Russia to become radwaste business land

Publish date: July 4, 2000

Documents revealed last week suggest that agencies in Russia resolved to importing not only spent nuclear fuel but also radioactive waste for payment.

The Russian legislation might be amended in September to allow imports of both spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste into the country. The Russian Nuclear Ministry is not the only actor in the nuclear waste business.

Russian leading nuclear research centre, the Kurchatov Institute, is pushing a project to build a radwaste storage site at Simushir Island, one of the Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East. In an attempt to obtain the Russian government’s endorsement of the project, the institute says it will only store its own waste there, but the documents obtained by the Russian envirogroup Ecodefence! reveal that negotiations have been conducted behind the scenes with potential clients from Taiwan.

In early June this year, the leaders of the major State Duma factions, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the head of the Russian Cabinet and the Minister for Natural Resources received a letter from Sergey Shashurin, Deputy Chairman of the Duma Environmental Committee. They were all asked to support construction of a storage site for Kurchatov Institute radioactive waste at the Kuril Islands. And so they did, except for the Union of Rightist Forces headed by Boris Nemtsov.

Sergey Shashurin is a deputy from Tatarstan with a criminal record and, according to various reports, he has a number of loans he is unable to pay back.

The Kurchatov Institute had previously drafted a presidential decree that suggested transfer of Simushir Island territory under the supervision of the institute in order to conduct there “research and long term testing of new technologies for management of, primarily, low and medium active waste.”

The project was to be funded through the federal budget and state investment programs. The decree did not explicitly discuss foreign participation in the project with regards to waste shipment and funding. It mentioned, however, in one of the line items that the Kurchatov Institute should give priority to cooperation with Asian countries in the Pacific region in terms of operating the storage site.

A note attached to the drafted decree explained why Kurchatov was interested in the land on Simushir Island. The note said that the institute was situated at the outskirts of Moscow when the first reactor was launched in 1946, but with the city’s expansion over the years, the research centre is now located almost in the heart of Moscow. The centre has nine research reactor, three of which are being taken out of operation. On the centre’s premises, around 900 spent fuel assemblies are stored (6 tons), containing three million Curie of radioactivity. The institute has a radioactive waste storage site with the size of more than two hectares. Around 1,200 cubic meters of waste (2,000 tons) with an activity amounting to 100,000 Curie are stored there. To remediate the area from radioactive contamination, around 40,000 cubic meters of soil will have to be removed as well.

The practice used in Russia in terms of civilian low and medium radwaste management has been such that the waste was sent to a network of storage sites called RADON spread around the country, under control of a central authority in Moscow. The Kurchatov Institute believes that it cannot send its waste to the nearest RADON storage site due to the fact that it is located near Sergiev Posad, a sacred place for orthodox Christians. Thus, the optimal solution, according to the institute, is to use Simushir Island.

Deal with Taiwan Power Company

The argument against sending the waste to RADON is weak at first glance, since the storage site is already there and has not caused any problems with the worshippers before. The real reason for the proposal was the agreement signed between Kurchatov and three other parties. The first one was Neftegas Komiani Co. Ltd., an oil and gas trading company. The second party was Asia Tat Trading Co. Ltd., representing Taiwan Power Company, the operator of Taiwanese nuclear power plants, and finally Duma member Sergey Shashurin, representing, as it says in the protocol, a group of Duma members. The protocol, signed in October 1998, stipulates the responsibilities of the four parties involved. The first responsibility for all the parties was the maintenance of strict confidentiality at all stages of work on the project.

The Taiwanese side’s main responsibility was to provide funding for the whole project, while the Russian participants were to focus on pushing the project through the Russian state system, which includes providing for amendments to the Law on Environmental Protection that today outlaws the import of any “radioactive materials.”

The project description was drafted and posted by the Taiwanese company to the Russian counterparts in the second part of 1999. The total cost of the project was around $2.5 billion. Most of the waste was to come from Taiwan – the split was not specified, however.

As it becomes clear from the letter attached to the project description, the Russian Duma lobbyists headed by Shashurin promised to amend the law to permit radioactive waste imports by the end of 1999. Those attempts failed. The new round started in early summer of this year.

Express endorsement

It took just a few days for the leaders of the major Duma factions to respond positively to the request for support of the draft of the presidential decree sent out by Shashurin on June 2. There were no objections from the Ministry of Natural Resources either. The ministry took over the responsibilities of the Federal Environmental Committee, which was abolished several months ago. It is not quite clear, however, whether all the leaders of the various Duma factions realised what they were approving. As was mentioned before, the draft decree did not stipulate explicitly the intention of Kurchatov to use Simushir Island for storage of foreign radioactive waste.

Moreover, neither Kurchatov nor the Duma members promoting the project realised until recently that they had no rights having any negotiations with Taiwan without prior consent from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Russia does not have any intergovernmental relations with Taiwan as stipulated by the decree of the Russian President singed in 1992.

Competition getting hot

Parallel to the Kurchatov Institute project aimed at turning Simushir Island into an international radwaste dumpsite, the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom) has been working hard on another program the past few years. Minatom’s objective has been to amend the Russian legislation in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports. The current version of the Law on Environmental Protection (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.

Minatom says that amendment of the legislation will allow Russia “to enter the world market of spent fuel reprocessing” occupied today only by France and Great Britain. The earnings are estimated to be as high as $21 billion for shipping in around 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. $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.

Even though Minatom always stresses that import of foreign radioactive waste is out of the question, the program description leans towards the option that does not suggest the return of waste generated during reprocessing to the countries of origin.

The problem Minatom has encountered is the fact that most of the fuel in Asia – the most promising market – is manufactured and owned by the United States. The U.S. non-proliferation policy does not accept reprocessing that leads to generation of so-called energy plutonium suitable for making nuclear weapon.

To meet the requirement from the U.S., Minatom agreed to declare a moratorium on reprocessing for at least 20 years. The agreement on this matter was drafted by Minatom and presented to the U.S. Department of Energy at a meeting in Moscow on April 4 this year.

But the negotiations have reportedly stalled after the United States demanded Russia stop the construction of the controversial Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in exchange for signing the moratorium.

The bill amending the Russian Law on Environmental Protection is due to be considered in the Russian Duma in September or October this year. It seems that the bill will not separate issues of “radioactive waste” and “spent nuclear fuel,” but rather declare all radioactive material eligible for import given, for example, a presidential and Cabinet decree is available on a particular project.

Thus, taking into account the difficulties Minatom is experiencing with the United States, the Kurchatov Institute is apparently the first to start making money on the foreign radwaste flow into Russia.

Russian envirogroups outraged

“Simushir is an island with unique ecosystem and nuclear waste storage will make this beautiful land dead,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman for ECODEFENSE!, who obtained the project documents.

“There is a danger of earthquakes and tsunami at the island, which can cause destruction of any building located there,” Slivyak added. “Storing nuclear waste there can cause a catastrophe resulting in radioactive contamination of the area.”

Sakhalin Island administration that also governs Simushir Island turned out to be uninformed about the project when reached for comment by Russian daily Segodnya. An official from the administration said that Simushir is a seismically active area and construction of a radwaste storage site there could pose a danger.

“Commercial moves of Kurchatov Institute related to foreign radioactive waste are completely illegal,” stated Vladimir Slivyak. “Nuclear waste import is banned by the Russian Law on Environmental Protection.”

Whether the import ban stays intact remains to be seen when the Russian State Duma starts considering the bill to amend the law in autumn this year.