Urenco sends largest nuke waste shipment yet to St. Petersburg in race to complete import contract

Alexei Snigirev/Bellona

Publish date: March 15, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – German-Dutch uranium enrichment joint venture Urenco Friday loaded what environmentalists say is its largest shipment to this city of depleted uranium hexafluoride yet, which is making its way via sea to the Port of St. Petersburg for further storage in Siberia under a deal that is set to expire this year.

Russian environmentalists, who are planning protests when the MV Shouwenbank – the vessel carrying some 1,250 tons of uranium hexafluoride, or uranium tails – puts into the port of St. Petersburg on Wednesday or Thursday, say the enrichment firm is trying to beat the clock on the 100,000 ton waste contract it has with Russia’s nuclear fuel giant Teksnabexport (Tenex).

The contract Urenco-Tenex paved the way for Urenco to transport 100,000 tons of uranium tails to Russia. Over the course of the contract, the waste has been distributed by rail among Novouralsk , near Yekatrinburg, Seversk, near Tomsk, Angarsk, near Tomsk and Zelenogorsk near Krasnoyarsk.

Bellona has demanded an immediate cessation of the shipments, which put St. Petersburg’s 5 million residents, as well as the residents of all the cities and towns through which the waste passes en route to Siberia at risk.  

The shipments have been a lighting rod for joint protests by Bellona and the anti-nuclear group Ecodefence.

Over the past decade Russia has amassed more than 700,000 tons of uranium tails from Urenco, as well a France’s Eurodif – the enrichment branch of Areva – which has a depleted uranium hexafluoride import contract with Texex of its own that expires in 2014.

The current load of uranium tails, which are a by-product of enriching uranium at Urenco’s Gronau, Germany facility, is 1,250 tons – the largest parcel yet sent to Russia, outweighing its predecessors by 250 tons.

The MV Shouwenbank, a familiar vessel to Russian environmentalists who oppose the import of the waste, was being loaded in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on Friday.

From St. Petersburg, the MV Shouwenbank’s load will be transferred to rail cars and hauled more than 4,000 kilometers to Novouralsk, according to Ecodefence.

“Transporting radioactive waste presents an extreme risk for the environment and the populations,” Ecodefence co-chair Vladimir Slivyak told Bellona Web.

“Should the hermitic seals (on the containers of uranium tails) be compromised, the area within a 32 kilometer radius of such an accident are at direct risk. Transporting uranium tails through big cities, including St. Petersburg and Yekatrinburg is total insanity,” he said.   

German environmental activists lined up last week along the rail route from Gronau to Rotterdam, filling train stations in Münster others cities to fly anti-nuclear placards and hinder the progress of the 25-car train.

Previous shipments of this material over the past years have been found by Bellona activists, who have measured radiation surrounding the rail cars as they are loaded in St. Petersburg, to exceed norms by 30 times. Greenpeace Russia has turned in radiation measurements that exceed norms by 40 times.  

Importing uranium tails has been a flashpoint of controversy between authorities and environmentalists in both Russia and Germany. Many European governments do not considerer uranium hexafluoride to be waste, but rather raw material for enrichment.

The United States’ Department of Energy, however, has classified uranium tails as nuclear waste.

Russia, as the only country in the world that imports uranium tails on an industrial scale, seems not to have reached a conclusion on whether the material is waste or not.

Moscow has been trying to jump start a brusque business in reprocessing foreign spent nuclear fuel since 2001, but, because of its decrepit an outdated reprocessing facility has been consigned mainly to storing what it accepts.

Sergei Kiriyenko, chief of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom in 2007 said, in an apparent admission that the Urenco and Eurodif deals were a mistake, that the contracts will not be renewed.

Russia’s law On Atomic Energy Use defines as radioactive waste those nuclear and radioactive substances for which there is not further use.

While the imports continue to slide into Russia under the aegis of raw material for reprocessing it is increasingly apparent in recent years that some 90 percent of that material imported to Russia to be reprocessed is not going anywhere.

This lays the environmental and financial burden of keeping the material on Russia – according to analysts, storage of uranium tails in several countries costs from $2 million to $22 million per thousand tons. Urenco is therefore in a hurry to unload its last contracted 100,000 tons on Russia to keep down its own production costs.

The majority of this material is stored in the open air. Russia’s nuclear regulatory body Gosatomnadzor – which was subsumed as a neutered subdivision of the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Oversight in 2004 – stated in its 2003 to 2006 reports that the open air storage of the uranium tails “does not correspond to contemporary safety requirements.”

Yelena Sergeyeva contributed to this report from St. Petersburg.