Russia to save world nuclear industry

Publish date: June 15, 2001

Russia may save world nuclear industry by becoming an international nuclear dumpsite. But 90% of spent fuel stocks in the world contain US-produced nuclear materials and the US gives consent to import it only on certain conditions.

The Russian State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, endorsed in third reading the spent nuclear fuel import bills. The bills still have to be considered in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the parliament, and finally signed by the Russian president.

By opening its boarders for the spent nuclear fuel Russia makes a big favour to the world nuclear industry, whose the biggest headache the the safe management of this material. Many countries in the world would be happy to get rid of this burden, which the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy, Minatom, calls a valuable resource in its unveiled propaganda campaing.

Among those countries is the US, which has jurisdiction over around 90% of spent nuclear fuel stocks around the world.

But it would not be easy for Russia to become the international nuclear wastedump, even though there is a great desire. The US administration wants to trade.

According to a statement posted Wednesday on the State Department’s web site, Russia could count on US approval if it were to sign a Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which would oblige Moscow to terminate nuclear co-operation with "third parties".

In future, US may permit Russia to import nuclear spent fuel of US origin, but for this Russia will have to guarantee elimination of the spent fuel, but not reprocessing in order to avoid generation of additional amounts of reactor-grade plutonium.

On Friday last week, commenting on this statement, Russian deputy minister for Nuclear Energy, Bulat Nigmatulin said, "Russian contacts with Iran are meant here." Bulat Nigmatulin claimed that Russia would not drop its profitable contacts with Iran for permission on the US-origin nuclear waste import. Minatom would prefer leaving the segment of the spent fuel market, controlled by US.

The segment, according to Minatom’s calculations, is around 20,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel and it has price tag of around $20 billion. The fuel will come primarily from the Eastern Europe and Asia.

The Eastern European countries operate Soviet design nuclear reactors. They have been shipping fuel to Russia until now and intend to do so in the future, given their plans for building dry storage are not implemented. So the new bills do not add anything new to the already existing practice. But these countries are unlikely to pay up to pay as much as $1,000 for each kilo of shipped spent fuel. Today they pay around $300 and believe the price is too high.

The situation is different with Asia. Such countries as Taiwan can not export spent fuel to Russia, since it is of American origin. The only country which can do that is Japan. And Japan seems to be the only real contributor to the $20 billion pot. The trouble is that Japan will not be able to fill that pot.

Thus judging by the statement coming from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia still hopes to cut a deal with the US. But seems to become a very long process. The most troubled issue will be the construction of a nuclear power plant in Iran. If Russia proceeds with that – there will be no deal. But it Russia drops the project, Minatom would end up being perceived as an extremely unreliable partner.

The Republic of Turkey voiced another trouble looming for the project. Turkey strongly objects Russia’s transit of spent nuclear fuel through the Black Sea, Turkish Minister of Environment, Fevzi Aytekin, said. "Turkey is ready to apply sanctions to ban the transit," Itar-TASS quoted the minister as saying.

"The State Duma has passed the bills, favouring storage and landfill of spent nuclear fuel; other issues, such as waste transporting, have not been discussed and do not have anything to do with the bill," Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said after the meeting with his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem, on June 8th. But he promised specific aspects to be examined with regard to Turkey’s position. But on June 12th, the environmental minister’s statement was repeated in official statement of the Turkish government.

Russia has to face a long struggle externally and internally before the dreamt by Minatom plan to turn the country into nuclear garbage site is fulfilled. But should it happen, the world nuclear industry will breathe in with a big relief. That is the easiest way to get rid of the spent nuclear fuel headache ever proposed.