Bush and Putin likely to discuss spent fuel import to Russia

Publish date: April 22, 2002

Of the bilateral nuclear waste disposal plans that are likely to end up on next month’s summit agenda, one has struck a special chord of controversy among Duma deputies, the Bush administration, the Russian Nuclear Ministry, and environmental groups alike. All have their particular objections to the plan, but all, too — say the purveyors of the plan — have reasons to support it.

This plan was developed by an American corporation called the Non Proliferation Trust, Inc. (NPT), whose associates include former CIA chief William Webster. In broad terms it calls for the 40-year storage in Russia of 10,000 tonnes of fissile waste from a number of countries. At the end of those 40 years — or during this period — the waste would be resettled in a geologic repository, also in Russia, where it would remain permanently, never to be reprocessed.

In return, Russia would receive $11 billions dollars not only to build the repository and clean up and enhance the security of its nuclear infrastructure, but also to employ nuclear workers in the closed cities in civilian and ecological capacities. It also provides tidy sums toward social relief for the elderly and orphans. Likewise, there would be significant funds allocated to the region in which the permanent waste repository would be eventually located. It would also have to adhere to a bilateral 30-year moratorium between the Kremlin and Washington on commercial reprocessing.

Environmentalists have dumped cold water on the idea, saying that NPT offers only a short-term benefit for Russia, which will have to live with the consequences of the permanently interned waste for thousands of years. But it has received a warm reception from members of the government of President Vladimir Putin — particularly Ilya Khlebanov, who met last November with members of the NPT board. It also was greeting approvingly — but with more reservation — by US National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice, US Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Indeed, according to NPT representative Thomas Cochran, as well as the US White House press office, NPT was on the agenda at the first summit between Putin and George Bush last November in Crawford, Texas, but was scotched when events related to Sept. 11 took precedence.

All of this ratchets up the likelihood that it will be included on the docket at the May summit in Moscow, where — in the shadow of the Bush administration’s reconsideration of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act (CTR) — a number of issues regarding the safety of Russia’s nuclear waste are expected to be discussed.

But many environmentalists in Russia and abroad are still smarting over last year’s dubious passage of legislation that allows the Russian government to turn a profit by importing and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel (SNF). The legislation had no direct link to the NPT proposal and set no limit on the amount of spent nuclear fuel, allowed to be imported into Russia. At the time the legislation was passed, environmental lobbies across Russia had collected 2.5 million signatures — 500,000 more than were needed to force the question to a nation-wide referendum — only to see 800,000 of those signatures disqualified by the Central Election Commission (CEC) on minor technicalities, some as minor as “incorrect” abbreviations for street names.

Former Nuclear Minister Yevgeny Adamov’s aggressive lobbying of the Duma also brought about speculation the deputies had been cajoled with promises and, in some cases, bribes, to pass the bills. Though Russia’s Nuclear Ministry, or Minatom, has yet to sign any significant import contracts — because from 70 to 90 percent of the world’s SNF is controlled by the United States — environmentalists are anxious to hand billions of dollars, even with contractual strings attached, plus tonnes of fissile material over to a Minatom.

But NPT and its opponents agree on one thing: Russia desperately needs money to keep nuclear materials safe and to clean up the radioactive pollution left by more than 50 years of nuclear power generation and weapons production. Joint Russia-US projects that address this, like CTR, have been criticized by many for moving at glacial pace.

NPT’s strategy
The $11 billion on offer from NPT would be divided as follows: $1.8 billion to site and build a geological repository; $3 billion for ecological clean up in Russia; $1.5 billion to increase the physical security of fissile materials in Russia; $2 billion to reemploy nuclear workers in Russia’s closed cities with jobs related to ecological clean up and other civilian sector employment; $2 billion in aid for Russian pensioners and $250 million for Russian orphans.

An additional $500 million would be held in escrow to collect interest during the 40-year temporary storage phase in order to cover the waste’s removal to the permanent geological site. If no geological site is licensed and built within that time, the waste can, at NPT’s discretion, be removed to another country or another 40-year lease can be signed with Russia to allow more time for a geologic repository to be realized. The reason for the waiting period, as opposed to simply financing a permanent repository from the outset, Cochran said, is that NPT could not attract customers or begin to finance clean up, fissile material control and alternative jobs for nuclear workers.

