Perspectives on the handling of spent nuclear fuel in Russia

Thomas Nilsen/Bellona

Publish date: October 30, 2008

Written by: Alexander Nikitin

In the period of a decade in the USSR, and thereafter in Russia, problems have amassed in the area of the handling of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and radioactive waste. According to statements by Rosatom, a long-term, officially accepted strategy for the handling of SNF (hereafter: “the Strategy”) does not exist. Consequently, an effective means of addressing the problem is also absent. At the end of September 2007, Rosatom officials considered and accepted a framework for the Strategy, but at present this document has not been revealed to the public.

Bellona considers the problem of SNF extraordinarily important for reasons of ecological protection and public health, and the general public therefore should not be left out of the discussion. The following paper offers suggestions of the Bellona Foundation in regard to the strategy of handling SNF in Russia.

An Overview of the Problems

In the section entitled “Handling of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Radioactive Waste” of “The Strategy of Nuclear Energy Development in the First Half of the 21st Century” it is written that “closing the cycle of nuclear fuels acts as the strategic direction of the development of atomic energy in the Russian Federation.” This document was developed by Minatom in 2001. No other documents that outline a strategy of the handling of SNF exist today within the Russian atomic energy administration

It is known that the following mixed fuel cycles are used in Russia today:

  • For VVER/PWR-1000 – open-cycle
  • For RBMK-1000 –  open-cycle
  • For VVER/PWR-440 – tandem (partially open-cycle)
  • For BN-350 (600) – tandem (partially open-cycle)
  • For transport and research reactors – closed-cycle (with specific conditions)

In order to completely close the fuel cycle for all types of reactors, political, technical, and economic necessities must be substantiated. In our opinion, there exists no such justification, and its formulation is not possible for the following reasons:

1. The technological capability for closing the fuel cycle must be created practically from scratch;

2. Reprocessing fuel from RBMK-1000 reactors is inadvisable as the mass content of U235 is lower in spent form than in its natural state;

3. In order to reprocess fuel from VVER/PWR-1000 reactors, it would be necessary to construct a new factory at the cost of nearly USD $3 billion;

4. Waste from VVER/PWR-440, FBR, and transport reactors partially is reprocessed at the RT-1 reprocessing facility. In one year, RT-1 reprocesses eighty tons of SNF. At the same time, experts calculate that reprocessing SNF is economically viable only if the facility reprocesses no less than one-thousand tons of fuel in one year. USD $1 billion is required for the modernization of the RT-1 facility (for which there is nowhere to take). Therefore, the prospect of increasing the productivity of RT-1 is, at present, nil. By reprocessing fuel only from higher-rated reactors, the nuclear fuel cycle is not completely closed off; that is, the task of closing the fuel cycle remains unfulfilled. The basic situation today regarding fuel from transport reactors has changed drastically in comparison with Soviet times. The quality and quantity of these reactors, the quality of fuel and relations between the nuclear fleet and Rosatom are all changing; therefore, reprocessing of this type of fuel is becoming less pressing and very expensive.

Considering the aforementioned factors, it is in our opinion not possible to justify the economic necessity of closing the nuclear fuel cycle. The way in which international practice shows the technical and technological grounds for closing the nuclear fuel cycle is not reasonable for the majority of the country. The only remaining argument that justifies the necessity of closing the nuclear fuel cycle is a politically-motivated one, though it is absolutely possible that such an argument will be raised in Russia.

Spent Nuclear Fuel Processing in Russia


In sixty years or atomic energy use, over 18,500 tons (uranium) or spend nuclear fuel has accumulated in Russia, the aggregate radioactivity of which is measured at around 7 billion Curie. SNF is generated by nuclear power plants, research reactors, and also in reactors of marine-based nuclear energy installations. 850 tons of SNF is accumulated annually in Russia. This fuel has a unique isotopic composition that depends on both the type of reactor in which the fuel was used and its original characteristics.


The majority of Russian SNF is stored in the nuclear power plant storage facilities. According to experts’ estimations, approximately 14,000 tons of SNF is currently located in nuclear power plants. The remaining spent fuel is located on the grounds of the RT-2 facility in Krasnoyarsk (4000 tons), at the production association Mayak (approximately 500 tons), in storage facilities of the Northern and Pacific Fleets (approximately 130 tons) and also in storage facilities of research institutions (approximately 20 tons). All storage facilities are pool-type and are intended for only temporary storage of SNF.


