Foreign Nuclear Experts Debate Russia’s Future on the SNF Market

Publish date: September 12, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

In the beginning, the plan promised to yield billions: Open Russia's borders to foreign radioactive waste for a price, and spend the proceeds on improving the country's dilapidated nuclear infrastructure, including environment clean-up. Client countries would be charged to send their spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, to Russia for long term storage and reprocessing, and in twenty years, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, Minatom, would bank $20 billion.

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However, since two years ago, when that plan was made possible by a packet of three laws hassled dubiously through the State Duma by Minatom — to the public outcry of nearly 90 percent of Russian citizens, according to polls — it has failed to yield any results beyond the ire of environmentalists and the realization that, without consent of the United States, which controls 70 to 90 percent of the world’s spent fuel, the predicted boom is impossible.

Despite these barriers, Russia is steadfast in its desire to strike gold by importing radioactive waste, and according to many of its spent fuel market competitors and ecological experts who were in Moscow at this week’s Minatom-sponsored "Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Management 2002 Conference: New Russian Initiatives," the country has a solid chance at raking in that cash.

But what end these SNF imports should meet in Russia is still a matter of debate in the international nuclear community. Under Minatom’s current policy, irradiated fuel will be imported at a price for long-term storage, and the proceeds will be applied to revamping the country’s reprocessing infrastructure — a plan Minatom says will take some 20 to 30 years to realize. This would place it in tight competition with England and France, the two other countries in the world that reprocess commercially. But others suggest that SNF bound for Russia should be sent for the purposes of permanent internment.

Both endeavours, said experts at the conference, would be profitable. But the question remains: Which would be most responsible?

BNFL hinting at Russian deal?
Among those predicting Russia’s eventual appearance as a giant on the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing market was Michael Simpson, Business Development Director of Britain’s BNFL.

"Judging by the changes that have occurred over the past few years, it is entirely possible to expect the emergence of Russia on the world market as a big player," he said. Concerning reprocessing in Russia, Simpson said: "The fundamental task will be the development of specific methodologies and ways of reprocessing that will solve questions of non-proliferation."

Simpson said that he was "more than certain that Russia will be competitive on the SNF market", but added that the "most important question for Russia to answer is: does it want to be a competitor or a partner." To get a small piece of the market pie in the SNF trade, Simpson said, Russia will need to study the demands of its customers, and obtain the necessary documents from regulatory agencies.

"This would be easier to do in a partnership than to start from the very beginning," Simpson said.

Simpson did not go so far as to say BNFL was proposing a deal with the Russians, but according to Thomas Cochran of the US-based National Resource Defence Council, and also a representative of the Non Proliferation Trust (NPT), BNFL’s overtures toward reprocessing deals in Russia were a matter of long-established record.

"It’s not new that BNFL is looking for a partner to do reprocessing," said Cochran. "They are overextended at their own facilities in Sellafield. But it’s not feasible — they would do their reprocessing in Russia and leave the mess behind."

The implied partnership, however, may look extremely inviting to both BNFL and Minatom at the moment as the British Energy, England’s largest private nuclear operator, battles insolvency with a $638 million bailout package from the government.

In an interview this week with the web site, Russia’s Atomic Minister Alexander Rumyantsev was receptive to the idea of such a partnership and said talks with BNFL and Cogema, France’s reprocessor, were underway.

"We are negotiating and carrying out joint projects where it is profitable," he said, according to

Impediments to partnership
For such partnerships to work, as Rumyantsev well realizes, the consent of the United States would be required. The disposition of two thirds of the irradiated fuel in Russia’s potential customer countries is controlled by the United States. The remainder is countries like England and France, which govern their own SNF, but have close security relations with the United States. Thus, more than 90 percent of the SNF market is unavailable to Russia absent a so-called Agreement on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy between Moscow and Washington.

There is also the sticky issue of Russia’s nuclear assistance to Iran, where Minatom is building a nuclear reactor in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr. And in July, Russia announced tentative plans to build five more reactors for Tehran.

Despite this, some small measure of consent for limited imports of US-controlled SNF seems to be inching closer. US Department of Energy (DOE) representative Russell Dyer, who was present at the conference, hinted to that an agreement may soon be reached about sending a small shipment of US-controlled SNF to Russia.