Customers to foot the bill would be selected on the basis of their ability to pay the minimum prices for the project to go forward, and on the non-proliferation benefits associated with their selection. According to Cochran, ideal customers would include countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Armenia and Iran, which either lack the necessary land resources for permanent storage facilities of their own, or pose a non-proliferation risk to the United States. Two of these countries — Armenia and Iran — already receive fuel from Russia. But built into the NPT contract is a clause preventing Minatom from competing with NPT while NPT assembles its customer base.

As unpalatable as that might seem from Minatom’s perspective, Cochran and Minatom officials said in recent interviews that Russia has already started rudimentary work in scooping out a geologic repository. According to Cochran, “the Krasnoyarsk site looks the most promising,” but he added that “Russia is a long way from characterizing a site and demonstrating its adequacy. Russia does not even have any site selection criteria or licensing regulations.”

Aleksandr Dmitriev, deputy director of Russia’s nuclear regulatory body Gosatomnadzor (GAN), confirmed this in a telephone interview with Bellona.

Until the site is located and licensed by GAN and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the waste would be likely be stored in the Primorsk region at or near a site used by the Russian navy to store fresh and spent fuel, Cochran said.

Implementing the plan
For such a far reaching long term plan to be put into play, however, would require the heft of the Russian government and series of agreements with the US government, including the participation of US Congress, to form a formal “Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy,” as it is spelled out in the US Atomic Energy Act, Cochran said.

By US law, once an agreement for cooperation is negotiated, it is sent to the president for 30 days. During that time, the president checks with other departments, including the Department of Energy (DoE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) before determining in writing that the agreement poses no risks to US security. It is then sent to congress were it sits for 30 days of continuous session. If congress does nothing, the agreement is approved. If, however, the agreement is overridden by a simple majority, the president can force it to a vote by vetoing congress, where a two thirds majority would be required to override him.

According to a spokesman for the US State Department, the Agreement for Cooperation proposed by NPT “could have an easy time in congress, especially in the wake of protests surrounding the Yucca Mountain proposal in this country.” Yucca mountain in Nevada has been proposed as a geologic repository for thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste in the United States, and has drawn the outrage of the environmental community there.

It is likely that the Russian public would react in a similar fashion — from residents of the prospective permanent storage site to people who live along the route the radioactive waste would be shipped. For this reason, Cochran noted that NPT would not oppose that the question be put to a regional or even national referendum in Russia.

“I believe there has to be a meaningful site selection process for both the temporary dry cask storage facility and the geologic repository and these processes have to include meaningful public participation,” Cochran said.

American support
Spokesmen for high-ranking members of the Bush administration interviewed for this article said that they fundamentally agree with the plan. The State Department spokesman said NPT “offered a direct route to a geologic repository, which is something that the world needs.”

“The State Department also supports the notion of a cash infusion to help Russia clean up its nuclear infrastructure and to make it safer,” he added.

But spokesmen for Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice — while agreeing with the State Department on that point — emphasised that Russia’s current support for the Iranian nuclear industry could derail discussions.

“A final solution for tonnes of fissile material is surely needed,” wrote a spokesman for Rice in an email interview. “But the notion of turning that material over to a Russia that is still providing materials and support for the growth of the Iranian nuclear industry is against the interests of US national defence. This would have to be discussed in a summit setting.”

These arguments do not surprise local businessman Dr Vitaly Keonjian, who heads the Non-Proliferation and Ecological Improvement (NP&I) association in Moscow, which is NPT’s Russian counterpart.

“I have met with Cheney, Rice Powell, and they all see the fundamental benefit of the NPT proposal, but they always come back to ‘what is Russia going to do about Iran?’” said Keonjian in a recent interview.