Railroads serve as the principal mode of transportation. A specially-designed container car is used for every type of spent nuclear fuel. At present, 59 different types of container cars are in use throughout Russia for the purpose of nuclear fuel transport. The paths of SNF transport run from nuclear power plants to Mayak and to the Krasnoyarsk storage facility. Additionally, upwards of 700 kg (uranium) of SNF are transported from the storage facilities of the Northern and Pacific Fleets to Mayak.


At the RT-1 facility, only spent fuel from reactor types VVER-440, FBR-350, FBR-600, as well as transport and research reactors, is reprocessed. At the design capacity of 400 tons per annum, the Mayak plant currently reprocesses only 80 tons of SNF every year. The plant has been operating for twenty-five years; its equipment is obsolete and requires replacement. Construction of the RT-2 facility has yet to be completed. Because the technology planned for use at RT-2 is now out of date, much doubt surrounds the need to spend any more money in completing  its construction.

The cost of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing operations

The transportation of SNF costs, on average, USD $50 per kilogram. The yearly cost of storage for one kilogram of SNF approaches 120 dollars. Thus, storage of the accumulated 18,500 tons of SNF cost nearly $2.22 billion per year.

It should be pointed out that in 1998 there surfaced an initiative that advocating the transport of 20,000 tons of foreign SNF into Russia, for which Russia would receive $20 billion over ten years.

The average cost of spent fuel reprocessing at RT-1 is approximately $750 per kilogram. If one considers that the average cost of vitirification of high-level radioactive waste originating from SNF reprocessing approaches $340/kg, then the entire process of reprocessing one kilogram of spent fuel costs approximately $1340. The annual cost of handling SNF (considering transport and storage) is around $1500/kg.

Suggestions regarding the basic principles and approaches to the problem of handling spent nuclear fuel

In order to address the problem of spent fuel amassing in Russia’s storage facilities, it is vital to create and maintain a long-term strategy for the handling of SNF.

The strategy should be formulated in consideration of three key factors that characterize the state of contemporary nuclear and radiological security in Russia:

(1) The absence of a federal system of control over nuclear and radiological safety in the course of atomic energy use (including the handling SNF).

(2) The presence of nuclear and radiologically hazardous civilian- and military-industrial complexes containing SNF that do not meet contemporary demands for nuclear and radiological safety, thereby presenting a threat to national security.

(3) The need to solve the accumulating problem of SNF at the governmental level and the impermissibility of further postponement.

In the Strategy, fundamental principles and approaches to the problem of handling SNF must be accepted in order to define basic legal-organizational and economic mechanisms.

The following should be considered as the Strategy’s basic principles:

  • complete refusal of spent fuel reprocessing, including a denial of the creation of a experimental reprocessing center at the Mountain Chemical Plant;
  • permanent controlled storage of accumulated SNF in storage facilities that meet international safety standards;
  • minimal conveyance of SNF;
  • denying the import SNF of foreign origin into Russian territory;
  • transition to atomic technology that reduces or even eliminates SNF.

The plan for handling SNF should be maximally simple and safe. It must also be created with consideration of international practices and national realia.

Essential Actions

To solve the problems related to handling SNF, it is vital to:

  • create a governmental system of handling SNF, that is organizationally and economically independent from exploitative organizations;
  • create a normative legal basis for ensuring safety during the handling SNF;
  • create infrastructure for regional dry storage facilities that meet international safety standards for permanent (no less than 300 years) spent nuclear storage facilities;
  • create interim storage facilities for short-term storage of spent fuel awaiting transport to long-term storage facilities;
  • remove spent fuel accumulated in the internal storage facilities of nuclear power stations to the Mountain Chemical Plant and other facilities;
  • close the RT-1 plant at Mayak and remove the facility from use;
  • reach full compliance with the standards of international conventions on nuclear and radiological safety



The Strategy of the Federal Special Program (FSP) “Ensuring Nuclear and Radiological Safety in 2008 and in the Period until 2015” considers three variants of a nuclear and radiological safety strategy. Unfortunately, not one of these variants considers the possibility of rejecting the reprocessing SNF or denying the implementation of a closed fuel cycle strategy.

Thus, our suggestions are intended for consideration in the program “Ensuring Nuclear and Radiological Safety…” as an additional variant that refuses the reprocessing of SNF. Extricated funds could be rerouted to environmental rehabilitation and carrying out other program measures.

A refusal of partial SNF reprocessing and a denial of implementing a completely closed fuel cycle strategy not only ensures noticeable economic profit, but also solves fundamental problems in ecological security and reduces the hazard of radiological contamination.