"It’s possible to reach some sort of agreement regarding the shipment of fuel to Russia that falls under US jurisdiction," Dyer said. He added, though, that "I don’t think, in the nearer perspective, that it’s possible to talk about reprocessing."

The Monitz and NPT options
Dyer’s comments jibe with other alternative import plans to Russia that would forbid the reprocessing of both Russian and US-consent SNF in favor of its permanent internment there in geologic repositories.

According to NPT’s Cochran, an option like this is the only way Russia can realistically cash in on the SNF market.

"Russia has a good chance of profiting on the SNF market if certain political decisions, for instance about Iran, are made," said Cochran. "But this profit does not include reprocessing."

Under a prospective agreement between Russia and the United States, NPT, which is a private corporation, would raise $15 billion in revenues — a $4 billion increase on NPT’s earlier proposals — by storing 10,000 tonnes of foreign and Russian irradiated fuel in Russia. Of that, $3.75 billion would be allocated for a 40-year interim management of the fuel, during which time a geologic repository would be sited and built for permanent resettlement of the waste, where it would remain never to be reprocessed.

Another $11.25 billion would be allocated not only to build the repository and to clean up and enhance the security of Russia’s nuclear infrastructure, but also to employ nuclear workers in the closed cities in civilian and ecological capacities. NPT would also provide tidy sums toward social relief for Russian elderly and orphans. Likewise, there would be significant funds paid to the region in which the permanent waste repository would be eventually located. Russia and the United States would also have to adhere to a bilateral 30-year moratorium on commercial reprocessing.

According to the paper Cochran presented at the conference, "Russia has two options on the SNF market: 1) act alone and lose the market, or 2) enter into a cooperative arrangement with the United States."

Cochran’s presentation also focused on the economics of the reprocessing Minatom intends to eventually undertake.

"It is less expensive to mine and enrich uranium and fabricate low-enriched uranium fuel than it is to process irradiated fuel and separate and recycle unused uranium and plutonium. This is likely to remain the case into the foreseeable future," Cochran said in his paper.

"Even Minatom agrees it is awash in separated plutonium and there is no justification for building new reprocessing plants for decades."

Professor Ernest Monitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology likewise advocated the creation of several international repositories, some of which would be located in Russia.

"The development of the situation with SNF suggests the construction of at least 15 repositories analogous to the Yucca Mountain repository in the US State of Nevada," he said.

According to Monitz, the next 15 years will see no significant changes in the dynamics of atomic energy. But between 2015 and 2050, he expects the amount of energy supplied by atomic sources to leap by as much as 500 percent, and he predicted that the second half of the 21st century would be characterized by a rapid expansion of nuclear energy founded on the applications of more developed technologies. Because of this, Monitz said, problems of permanent waste storage must begin to be addressed now.

"In light of this, the construction of an international repository for SNF in Russia corresponds to the strategy of world society in this sphere," Monitz said.

Agenda to reprocess
Many environmental groups, including Bellona, however, have long contended that Minatom will never give up reprocessing, rendering proposals like NPT’s and Monitz’s unworkable. Some even argue that such plans could pose a non-proliferation threat by giving Russia yet more spent fuel from which to extract plutonium.

According to one source close to Minatom, who requested anonymity, reprocessing for more plutonium is precisely the point behind the foreign imports. According to the source, Minatom, working on money supplied by the DOE, intends to pursue a breeder reactor programme for the development of a closed plutonium fuel cycle.

"Minatom loves breeders and would rather do away with light water reactors altogether," the source said. "There are only a few more decades that natural uranium can be mined, so Minatom is placing its bets on plutonium, regardless of the risks."

The DOE has publicly acknowledged that it will pursue research and development with Russia on a so-called proliferation-proof reactor, but it has not specified that this reactor will be a breeder. But what the source suggested is consistent with research called for in US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s Energy Plan, which envisions designs for a so-called "generation four" reactor in the United States, which one DOE official indicated "has the characteristics of a breeder reactor." That official, however, could not say whether the DOE intended to share this technology with Russia.

Minatom’s Director of Information Policy, Nikolai Shingarev, denied that Minatom was pursuing breeder technology with the DOE, but did confirm that the two organizations were researching reactors that posed fewer proliferation threats.