Import of spent nuclear fuel to Russia

Publish date: December 6, 2002

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, approved three bills favouring the import of spent nuclear fuel in summer 2001. In July 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the bills.

The Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, approved three bills favouring the import of spent nuclear fuel in summer 2001. In July 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the bills.

The Russian Ministry for Nucleatr Energy (Minatom) lobbied the bills through the Russian legal system. According to the scheme developed by Minatom, Russia could import around 20,000 tonnes of foreign spent nuclear fuel in the next 20 years and earn around $20bn on such operations. Around $7bn of the earnings will be spent on various environmental and social programmes, Minatom’s officials say.

Russia’s stock of spent nuclear fuel amounts to around 15,000 tonnes. More than half of the fuel is stored, often in unsatisfactory conditions, in onsite storage facilities at ten operational nuclear power plants. The naval spent nuclear fuel is stored in appallingly unsafe conditions at the bases of the Northern and the Pacific fleets.

Bellona believes the import of spent nuclear fuel will contribute to environmental degradation in Russia. It may also contribute to the proliferation of nuclear materials. The activity of Minatom, promoted recently to the ranks of Russia’s state policy, is merely commercial. The import of spent nuclear fuel will first of all help Minatom to sustain Russia’s vast nuclear military complex, which is falling apart after the end of the cold war. It will also aid the survival of Minatom. The funds earned are unlikely to be spent on environmental programmes advertised by Minatom. Such a statement can be supported by the fact that the laws provide no effective control over import activities by an independent body. The Russian Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, has been stripped of its authority considerably over the past years.

By promoting the cheap solution to manage spent nuclear fuel, Minatom will divert nuclear power plants operators worldwide from seeking long-term spent nuclear fuel storage solutions.

The project will create incentives for other countries to follow Minatom’s example. Kazakhstan has started to promote the idea to accept foreign radioactive waste for storage. Thus, the project may create competition among inadequately developed countries, which would lower the price of fuel-related services. This will undermine the security surrounding the management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

Finally, public opinion polls show the Russian population is firmly opposed to Minatom’s plans — up to 90% oppose the import project. In 2000, Russian NGOs attempted to hold a national vote against the import of spent nuclear fuel. They collected around 2.5 million signatures in support of holding a referendum on the issue. But one third of the signatures were scrapped by Russia’s Central Electoral Commission on the grounds that they were false. The decision of the committee is said to be of political rather than technical nature.

In spring 1999, Minatom started actively lobbing the Russian State Duma to amend article 50 in the Russian Law on Environmental Protection, which effectively prohibits the import of ‘radioactive materials’ to Russia. The new amendments to the law suggested unlimited importation of spent nuclear fuel to Russia, although all the pseudo-economic calculations presented by Minatom as a background for amendments are based on 20,000 tonnes.

The State Duma, after considerable efforts from Minatom, approved the amendments in summer 2001. On July 10th 2001, the bills were signed by the President of the Russian Federation.

The spent fuel import bills
The amendments to article 50 of the Law on Environmental Protection split the notion of radioactive materials into radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. The latter became legible for import. In particular, the new paragraph says: “The import of irradiated fuel assemblies of other states into the Russian Federation for provisional storage and/or reprocessing is allowed in case a public environmental impact study and other public review of the relevant project, required under the laws of the Russian Federation, is conducted and an overall reduction of the risk of radiation impact and increase in the level of environmental safety and security as a result of the implementation of the relevant project is substantiated.”

The amendments to the Law on the Use of Atomic Energy define the procedures under which Russia can lease spent nuclear fuel to other countries. The law stipulates that the leased fuel can be returned back to Russia after it has been burned in other countries’ reactors.

The third bill is named the Special Environmental Programs for Remediation of the Radioactively Contaminated Areas. The bill is a pure propaganda move undertaken by Minatom in gaining support Duma votes for the whole law package. It stipulates the procedures of using financial resources gained from the import of foreign-origin spent nuclear fuel for environmental issues. The bill has very void legal binding that the funds earned shall be used on environmental programs and creates numerous holes for misuse of the funds.

In addition, Russian President when signing the bills said a commission, chaired by the Nobel Prize winner and academician Zhorez Alferov, would be established to supervise each importation. Putin said that he would also control personally each importation. The commission was set up in early 2002, but so far no meetings have been conducted. Academician Alferov is a known supporter of nuclear industry.

Current management of spent nuclear fuel in Russia
The Russian Federation operates 10 nuclear power plants employing 30 reactors (VVER-440, VVER-1000, RBMK-1000, BN-600 and LVGR-12), which generate spent nuclear fuel. In addition, there is pressurised water reactor (PWR) fuel from nuclear powered submarines and icebreakers as well as fuel from research reactors. Besides, three military reactors are still producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Today, around 15,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel are accumulated in Russia.

In accordance with the so-called closed fuel cycle adopted in Russia, spent nuclear fuel from VVER-440, BN-600, PRW and maritime installations as well as part of the fuel from research reactors is sent for reprocessing to the Mayak reprocessing plant in Chelyabinsk county in the southern Ural Mountains.

