprocess spent fuel from VVER-1000 reactors as well.

The existing vitrification plant that processes high active liquid waste derived from reprocessing at Mayak is currently not operating. The Minatom’s investment plan suggests that a new facility for disposition of high active liquid waste will be built at the cost of $27 million by 2020.

New reprocessing plant to be commissioned
The construction of RT-2 reprocessing plant at Zheleznogosk started back in 1977. The first stage of the plant, which included 6,000 ton wet storage facility for VVER-1000 reactors, was commissioned in 1985. The construction of the reprocessing line itself started in 1984 but was frozen in 1989 due to funding shortfalls. It has been already spent $350 million on the plant. The plan outlined by Minatom suggests that the plant can be completed at the cost of $1960 million by 2020. The annual capacity of the plant capable of reprocessing fuel from VVER-1000 and PWR reactors will be around 1,500 tons.

Roads, railways and barges
Spent nuclear fuel from European and Asian countries would be transported to Russia by road, railway and barges. Traditional train transportation would be done from China and the East-European countries. Three new seaport-facilities are to be built: in the Far East at Vostochnyi, at Mukachevo at the Baltic Sea and in the north at Dudinka from where spent fuel would be shipped on barges up the Yenitsey River to Zheleznogorsk.

Since 1979, spent nuclear fuel from Soviet designed VVER-440 reactors has been shipped by railway to Mayak. 860 container loads have been transported using TK-VG-6 railway carriages since then. But the shipment rates have dramatically decreased the past years, mainly due to the halt of the transportation from Finland in 1996, but also due to the fact that Hungary and Bulgaria are looking into other options than delivery of their spent fuel to Russia.

American consent required
The idea of importing spent fuel to Russia received much attention after the establishing of the Non-Prolifiration Trust in the U.S. The Non-Prolifiration Trust was formed by a group of German and U.S. industry, an NGO and several well-connected former government and Navy officials with the goal to take title of 10,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from various countries (excluding the United State and Russia) and place it for 40 years storage in Russia. The proceeds of the lease, according to NPT’s plan, 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 planed to raise between $10 billion and $15 billion from wealthy industrialised nations trying to rid themselves of their spent nuclear fuel. NPT guaranteed that the fuel would not be reprocessed to avoid conflict with U.S. non-proliferation policy.

Minatom seemed to like the outline of the idea and started massive lobbing in the Russian government to push it through. In 1999, the Law on Industrial Storage and Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel was drafted. Attempts have been made to amend the Law on Environmental Protection in favour of reprocessing but all of them were turned down by the old State Duma. The newly elected Duma is believed to be more helpful in this issue, taking into account the fact that the parliament’s Environmental Committee is composed of Minatom’s supporters.

Judging by the content of the strategy plan prepared by Minatom, the spent fuel imports into Russia will not be limited by the 10,000 tons announced by NPT. The amount will at least double, given Minatom is right evaluating the spent fuel market. The reprocessing is an integrated part of the plan.

But according to The Washington Post, the flaw of this plan is that countries in Asia, such as Japan and Taiwan/China, acquire their nuclear fuel from the United States and therefore must get U.S. government approval for its disposal. The European countries, such as Germany, are unlikely to break ranks with Washington on a sensitive non-proliferation issue.

Disclosure of Minatom’s spent fuel strategies has come amid the negotiations with the United States regarding the so-called energy plutonium – a by-product of the reprocessing. The U.S. Department of Energy has come out with a project that could make Russia declare a moratorium on reprocessing in exchange for a $100 million assistance package.

Undersecretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz, who flew to Moscow last week to continue discussions with Minatom, told The Washington Post it was safe to say “the U.S. would not agree to any project that involved reprocessing” by Russia of American-origin nuclear fuels.

This approach leaves Minatom with few options, namely to declare a moratorium on fuel reprocessing, receive the consent from the U.S. to import spent fuel from Asian countries – those are the most probable potential customers – and, having established a certain market for such services, come back to the idea of reprocessing being after higher hard currency profits.

The whole process is likely to result in a status quo in the American non-prolifiration efforts and piles of nuclear waste that will be a burden for the next generations in Russia.

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