Duma sells out next 200,000 years

Russia’s last big sale was Alaska

The State Duma, lower house of the Russian parliament, voted for amendments to the Law on Environmental Protection in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports in the first reading on Thursday. The Duma also approved in the first reading amendments to the Law on Application of Nuclear Energy opening the way for Russia to lease nuclear fuel to other countries.

320 Duma members voted for the amendments, 30 cast their votes against, while 8 sustained. The most part of those who voted against represented the Yabloko faction in the parliament.

Thus, the lobbing with Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy, Minatom, as the driving force has finally succeeded. Russia is about to enter the international spent fuel management market, said satisfied Minatom’s officials.

According to the scheme developed by Minatom, Russia may earn up to $20 billion in 10 coming years by taking into the country around 20,000 tons of foreign spent nuclear fuel. Russia’s own spent nuclear fuel stock is estimated at 14,000 tons.

Minatom says that around $7 billion will be used on recovering the radioactively contaminated areas. The rest of the funds will be spent on building up the infrastructure and on payments to the federal government. Minatom’s intentions regarding the fuel are uncertain. The known plans, however, suggest that the fuel will be stored for at least 50 years and then reprocessed to extract the raw material to manufacture fresh nuclear fuel.

Spent nuclear fuel
Being totally preoccupied by the propaganda campaign, Minatom’s press spokesman, Yury Bespalko said to radio Echo Moscow Thursday that spent nuclear fuel represents no danger to environment. He also said that “environmentalist act unfair” when they compare spent nuclear fuel to radioactive waste. Those are two different things, assured Bespalko.

And they are indeed. Spent nuclear fuel is the most dangerous element in the nuclear industry, which has to be taken care of for thousands of years. The environmental danger of spent nuclear fuel is added up by the non-proliferation concerns. When spent fuel is reprocessed, in addition to radioactive waste and uranium for making fresh nuclear fuel, reactor grade plutonium can also be extracted. This plutonium can be used to make so-called ‘dirty’ nuclear weapon.

Only three countries in the world are doing commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel: Great Britain, France and Russia.

Great Britain and France reprocess their own fuel as well as take fuel from other countries for reprocessing. Russian plant in the southern Ural, Mayak, is capable of reprocessing domestically manufactured spent fuel from some of the nuclear power plants and maritime reactors – submarines and icebreakers.

Spent fuel reprocessing is the most waste producing part of nuclear industry. The Sellafield reprocessing plant in Great Britain is one of the main contributors to the radioactivity presence in the Arctic Ocean, while the area around the Mayak plant is believed to be the most radioactively contaminated place on earth.

Other countries, which use nuclear energy, the biggest of them is the United States, store their spent fuel in centralised or onsite storage facilities. None of the countries have come to a permanent solution for spent fuel, i.e. repository.

National vote banned
Russian environmental groups collected around 2.5 million signatures in support of a national referendum to restore state environmental agencies and to ban nuclear waste/materials import into the country in Autumn 2000. The Russian Central Electoral Committee rejected around 600,000 signatures and declared that 127,000 lacked to meet the required 2 million criteria for starting the vote. The decision of the Electoral Committee is believed to be authorised by the Kremlin.

Prior to the voting day, the Yabloko faction in the Russian parliament decided unanimously not to support the fuel import amendments. The leader of the faction, Gregory Yavlinsky, said Minatom has provided huge funds to cheer up its lobbyists in the Duma. He also said that Minatom submitted neither the accounting for the project nor a detailed break down for how the funds will be used.

“We are not greens, we are politicians. And politicians have one rule: if 99% of the population are against the waste import, we have no further arguments in favour of the project,” Yavlinsky added.

American consent required
Even though Minatom has managed to push through the legislation amendments, it will take some efforts to start implementing the project. Some Asian countries – considered by Minatom as the most lucrative market – use fuel manufactured mainly in the United States. The US has the property right for the fuel, which does not allow those countries to export it to a third country.

The next step for Minatom will be thus to persuade the United States to grant the permission for shipping the fuel to Russia. The security policy of the US considers reprocessing as a danger to non-proliferation of nuclear materials. Keeping that in mind, Minatom drafted an agreement in 1999 intending to conclude it with its overseas counterpart – the US Department of Energy. The agreement declared a moratorium on reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in Russia with exception to maritime nuclear fuel. The fate of the agreement is unknown.

International nuclear dumpsite
Countries, which operate nuclear power plants, will be glad to take the spent nuclear fuel away from their territories and are ready to pay for it. And here comes Minatom with a good business proposal difficult to resist. Minatom has always stressed in its PR-campaign that Russia will benefit from the project as well. The promised $20 billion look tempting indeed, but one has to always remember that spent nuclear fuel contains materials, which has to be managed with great care for 200,000 years. Thus, it will cost Russia much more to in the long run, than the immediate earnings.

Head of the Russian State Nuclear Regulatory, Yury Vishnevsky, said about the fuel import project that money earned would be “either eaten up or stolen”. The agency opposed the Minatom’s plans but its weak position in the Russian state hierarchy did not lead to any change. The dramatic downgrade of the agency’s status also proves that no effective nuclear safety control will be in place should Minatom start shipping foreign spent fuel into Russia.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no