“But Iran is a separate question altogether, and the NPT option is the only way to guarantee that fissile material gets locked up for good and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

What the Kremlin thinks
The Russian government’s support for the NPT project is more ambiguous than America’s, not for reasons of US national security or potential environmental hazards in Russia, but because the built-in moratorium on reprocessing may cramp its style.

On the level of Putin’s cabinet, a spokesman for Khlebanov said the deputy prime minister “supports the idea and has fully briefed the president, who supports it, too.” Khlebanov’s office nonetheless farmed out questions about the reprocessing moratorium to Minatom.

Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister Bulat Nigmatulin said in a telephone interview last week that “questions about reprocessing — and the project as a whole — would have to be discussed at the summit between Bush and Putin in May.”

“Of course there is a desire at Minatom to reprocess. It would make the project more profitable,” he added.

Nigmatulin early last week announced that negotiations were underway to build a raft of new reactors in China, India and the hotly contested Bushehr facility in Iran. Speaking with Bellona, he said he “wouldn’t be surprised if the new reactors lead to eventual reprocessing contracts.”

This is precisely the kind of thinking that NPT — as well as members of the American government — hoped to avoid, but it is a mindset many environmentalists say would be foisted on the NPT plan if it is approved. It is also a clear indication that Russia does not intend to abandon subsidizing the Iranian nuclear industry any time soon.

Environmental opposition in Russia
Yabloko party Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin — who recently made headlines by marching past security with a camera crew into a Siberian nuclear waste storage facility — voiced a familiar concern about NPT in a recent interview with Bellona.

“It’s not feasible from the point of view of national prestige,” he said. “It is a terrible political precedent to set when we say Russia is open for paid waste storage to richer nations.”

He was also “convinced” that the money — spread out over such a long period of time and administered by successive groups of hands — would not be spent where it is supposed to be.

“Minatom is ready to move on this because they want the money. It’s the American side getting in the way,” he said. “But once Minatom gets the cash, what they spend it on will be anyone’s guess.”

Bellona Director Fredric Hauge agreed with Mitrokhin, adding “there is enough waste in Russia right now that has to be taken care of before we add another 10,000 tonnes of it.”

“The NPT plan also shows little respect for the principles of democracy — even if the question were proposed for a referendum, experience shows that referendums on such questions in Russia simply get derailed.”

NP&I’s Keonjian, however, pointed to what he called “the responsibility that the nuclear nations Russia, the United States, England and France have toward the rest of the world” to solve waste problems as a group.

“This is a question of practical ecology,” he said. “These countries are primarily responsible for the waste problem the world has and they should work together to figure it out.”

But why Russia and not the United States? Because at present, Keonjian said, the United States has 70,000 tonnes of waste on its hands were Russia only has 14,000 tonnes. Also, he said, Russia needs the funds for clean up and for its nuclear workers more than America.

“Choosing Russia is not political, it’s practical,” he said.

But according to Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Moscow office of Ecodefence!, the NPT choice is also “utopian.”

“NPT is naive to assume it can not only change the politics of Minatom toward reprocessing but also the politics of the Russian government, which gave Minatom a green light to realise its reprocessing dreams by singing the law permitting imports of radioactive waste.”

He added that Minatom would not sign any agreement that forbade reprocessing, or that they may sign it and slowly begin to bend the rules. As an example of this, he cited a Bellona publication about how Minatom managed to foist reprocessing on CTR, despite US policy against it. CTR, which has spent $3.1 billion in Russia over the last ten years, granted Minatom a waiver from reprocessing once the Russian side began stalling on the project.

“That took only ten years to happen. Think of how far Russia could bend the NPT plan away from its original form in 40 years,” Slivyak said in an interview with Bellona. “Even government to government plans get distorted. I can only imagine what they’d manage to do to an agreement with a private corporation.”

But both Keonjian and Cochran remain unmoved by such an objection, pointing to the fact that breaching an agreement with NPT would mean breaching an agreement for cooperation with the American government. If the contract is breached, Russia gets no further funds and the waste, presumably, would be taken elsewhere.

“Certainly, this is something that would have to be discussed by the presidents in a summit setting,” said Keonjian.

“That is the only place it can be discussed with any finality.”