Spent nuclear fuel from VVER-1000 reactors is sent for storage to the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk in Krasnoyarsk county. Spent nuclear fuel from RBMK type reactors is stored onsite at the nuclear power plant operating the reactors. According to GAN’s reports, these onsite storage facilities are often 80% to 90% full and are in very bad shape of repair.

>> Mayak reprocessing plant
The Mayak reprocessing plant, RT-1, started operating in 1977. RT-1 was designed with a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing capacity of 400 tonnes per year. During reprocessing, RT-1 produces an alloy of uranyl nitrate with 2.4% enrichment for uranium-235. This product can only be used to manufacture fuel for outdated RBMK type reactors. Reprocessing also produces reactor grade plutonium. The future of burning reactor grade plutonium in civilian reactors looks fuzzy. Until then, this material has to be taken care expensively because of non-proliferation concerns.

In the 1990s, the reprocessing capacities of RT-1 were in decline. Today the plant reprocesses 100 to 150 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel per year.

Until 1991, Mayak took no money for fuel delivered for reprocessing. In 1991, a fee for the service was set both for domestic and foreign customers (Finland and East European countries). The fee paid by the domestic suppliers was too low to cover the operation of the plant, whereas fuel reprocessing from foreign customers, who operated Soviet design reactors, brought the bulk of the profit.

But in 1995, Finland declared it would stop shipping spent fuel to Mayak. This happened after Bellona, among others, presented a fact-based paper about the real situation in Mayak, clearly outlining that spent nuclear fuel from the Lovvisa nuclear power plant in Finland was not adequately taken care of at Mayak. In 1996, Finland sent its last shipment to Mayak. Finland intended to place its fuel in a dry storage, awaiting the final repository currently under construction.

At the end of 1990s, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic stopped their shipments of spent nuclear fuel to Russia. Bulgaria sent a train with spent nuclear fuel in November 2001. Besides, Bulgarian officials are considering building a dry storage instead, because fuel shipments to Russia are considered to be too expensive.

The RT-1 plant at Mayak is old and requires an overhaul and costly upgrade.
The environmental situation around the Mayak plant is appalling. The plant is still dumping low and medium radioactive waste generated during reprocessing to the nearby Karachay Lake. Until now, no comprehensive clean-up programmes for the territory around Mayak have been developed. No calculations have been made as to how much such a programme would cost.

>> Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine
The decision to start building a second reprocessing plant, RT-2, at the Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine was taken in 1976. The plant was designed to reprocess spent fuel from VVER-1000 type reactors. In 1985, a storage pool for VVER-1000, which was to be a part of the RT-2, was commissioned. The rest of the construction was frozen in 1989. Later the initial design was drastically modified. Today Minatom counts on commissioning the plant not earlier then 2015 (31 (sic!) years after the construction was launched).

The storage pool for VVER-1000 spent fuel has a capacity of 6,000 tonnes and is more than 50% full. The storage pool requires overhaul repairs.

Minatom’s vision
The estimation of the ‘international market of spent nuclear fuel management’ (definition used by Minatom) suggests that Russia will be able to import 20,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from other countries and earn about $20bn.

Minatom does not plan immediate reprocessing, suggesting instead to dry store the fuel for around 40 to 50 years.

The spending on managing the imported spent nuclear (40-year storage, reprocessing and disposal of generated waste) will amount to $10.5bn. Around $7bn will be put into the federal budget, while $3.3bn will be paid in tax to the federal and local budgets.

After the bills favouring the import had been approved, Minatom took a more sober evaluation of its possibilities. High-ranking Minatom officials now say that the import cannot start right away due to the high level of competition on the ‘international market for spent nuclear fuel’. Instead, Minatom wants to focus on leasing Russian-manufactured fresh fuel to nuclear power plants abroad. The primary targets are countries already operating Soviet design reactors (Eastern Europe and Finland). Other targets are countries where Minatom is building nuclear plants: Iran, China and the coming contract with India.

To surpass the competitors, Minatom, unlike fuel manufactures from other countries, plans to lease fuel and take it back after it has been burnt — no questions asked.

Further plans suggest the import of spent fuel from Asian countries. Such activities, however, require permission from the USA, which owns most of spent nuclear fuel in that region. Minatom is conducting negotiations on this subject with its US counterparts.

Some countries in Western Europe have also expressed interest in sending spent nuclear fuel to Russia without the intention of receiving back both the fuel or the final output of its reprocessing.

Bellona’s evaluation of the plan
The huge propaganda campaign unveiled by Minatom to ensure the bills pass the State Duma disclosed much of the intentions of the atomic ministry. After analysing the scheme proposed by Minatom and the current situation in Russia, Bellona has come to the following conclusions:

— More nuclear waste will reduce nuclear safety in Russia
As detailed above, Russia has around 15,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. The import plan will mean Russia will more than double this amount by 20,000 tonnes. The experience of many of those who worked with Russia says that the culture of working with radioactive materials is very low in Russia, despite strict rules and regulations. Minatom does not cope with the available 15,000 tonnes, let along an extra 20,000 tonnes.

