Spent nuclear fuel import bills on Putin’s desk

Publish date: June 27, 2001

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The spent nuclear import bills bypass the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, go directly to Putin's desk. The bogus profits may be spent to counter the US National Missile Defence plans.

The spent nuclear fuel import bills will bypass the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, and go directly to the desk of President Vladimir Putin. There is little doubt that Putin will decline the bills, keeping in mind his promise to rearm Russian nuclear missiles with multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs), or simply missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. To Putin’s administration mind, it would stop the US abandoning the ABM treaty. And such a step would require a lot of cash, which can be earned, as Russian nuclear lobby promises, by importing spent nuclear fuel.

The Russian State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, endorsed the spent nuclear fuel import bills in third reading on June 6th. The first bill legalises spent nuclear fuel import from other countries by amending art. 50 in the Russia’s Environmental Protection Law in favour of spent fuel imports. The second bill sets frames for leasing of Russia’s manufactured nuclear fuel abroad. While the third functioned more as an incentive for the Duma members and public in general, stipulating the remediation programs for radioactively contaminated areas.

The pro-presidential faction Unity in the State Duma voted almost unanimously in favour of all the bills. This fact gives a clear indication that the bills are supported by the presidential administration.

Prompt change of minds

The opposition to the importation plans in Russia consisting of environmental movement and Yabloko party, had hopes for the bills to be voted down in the Federation Council. The speaker of the Federation Council and some governors, who are also members of the Council, voiced their concern over the bills after they had been approved by the Duma.

But the Federation Council decided for some reason to avoid the responsibility for this matter in a prompt way.

In agreement with the Russian Constitution, after the State Duma approves a bill, the Federation Council has the right to put it on its own agenda during the next 14 days. The Council first set the date to evaluate the import bills for July 4th, while the official deadline was June 27th. Then the bills hearing was moved to June 29th, which was close but still beyond the deadline. But today the speaker of the Federation Council stated in an interview with Interfax news service that the bills were taken off the agenda for June 29th due to the fact that the deadline expires today. Thus the bills proceed directly to the desk of the president.

It is also remarkable that just a couple of weeks ago, both the speaker of the Council, Yegor Stroev, and a number of Council members had clear intentions to evaluate the bills properly and to send them most probably back to the Duma for reconsideration.

This decision coincidently or not came after President Putin had mentioned MRVs having failed to convince his counterpart President Bush to abstain from abandoning the ABM treaty.

The use of MRVs is prohibited by the START-II arms reduction treaty, which was ratified by the State Duma in April 2000. But should the USA abandon the AMB treaty the START-II will no longer be binding for Russia.

But developing and sustaining such weaponry requires funding. Apparently, to the mind of Putin’s administration, such funding can be obtained easily by turning Russia into an international nuclear dumpsite.

New national vote looming

According to various polls conducted in Russia, 70% to 90% of the population are against importation of spent nuclear fuel. Russian environmental groups collected around 2.5 million signatures last year in support for the national vote. In consent with the Russian legislation, two million signatures collected in 60 different regions are enough to initiate a national vote. But the Central Electoral Committee, which was verifying the signatures, said almost 600,000 were not valid and banned the referendum.

The liberal opposition in the State Duma, Yabloko party, said after the Duma approved the amendments in third reading that they would initiate another referendum. Kremlin’s unofficial web site, Strana.Ru, quoted a source in the administration saying that they took the referendum threats seriously and would rather try to find a compromise with Yabloko, than waiting for the people to cast their vote. The deal, however, have not been worked out yet as it follows from what the source said.

To gain the support of the public the state controlled media started to use the presently popular rhetoric that the Western nuclear industry is plotting against Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy, Minatom, and that Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Yabloko, is working as a lobbyist for the Western nuclear industry interests. It does not seem to help, however. The majority of the population is still against the importation.

Putin’ popularity sliding down or importation accepted?

But what will happen if Putin gives final endorsement to the bills? Will his popularity decrease or will the public in Russia accept the official version that turning the country into a nuclear dumpsite is for their own good? The latter is more probable. The recent polls show that around 75% trust Putin. And whatever he does the trust is apparently to remain there, although the public opinion does not rule in Russia anyway. The only trouble is that despite administration’s truly belief in everything Minatom says, $20 billion in profit from imports is still very unlikely scenario.

Minatom’s plans have no foundation

The bills would allow Minatom, as it promotes it, “to enter the lucrative world market of fuel reprocessing.” Minatom plans to import 20,000 tonnes of foreign spent fuel and earn $20 billion. Russia’s own stocks of spent nuclear fuel amount to 14,000 tonnes and are managed in unsatisfactory manner.

There are only two countries in the world engaged in commercial reprocessing – France and Great Britain. Minatom has a reprocessing facility in Chelyabinsk county called Mayak, or RT-1, but its design capacity is only 400 tonnes per year. During the past years the plant has been operating at less than 25% of the capacity. The plant can reprocess fuel from some first- and second-generation Soviet design reactors, as well as fuel from nuclear submarines and nuclear powered icebreakers. The technology used at the plant is such that reprocessing of each tonne of spent nuclear fuel leads to generation of 2,200 cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste. The most part of the waste is dumped into the nearby lake Karachay. Thus, to start commercial reprocessing Minatom would have to upgrade the Mayak plant, or, most likely, to commission a new one – RT-2 – at Krasnoyarsk county, which has been under construction since 1970s, but was never to be completed. Should Minatom go for it, it would eat up the whole predicted profit of $20 billion.

But Minatom says it will not rush with reprocessing. Ministry’s officials stated explicitly on several occasions that they would rather store fuel in casks for at least 50 years before launching reprocessing. The casks existing today are designed to store spent fuel for exactly 50 years. After 50 years there will be neither present leaders of Minatom, nor Putin with his MRVs plans. The fuel, however, will still remain as waste in Russia.

The other issue is the fact that the USA controls from 70% to 80% of spent nuclear fuel accumulated in the world. And before Minatom can start importing this fuel, certain conditions formulated by the American administration have to be met. The key issue is the US demand to halt the ongoing Russia’s involvement into construction of a nuclear power plant in Iran.

If Minatom is not successful in negotiating the deal with the USA, the countries where Minatom can take the fuel from are very unlikely to provide the $20 billion projected profit.

No MRVs but double so much spent fuel to manage

President Putin has a remarkable belief in all Minatom’s initiatives. His speech at the UN summit in 2000 devoted to promotion of nuclear reactors developed by Minatom, which exclude the use of weapons grade nuclear materials, left a number of question marks. Even Russian academicians dared to come out and say publicly that such project is impossible to implement. Now Putin seems to have another interests. He desperately needs money to counter the American plans to launch the National Missile Defence. The trouble is that his belief into the money source will leave Russia with double so much nuclear waste and no funds to mange them.