British Deny Radwaste Deal with Russia

Publish date: April 19, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

British nuclear authorities today expressed surprise at remarks made last week by Russia's Nuclear Minister Alexander Rumyantsev where he said Minatom would be signing a contract for imports and reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) from experimental reactors in the United Kingdom.

Rumyantsev’s comments, made last Wednesday in a meeting with seven environmental groups, centred on a supposed contract, due to be signed next year, that would involve the import of an unspecified amount of SNF from British experimental reactors. The most likely source for the waste, according to environmentalists present at that meeting, would be Scotland’s Dounreay facility, which has two shutdown fast neutron, or “breeder,” reactors, which when loaded with plutonium have the capacity to produce even more plutonium than they burn.

Rumyantsev would not confirm or deny during last week’s meeting that the supposed import would be coming from Dounreay. But according to a statement from the United Kingdom’s nuclear regulatory body, know as the UKAEA, which was sent to Moscow’s Ecodefense! office and confirmed by Bellona, the British haven’t been involved in any negotiations with Minatom about any imports of SNF to Russia.

“The UKAEA has no information about any kind of negotiations with Minatom about the import [to Russia] and subsequent reprocessing of British spent nuclear fuel,” said UKAEA representative June Love in an emailed statement.

Furthermore, a representative for Scotlands’s Dounreay facility, reached by telephone Thursday, said: “By a decision of the British Government, fuel from experimental reactors will never be reprocessed. In large part, that fuel contains plutonium. We don’t have any information about sending it to Russia.”

Indeed, even the Magnox reprocessing plant, operated by British nuclear concern BNFL, has no interest in the waste from Dounreay.

“We don’t want that spent fuel reprocessed either here or abroad,” said BNFL chairman Colin Punler in a telephone interview Thursday. He added that the French reprocessing concern Cogema had offered to take SNF from British experimental reactors but were refused.

Minatom spokesman Yury Bespalko, however, indicated in a telephone interview Thursday that Minatom was sticking to its story.

“We met with British authorities and are drawing up plans for a contract, just as Rumyantsev told the group,” of ecologists who met with him last week.

“I have not heard anything to contradict that,” he added.

Though Minatom may be unfazed by the flat contradiction issued by British authorities, it has left environmentalists who attended last week’s meeting with Rumyantsev scratching their heads.

“Either Minatom is engaged in wishful thinking, or the British are trying to hide the deal,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense! Thursday. “Most likely, Minatom is spreading disinformation and trying to hide its real motives from the Russian public. If the British really were planning on sending that SNF, it would be met with protest along the entire route by which it came.”

It is also conceivable that Rumyantsev’s statements were meant as a trial balloon about Minatom’s little-publicized but long held plans towards enhancing its own breeder reactor program, as the SNF — if it were in fact obtained from the Dounreay facility — would likely contain plutonium.

At the moment, however, Russia lacks the capability of re-fabricating plutonium into the MOX fuel — a combination of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide — that is burned in breeders.

This may happen in the not so distant future, with funding from the United States Department of Energy, who has long negotiated with the Russians over MOX fabrication plan for the purposes of destroying — rather than increasing — stocks of high and weapons grade plutonium. This MOX would be burned in retrofitted VVER-1000 reactors, of which Russia has eight.

According to a spokesman for the DoE reached Tuesday, this program will likely be discussed in more detail at the upcoming summit between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin set for late May.

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