International fuel bank in Russia gets go-ahead from IAEA to industry cheers and environmental dismay

Publish date: March 29, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia signed off Monday to set up the world's first nuclear fuel reserve in Siberia Monday to ensure uninterrupted supplies to the world's nuclear power reactors.

The deal guarantees stock of 120 metric tons of low-enriched uranium in Angarsk, near Irkutsk in Siberia, said Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, who added that other countries were displaying interest in the pool of low-enriched uranium.The IAEA said the value of the uranium was about $250 million.

The move to create the bank on the site of the Angarsk Electrolysis and Chemical Combine mollifies many defence industry experts who are afraid de-centralised caches of nuclear fuel could be used for terrorism.  But Monday’s announcement also perturbs many Russian and international environmentalists who say the Siberian fuel bank at Angarsk will become a sink hole of radioactive contamination.

Once operational, the fuel reserve is meant to encourage countries looking to develop peaceful nuclear programmes to depend on outside sources – in this case the Angarsk instead of developing uranium enrichment programmes of their own.

But Russia has its own stakes in hosting the fuel bank. Since becoming prime minister in May 2008, Vladimir Putin has made strengthening Russia’s nuclear power sector a top economic priority.

During a visit to India earlier this month, Putin signed multi-billion-dollar deals to build up to 16 nuclear reactors and said Russia hopes to eventually control a quarter of the global nuclear power market.

Dangers of enrichment ignored

Enrichment can produce both fuel and fissile nuclear warhead material. Fears that Iran might be using its enrichment programme as a cover to build weapons gave impetus to the idea, signed into life Monday Kiriyenko and IAEA head Yukiya Amano, who succeeded Mohammed ElBaraei in November.

The creation of an international uranium fuel bank had been a signature project of ElBaradei.  

At the joint signing today, Kiriyenko and Amano said the bank will support countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and the UAE, which plan to build their own nuclear power stations. They also said they would sell to Iran if the Islamic Republic abandons its current plans for enriching its own uranium to run its Russian-built reactor in Bushehr.

Kiriyenko predicted that nearly a third of the total uranium stockpile should be ready to sell by the end of the year. But  he stressed that the bank’s reserves are meant to be used only be used in cases of urgent need and to avoid interruptions in a country’s supply.

Bank signals radioactive dangers for Russia

But the uranium enrichment process causes as a by-product staggering amounts of radioactive waste, all the more so in an area that is languishing under tons of uranium enrichment waste that has been produced domestically and imported from France and Germany.

Diplomats who spoke with Bellona Web on Monday said that the IAEA-Rosatom plan for the bank has not yet taken into account the storage of the waste the uranium bank will produce.

At present, more nearly three quarters of a million tons of radioactive waste is stored in north western Siberia, often in the open air, in conditions that Russian government nuclear regulatory bodies themselves have declared to be inconsistent with international practices, and generally unsafe for the environment.

“The fuel bank will mean rapidly growing stockpiles of radwaste in Siberia,” Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the Russian environmental group Ecodefence, told Bellona. “There are some 700.000 tons already accumulated at Russian uranium enrichment facilities and there will be much more if the international fuel bank really works out.”

Slivyak cited that storage conditions for radioactive waste in Russia already abysmal, and that the containers of waste that are stored in the open pose risks to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake, especially if accidents should occur at the prospective fuel bank.

Slivyak also challenged the notion that controlling the uranium in a Russian based fuel bank would prevent possibly rogue nations from getting their hands on fuel foe weapons purposes.

“Free access to nuclear material for new countries may finally lead to appearing of new nuclear weapon states,” said Slivyak. “In this case, IAEA control can not prevent it, just as it couldn’t prevent India and Pakistan from getting nuclear weapons.

International support

Washington had put its clout behind the creation of one if not several fuel banks of this kind around the world in an effort to curb just the kind of scenario with Iran that is devilling the Obama Administration like the Bush administration before it.

In 2007, US Congress pledged $50 million toward the creation of a fuel bank in Angarsk, and US tycoon Warren Buffet put in a matching grant of $50 billion out of his personal fortune via the powerful Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based non-proliferation NGO.

In February of 2008, Norway pledged $5 million toward the project and promised to spearhead efforts to raise the remained estimated $50 million for the completion of the fuel bank.  The next month, a contribution from Kuwait put the funding for the Angarsk fuel bank at the target it needed to move forward.

But Washington’s efforts toward an international fuel bank far predate efforts over the past few years.

A nuclear-fuel bank, monitored by the IAEA, has been under discussion since the Administration of US president Dwight Eisenhower as a way to assure supplies of reactor-grade uranium. The agency has promoted the establishment of a nuclear-fuel bank to dissuade countries such as Iran from setting up uranium programs that could be used to increase enrichment to the level required for atomic weapons.

Bellona questions intent of fuel bank

In February 2009, Russia submitted a formal plan to the IAEA that provides for the enrichment of uranium in a shared facility in Angarsk. Armenia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are participating in the project, which doesn’t require them to give up their own enrichment technologies.

Bellona nuclear energy expert Igor Kudrik has called into question the primary intention of the fuel bank, which is to prevent so-called rogue nations, primarily Iran, from acquiring access to reprocessing technologies. This notion has already been undermined because “Iran has already said it wants to develop a full fuel cycle of its own,” said Kudrik.

Meanwhile, said Kudrik, countries that do not already have nuclear power plants would purchase fuel for the reactors that they build directly from a fuel producer rather than a fuel bank. Furthermore, countries that do not have their own reprocessing technology do have access to the fuel market, and contracts for fuel usually stipulate that spent fuel be returned to the producer, said Kudrik.