Putin goes to Japan to promote nuclear cooperation and sell more reactor fuel under an environmental cloud

Председатель Правительства РФ В.В. Путин снова выступил главным лоббистом атомной промышленности.

Publish date: May 10, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will Tuesday hold talks with Japan aimed at signing a long delayed agreement to supply more nuclear fuel to the country as well as foster more cooperation between the countries in manufacturing nuclear sector equipment and building nuclear reactors, Kremlin officials said Monday.

The talks have been met by thunderous protest from Japanese and Russian environmental groups, like Russia’s Ecodefence and Japan’s Green Action and the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, who Monday issued a joint statement condemning the proposes agreement.

The main bone of contention, said the environmentalists, is that a potential agreement between Russia and Japan will allow copious amounts of nuclear material to be sent to Russia.

Putin kicked off his three-day visit to Japan on Monday.

The pact will pave the way for Tokyo to entrust Moscow with uranium enrichment and allow Japan to export nuclear power plant technology to Russia, the Kyodo News said and a Russian cabinet spokesman confirmed.

According to Kremlin officials and Japanese media reports, the two countries are in the final stages of the talks over a pact that would promote non-military use of nuclear power for electricity generation.

The talks are part of a wide-reaching effort by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom to spread its sphere of influence internationally, putting it in competition with its European counterparts like France’s Areva and Germany’s Siemens – with whom Russia two months ago signed a memorandum of understanding.

Yet, the talks between Russia and Japan have taken longer than expected to complete, missing deadlines at the end of 2007 and in mid-2008 over Japanese concerns that its technology might be leaked to the Russian defense industry.

The current share of Russian-made fuel on the Japanese market is 15 percent, but Putin told Japanese media he intends to increase that share to 25 percent.

According to the Russian and Japanese environmentalists, the site for extracting the necessary uranium to make this fuel would be the beleaguered Angarsk Electrolysis-Chemical Combine in South Eastern Siberia near Lake Baikal. . Kremlin officials reached Monday by Bellona Web would not confirm or deny whether Angarsk would be the site used for uranium extraction under the prospective deal with Japan.

Angarsk is also under consideration as a spot for an IAEA sponsored international uranium fuel bank, and processing and storage of such large amounts of fresh and spent nuclear fuel would severely increase the environmental load on an already vulnerable territory.

“Japan and Russia have for several years been considering the possibility of extracting uranium from spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in the United Kingdom and France and re-enriching it in Russia,” the Russian and Japanese environmental groups said in their joint statement.

“If a deal opening the way for reprocessed uranium to be re-enriched is signed between Japan and Russia, uranium extracted from Japanese spent fuel could be transported nearly 10,000 kilometers to the Angarsk uranium
enrichment plant near lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site,” said the statement.

“Transportation over such a long distance may become a target for terrorist attack, or cause transport accidents leading to large releases of radioactivity.”

But Putin was upbeat about the possible deal, and expects to return to Moscow with a deal in his pocket.

"We see how successful Japan is in developing high technology," Putin said in the interview posted on the Cabinet’s website Sunday.

"And, of course, coupling the possibilities of Russia and Japan in these areas, I think, would be very important."

He added that he thought the countries would sign the nuclear agreement during his visit to Tokyo.

Japan’s Ambassador to Russia, Masaharu Kono, was less enthusiastic than Putin that the two countries would walk away with a deal, however, telling Interfax newswire on Friday that the countries had yet to reach a final agreement on the matter.

Residents of Angarsk, too, have yet to reach any agreement on the proposed deal, and have been greeting the of a uranium enrichment centre in their region with protests since December 2006, Ecodefence, Green Action and the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center said.  

“Protests have been happening since December 2006. People are demanding that authorities withdraw from new enrichment contracts in order to stop the growth of radioactive waste stockpiles near the highly sensitive Baikal ecosystem,” said the groups in their statement.

“Both Japan and Russia must uphold democratic values and respect the wishes of the local residents. We call on both governments not to sign any agreement that permits the re-enrichment of Japanese reprocessed uranium in Russia.”