Proposals to Ship Taiwanese SNF to Russia Get Chilly Washington Reception

Publish date: May 16, 2002

Despite the upbeat intentions to form a US-Russian "working group" to discuss Russia's support for the Iranian nuclear industry announced last week by senior US and Russian Energy officials, talks over an agreement to ship Taiwanese spent nuclear fuel (SNF) to Russia failed to make progress.

Taiwan, which operates three commercial nuclear power plants (six reactor units) and four research reactors, has in recent years piled up tonnes of SNF and lacks effective temporary storage facilities. The island’s geological make-up does not support the creating of a permanent underground vault.

Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev spent three days in Washington last week to meet with US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, members of Congress and others to set the stage for nuclear and non-proliferation issues for the May 23-26 summit between US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Among those items that Nuclear Ministry officials had hoped would be solved before the summit was the inking of an agreement on the Taiwanese SNF imports.

To move the Taiwanese waste to Russia, Washington and Moscow must decide how the waste will be handled, which would require settlement of the “Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy” under the US Atomic Energy Act enacted in 1954.

While the last week’s meetings cantered on nuclear weapons and non-proliferation issues connected to Russia’s support of Iran’s infant nuclear power industry, Taiwan’s nuclear-waste problem was briefly discussed.

“Yes, indeed, we touched upon this issue, but the signing of such an agreement [Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy] really requires a lot of time for preparation,” Rumyantsev was quoted as saying by the English-Language Taipei Times.

“We really haven’t had any specific discussions of Taiwan fuels, American-based or American-sourced fuels at this point,” Abraham said according to the paper. “That’s one of a lot of the issues that are engaged in broader agreements that are not yet formulated.”

Taiwanese authorities are seeking to find repositories for their spent fuel and have been holding talks with Russia to ship waste now stored at Orchid Island and other sites to Russia for long-term storage.

Russian Nuclear Power Ministry, or Minatom, officials reached Thursday would not specify how much SNF from Taiwan would be imported to Russia, if the deal is ever approved by the Americans or how much money Russia would get in return for taking it.

But the main snag in the deal is a requirement that Washington must agree to the transfer, since Taiwan’s nuclear power plants were built, and the nuclear fuel supplied, by US firms.

The lack of US enthusiasm to discuss the Taiwanese deal in any depth was bound to come as something of a blow to Minatom, which has been searching for commercial nuclear waste storage and reprocessing contracts since last June, when SNF imports were legalized by the Duma. Since then, Taiwan has been aggressively courting the option of sending its waste to Russia.

At that time of the law’s passage, Minatom had convinced lawmakers — to the dismay of some 90 percent of Russian citizens who were polled — that the government could bank billions by charging for the reprocessing and storage of foreign SNF. But because 70-90 percent of the world’s nuclear fuel is of US origin, and because France and Britain dominate the dwindling reprocessing market, Minatom has had difficulties getting its cash cow to fly.

Minatom’s plans to import SNF in general — and the Taiwanese waste in particular — have been greeted by American and Russia non-proliferation experts and environmentalists with scorn.

Thomas Cochran, of the Non Proliferation Trust (NPT), a private American corporation that hopes to eventually build a permanent geological nuclear waste repository in Russia specifically for countries like Taiwan, disapproved of any Minatom led effort to bring the waste to Russia in a recent email interview with Bellona Web.

While NPT agrees that something needs to be done to solve Taiwan’s worsening pile-up, Cochran said he would fight any Minatom supervised transfer of the waste to Russia because of the non-proliferation risks it would pose.

An NPT-supervised transfer of the Taiwanese waste, however, would involve safeguards that the waste would not be reprocessed — but the NPT plan would have to be adopted by the US and Russian governments first, and the NPT plan has opponents of its own.

The fact that the Taiwanese fuel is of US origin begs the question as to why the United States doesn’t take it back. The main impediment to this, Cochran said, was “politics and public opinion.”

“Moreover, no US corporation would take the commercial risk, and the US Government would not do it on its own,” said Cochran.

“The US Government also would view this proposal as undermining its efforts to get Yucca Mountain licensed,” he added in reference to the controversial geologic repository currently being considered in the state of Nevada.

Current law limits the Yucca Mountain capacity to less than the projected requirement for handling US spent fuel alone, Cochran said.