Russian regions to decide on fuel imports project

Publish date: April 11, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Minatom's lobbyists failed to amend Russian legislation in favour of spent fuel imports in Moscow, ask regions for assistance.

Several Russian regional legislative bodies discussed in early April an initiative from the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, to consider and approve amendments to the environmental legislation in favour of spent fuel imports. The Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, is the agency that has been actively promoting the idea the past couple of years but has failed to get a break-through so far.

Minatom after ‘easy money’

In December 1998, Russian Nuclear Minister, Yevgeny Adamov, forwarded a letter to his American counterpart, head of the Department of Energy, Bill Richardson. Adamov was wondering if the United States had any interest of sending its spent fuel to Russia for storage or/and reprocessing. Earlier the same year, information leaked to press that Minatom was having preliminary talks with Germany and Switzerland regarding shipments of both radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel to Russia.

In spring 1999, Minatom released a 10-pages paper justifying the need for spent fuel imports. The paper said that the world spent fuel market would allow Russia to import around 20 thousand tons of spent nuclear fuel. The earnings are estimated to be as high as $21 billion. $10,5 billion would be spent on management of the spent fuel shipped in, while $3,3 billion would go to the state budget. The remaining $7,2 billion could be used, according to Minatom’s plan, on various social and environmental programs.

The customer-countries listed in the paper were preliminary Asian states and Iran, where Russia is building a nuclear power plant despite heavy criticism from the U.S. and Israel. The paper also said that some European countries could be hooked and involved into the project seeking cheaper prices – than provided by UK’s BNFL in Sellafield and French Cogema in La Haug – and “services of higher quality.” With “higher quality” Minatom meant the offer that would assume neither the return of spent nuclear fuel to the countries of origin, nor the return of the waste should the fuel be reprocessed. Both the plants in Sellafield and La Haug send the reprocessing waste back to the country where fuel came from.

These extra services would have to be paid for – $1200 per kilo; while the regular price is around $1000 per kilo of spent nuclear fuel.

Russia’s stock of spent nuclear fuel amounts to 14,000 tons, excluding fuel from nuclear powered submarines and nuclear icebreakers. Most of the fuel (in particular of RBMK type) is stored onsite at Russia’s nine nuclear power plants.

Russia’s only reprocessing plant, Mayak, in Chelyabinsk County has annual capacity of 400 tons but has been at the level of 100-150 tons the past years. The plant is run down and needs upgrade to go up to its design capacity and reprocess other type of fuel than VVER-440, BN, maritime reactors and some research reactors. Mayak operates two storage facilities with a total capacity of 2,500 tons.

The reprocessing plant under construction in Krasnoyarsk County, RT-2, needs, according to Minatom, $1,96 billion of investments to be put online. The wet storage facility built at Krasnoyarsk-26 (now Zheleznogorsk) can take 6,000 tons of VVER-1000. The storage will be 50 per cent full by 2001.

The offensive plan worked out by Minatom suggests building 23,600 tons of extra storage space. It would include 3,000 tons of wet storage and 9,000 tons of dry storage at Zheleznogorsk; 1,600 tons at the Mayak plant; 10,000 tons of container type storage at an unspecified location (probably at Zheleznogorsk as well).

But almost all the building plans can be carried out, given Minatom starts earning money on importing foreign spent fuel.

Lobbying failed

Minatom started to work hard on separating the issues of spent fuel and radioactive waste in the bill amending the Law on Environmental Protection of the Russian Federation. The current version of the law (Sec 3, Art.50) says that any import of radioactive materials is prohibited. Once ‘spent fuel’ and ‘radioactive waste’ are separate issues, fuel will be considered a resource eligible for import.

In February 1999, the Minatom’s lobbyists in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, started the amendment process. The initiative received support among all the Duma factions, but yet the attempt turned to be a failure after protests by the Duma Environmental Committee and NGOs.

In late April 1999, a group of Duma members came up with a draft of Law on Industrial Storage and Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel. The law was to remove all the legal roadblocks towards import of foreign spent fuel. The State Environmental Committee, former Ministry of Environment, refused to approve the draft twice but was eventually forced to do that in September 1999.

In August 1999, Minatom made a lousy attempt to persuade the Russian Cabinet to accept the project and put pressure on the State Duma to make all the required amendments. The attempt was yet another failure. The Cabinet members were to look at the proposal and prepare their recommendations, what they never did. The new meeting regarding this issue was to be held prior to the presidential elections on March 26, but it was cancelled.

Regions asked for help

Having lost all the rounds so far, Minatom decided to act using the “voice of people.” A number of Russian regional legislative bodies received a letter from the Federal Council Committee on Science, Culture, Education, Health and Environment. The letter suggested discussion of the proposed amendment of the Law on Environmental Protection. The regional legislative bodies of Russia have the right to initiate amendments of the federal legislation. The incentive offered to the regions was additional working places and money to the local budgets – all deriving from spent fuel imports.

In Nizhny Novgorod – the area with high concentration of nuclear-related industries – the discussion ended with a request to Minatom for more detailed business planning of the project, environmental group Dront reported. The project as it is now was not approved.

In Voronezh County, the southern Russia, the local legislators unanimously voted to support the amendment, Ecodefence reported. The Environmental Committee of the legislative body in Murmansk County gave a preliminary negative answer. The question is yet to be put on the agenda for the whole council.

Tomsk County was also asked to take its stance in this issue, but no result is available for today. Krasnoyarsk County was also reportedly involved into the discussion, but the results are yet unclear.

Administration still indecisive

According to unofficial returns, the Russian President-elect has not yet decided whether to support the fuel imports project. The Emergency Situations Minister, Sergey Shoygu, who also heads pro-presidential Unity party, is said not to be favouring the project. The current chairman of the Duma Environmental Committee, Vladimir Grachev, is a member of the Unity faction in the parliament. He stated earlier that he would not support the amendments.

Thus, the initiative from the regions is currently the only hope of Minatom to get the administration endorse the project. Once it is done, it would be no trouble to get the required bill approved by the State Duma. But the regions seem to be as indecisive as the administration so far.