The statements from Minatom officials that they do not have the funding to solve the nuclear material management issues are not true. Minatom has been doing well the past years economically, but the funding of waste decommissioning and remediation projects remain scarce. Despite the fact that a number of programmes were developed by Minatom to recover radioactive contaminated areas and solve radiation safety related issues, none of them were implemented. Some pending issues, such as the situation around the Mayak plant, lack any developed comprehensive clean-up programmes.

The operation of some of Minatom’s plants (especially the former weapons complex in Siberia) suggests the discharge of radioactive waste is regular practice. Reconstruction to stop these discharges is not economically viable.

The bills approved by the State Duma suggest no effective control over the use of the funds, which could be earned on the import of spent fuel. The former practices of Minatom suggest that the funds will ‘be either eaten or stolen’, as it was put by the head of GAN, Yury Vishnevsky.

Russia will thus be left with more than double the amount of spent nuclear fuel and no funding to address the issue.

— No effective environmental control
Besides no effective control over funding being in place, Russia lacks a strong nuclear regulator. GAN has been stripped of its authority the past years, being completely removed from the military activities of Minatom and the Ministry of Defence. The last initiative emanating from Minatom suggests revoking GAN’s authority to grant licences to nuclear operators. A licence is provided by GAN given nuclear-related activities are performed under regulations. GAN’s recommendations are regularly ignored or GAN simply is forced to provide licences to Minatom’s plants under pressure from the government, which favours Minatom.

In 2000, President Putin disbanded the Ministry for Environmental Protection. The demise of this ministry has brought an effective tool for environmental impact assessment into shambles.

— Development of a market in spent fuel and radioactive waste storage
There are some 200,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel in the world. In 25 years the amount may increase up to 500,000 tonnes. The example set by Russia may serve as an incentive to other struggling economies to enter the fuel services business. This would lead to a market where countries give their territory to store spent nuclear fuel from other countries. The competition will lead to lower prices and cheap solutions in managing imported spent fuel. This will undermine levels of safety and security.

Radioactive waste may also become marketable. Kazakhstan is seriously considering providing territory for storing radioactive waste from other countries. Russia’s Kurchatov Institute, backed by some lawmakers in the State Duma, was negotiating with Taiwan, China, to build a storage site for radioactive waste in the Russian Far East.

— Slow down in research of solutions to storage of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste
The effect of spent nuclear fuel shipments to Russia can slow down the research of solutions for the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in other countries with nuclear power. European countries will not need to invest in research for final safe repositories if they have to option to ship their high-active waste to the eastern side of the Ural Mountains.

— Suppression of democracy
The bills permitting the import of spent nuclear fuel have provoked a hot debate in Russia. In 2000, Russian NGOs managed to collect in three months 2.5 million signatures in support of a referendum on spent fuel imports. The Central Electoral Committee discarded one third of the signatures. The decision was said to have been taken by the Kremlin. NGOs appealed the decision without results. Holding a referendum in Russia requires 2 million signatures collected in 60 regions in Russia.

Opinion polls say that up to 90% of the population opposed the bills and as well as spent fuel imports to Russia. The public opposition was largely ignored by both lawmakers and the Russian cabinet.

— Increased transportation volumes, terror attacks and accidents
The level of accidents on the Russian roads is in general 2.5 higher than in other industrial countries. The shipment of 20,000 tonnes would require around 2,500 container shipments. This would increase dramatically the frequency of shipments and probability of accidents.

In November 2001, a train laden with spent nuclear fuel travelling from Bulgaria to Krasnoyarsk county narrowly escaped a serious accident on the Trans-Siberian railway.

The bills favouring spent nuclear fuel imports approved by Russian lawmakers despite huge public opposition may lead to the doubling of the amount of spent nuclear fuel in Russia. In the meantime, Russia is unable to cope with its own issues relating to spent nuclear fuel.

The intentions to spend part of the import earnings on environmental programmes will remain intentions as there will be no effective control over funding from independent state bodies.

The whole project may serve as an incentive for other countries to undertake such business, which will create price competition and undermine storage methods’ safety. This will add to the proliferation of nuclear materials.

List of references:

  • The feasibility study for amending article 50 of the Russian Law on Environmental Protection, Ministry for Nuclear Energy of the RF, approved by V.B. Ivanov, 1999.
  • An explanatory note regarding the amendments of article 50 of the Russian Law on Environmental Protection, Ministry for Nuclear Energy of the RF, V.B. Ivanov, 1999.
  • Reflections on Russia’s Plans to Import Foreign-Origin Spent Nuclear Fuel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, V. Rybachenko, 8th International Nuclear Materials Policy Forum, Washington, September 25-28, 2001.
  • Protocol of the Russian State Duma meeting on amendments to the Law on Environmental Protection, July 18th 2000.
  • Interview with Bulat Nigmatulin, deputy nuclear minister of the RF,, July 17th 2001.
  • Ministry for Nuclear Energy of the Russian Federation, website:
  • The Bellona Foundation,