Minatom strives after spent fuel imports

Publish date: May 4, 2000

Minatom says in Russia it wants to enter the world's spent fuel reprocessing market but proposes moratorium on reprocessing to the U.S.

The Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament consisting of regional representatives, voted down in mid April a bill calling to amend Russian legislation in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports. The bill introduced by lobbyists of the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, was first discussed in several regional legislative bodies in early April but did not receive a unanimous approval to the great disappointment of its supporters.

The amendments to the Russian Law on Environmental Protection, which today effectively prohibits import of any ‘radioactive materials’ to the country, were disguised in the bill presented to the Federation Council as “establishing of commission to study the development and incorporation of high technologies into the nuclear fuel cycle.” The commission would have consequently concluded that spent fuel imports must be allowed in order to ensure high technologies incorporation into the fuel cycle.

Removing the legal roadblock, would, as was explained in a memo written by Minatom for the parliamentarians, allow Russia to enter the world market of reprocessing. Earning $20 billion by importing around 20,000 tons of foreign spent fuel, Minatom planned to upgrade the reprocessing plant RT-1 at Mayak in southern Ural, complete the reprocessing plant RT-2 in Krasnoyarsk County, build new storage sites for spent fuel and divert a part of the funds to solve environmental issues related to nuclear industry. Asian countries, India, some European countries and even Iran would be the future customers, according to Minatom’s plans.

But behind the scenes Minatom is actively promoting another option that has nothing to do with entering “the high technology market of spent fuel reprocessing.” In a draft joint statement of Russia and the U.S., prepared by Minatom for the meeting with a delegation from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) on April 4, the Russian nuclear agency suggests announcing a 20-year moratorium on reprocessing. The initiative to declare moratorium is explained by the Minatom’s glorious striving to safe the world from proliferation of nuclear materials that could be used to make a nuclear device. One of the output products of the nuclear power plant spent fuel reprocessing is energy plutonium that falls under the category of the nuclear materials banned for proliferation.

Minatom suggests halting the reprocessing for at least 20 years but with a few exceptions. The agency wants to continue reprocessing of spent fuel from submarine reactors, research reactors and experimental reactors.

The only operational reprocessing plant in Russia RT-1 is capable of taking spent fuel from VVER-440 reactor, plus all the categories put by Minatom into the “exceptions list.” The United States have a so-called open fuel cycle; i.e. does not reprocess spent fuel at all.

The United States, according to Minatom’s plan, would help Russia in exchange for reprocessing moratorium build a dry storage facility for fuel from nuclear power plants. In other words, Minatom counts that the U.S. would finance the construction of such storage site.

The American response is not clear so far, although DoE was expected to answer shortly. The reports of Minatom wishing to quit reprocessing were released first in February this year. Yevgeny Adamov, Russian Nuclear Minister, in an interview with Washington Post, confirmed these intentions. The minister, however, chose to deny them frantically when talking to the Russian press.

But should Minatom go further with the spent fuel import project, it has to obtain the American official consent. The flaw in Minatom’s fuel import plan is that countries in Asia, such as Japan and Taiwan, 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. The United States officials, for their part, have stressed earlier that 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. This might be what Minatom is trying to test by initiating the draft joint statement submitted to DoE in April.

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