Why spent nuclear fuel import represents danger for Russia

Publish date: December 11, 2000

Written by: Alexey Yablokov

The Russian State Duma is to consider a bill calling for amendments in the Russian legislation in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports on December 22. Commentary by the prominent Russian environmentalist, Alexey Yablokov.


by the prominent Russian environmentalist, Alexey Yablokov.

Around three million Russians supported referendum on the issue of spent nuclear fuel import. Environmental groups had to address the people as the arguments against this dangerous initiative of the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy, Minatom, fell on deaf ears in the Russian government.

The plans to reuse plutonium after spent nuclear fuel is being reprocessed were rejected by unsuccessful attempts to operate breeder reactors in the USA, Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan. On the other hand, it turned out that fresh uranium fuel is much cheaper than the reuse of fuel after reprocessing.

The statements that Russia should enter the world’s fuel reprocessing market are ridiculous. The nuclear fuel reprocessing plants in France and Germany may face shutdown as soon as the long-term contracts are completed. After having paid forfeit, Germany stopped shipping spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing to France. Finland refused to reprocess nuclear fuel. The United States, Canada and Sweden have never intended to do that. In fact, no ‘world’s spent nuclear fuel reprocessing market’ even exists, but the Russian nuclear minister prefers to state the opposite over and over again.

Naturally, there are some countries wishing to get rid of their spent nuclear fuel, which is expensive and dangerous to manage. Around five countries are ready to give cash to Russia to solve their problems. But it is hard to believe that after 40-year storage in Russia, as it stands in the project description, somebody would take back the spent nuclear fuel or the by-products after its reprocessing. Therefore the environmentalists are right, saying that Minatom intends to turn Russia into an international nuclear dump. It should be mentioned that after import and especially given spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed, Russia would experience higher risk of radioactive contamination.

Spent nuclear fuel can become energy resource only after reprocessing, which can give plutonium and enriched uranium. But why does Russia need expensive enriched uranium and plutonium? It is well-known that available stocks of weapon-grade uranium and plutonium can provide Russian power plants with fuel for many decades. High scale disarmament will even increase those stocks.

Speaking about reprocessing of foreign spent nuclear fuel, it slips the minds of the nuclear ministry officials to remind that such reprocessing is only needed if dozens of new nuclear power plants are built in the years to come. The price tag of building one nuclear power plant is around $2 billion. Minatom plans to build up to 29 new nuclear power plants until 2030. The total project cost runs as high as $58 billion. Minatom dreams to get $20 billion for spent fuel import what can allow launching the construction of just a few nuclear power plants.

But does Russia need new nuclear power plants? Only ignorant people can believe that nuclear energy can prevent climate change. All regions, where nuclear power plants are planned, have fossil fuel stocks enough for decades. Alternative energy sources could be used more extensively. Energy saving programs can supply three times more energy than all Russian nuclear power plants produce today. The minister for nuclear energy, Evgeny Adamov, confirms himself that Russia has enough electricity. The nuclear energy, according to the minister, will be sent for export and this is the core of the strategic development of the Russian nuclear energy sector. The concept of nuclear energy export, however, which assumes that the neighbours get clean energy, Minatom gets the money, and the future generations of Russians get radioactive contamination, will never be accepted by the society.

Another issue relates to spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. What to do with the tons of generated radioactive waste? One ton of spent nuclear fuel generates several thousand cubic meters of solid and liquid radioactive waste, and hundreds of cubic meters of gaseous radioactive wastes. Before the reprocessing plants in Britain and France discharged radioactive wastes into the Atlantic using the blanks in the international regulations, while such practice in the USSR was a state secret. It is not enough just to have technologies of treating spent nuclear fuel, what Minatom is boasting of. Those technologies must also be safe. But today no safe technologies are available either in Russia or other countries. More and more Western countries protest against discharge of radioactive waste into the Atlantic conducted by Britain and France. Lake Karachai in southern Ural is the most radioactively contaminated place in the world. Waste will be still dumped there should the reprocessing continue at the Mayak plant. Trying to go away from critics, Minatom again classified the information about geological structure and radionuclides behaviour pumped underground as state secret.

We cannot trust statements from Minatom’s officials that the money received for spent nuclear fuel import will help solving environmental problems in the contaminated areas. The environmentalists have been requesting Minatom during the past three years to show the project description. But all Minatom came up with was proposal to construct South-Ural nuclear power plant.

These and other arguments, which could not be listed in this article, make the environmentalists protest against amendments to the Russian Law on Environmental Protection, which bans import of radioactive materials from foreign countries as well as against possible nuclear fuel leasing, virtually meaning the same as spent fuel import.

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