Germany refuses to ship radioactive waste to Mayak pending safety evaluations

Anti-atom aktuell

Publish date: December 5, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

A raft of nuclear waste from Germany intended for shipment to Russia’s Mayak Chemical Combine for reprocessing has run aground as various German lawmakers and officials have received a crash course from activists in the environmentally derelict state of the Urals-based nuclear recycling facility, and are backing off their intentions to ship.

The ambivalence of German officials to allow the export of nuclear materials that were initially supplied by the Soviet Union may throw something of a wrench into a US-Russian plan in conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

Under this plan, Russian origin highly enriched uranium has been, or is being, repatriated to Russia from 17 countries from Poland to Vietnam. Germany itself repatriated such fuel in December 2006 under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. Other countries covered by the agreement include Bulgaria, China, North Korea, Egypt, Hungary, Kazakhstan Latvia, Libya, and Yugoslavia.

But German officials are the first to call into question the obvious safety questions of repatriating the fuel to a country that has myriad nuclear safety and security issues – even under a plan endorsed by the United States and the IAEA.  

German officials’ zeal to send the waste, was met with vociferous environmental opposition throughout November, and has thrown cold water on the shipment plans and prompted officials to demand evidence that Mayak is indeed a safe terminus for the radioactive cargo.

“The key criterion for us clearly is safe storage, and we want to ensure this by inspecting the situation on site,” deputy government spokesman Christoph Steegmans told German environmental groups.

Another spokeswoman for Germany’s Federal Environment Ministry zeroed right in on Mayak, stressing that the Ministry, led by Norbert Röttgen, would not rule on the nuclear waste export application “until questions regarding the safety of the Russian facility Mayak have been thoroughly evaluated.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Environment Ministry stressed that the Ministry, led by Norbert Röttgen (CDU), would not take the decision on the export application “until questions regarding the safety of the Russian facility Mayak have been thoroughly evaluated.”

Mikhil Yurevich, the Governor of the Chelyabinsk Region where the Mayak plant is located, in late November trumpeted the facility’s safety, and declared that it was ready to receive German waste with open arms.

But Germany’s Environmental Ministry is unimpressed by such declarations, and have commissions the Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS) a major technical consulting NGO, to weigh in on the issue.

Further, administrators in all the region where ports that are capable of handling nuclear shipments have declared that they will not allow the load to pass.

The waste

At issue is Saxony’s desire to return fuel elements to Russia that were used in the Rossendorf research reactor in the former East Germany. The fuel elements were originally supplied by the USSR and are currently stored at the interim storage site in Ahaus, North Rhine-Westphalia.

The planned transport is based on an international agreement dating from 2004, according to which nuclear fuel from the Soviet Union that was imported for use in foreign research reactors is to be returned to Russia.

The goal of the return is to avoid proliferation of nuclear-weapons-grade material – a real risk as research reactors are typically not well protected and operate on highly enriched uranium. On September 23, Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection authorised the transport applied for by Saxony. However, no export license has been issued yet.

A spokesperson for the German Foreign Office told environmental groups the agreement with the title “Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return Program” dating from 2004 did not lead to an obligation for Germany to return the nuclear fuel.

Doubts about repatriating fuel from the beginning

Though US officials greeted the Global Threat Reduction Initiative with open arms, several key environmentalists and scientists in Russia and the US expressed doubts about the agreement very early.

Alexei Yablokov, a former environmental advisor to the late President Boris Yeltsin, and head of the Moscow-based Centre for Ecological Policy of Russia saw politics more than practicality behind the agreement.

“In principle, it is a very good idea to collect all used nuclear fuel which has been spread all over the world, but it is also an impossible task,” Yablokov told Bellona Web in an interview.

“A huge amount of it will remain in reactors in different parts of the world, nuclear power plants in different countries will continue to be a powerful source of weapons-grade nuclear material,” he said, adding that the Global Threat Reduction Initiative was more “political and practical.”

In the US, Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington said that bringing all the fuel back to Russia “is a little paradoxical, given all the warnings about proliferation in Russia.”

New German Doubts – and possible machinations

In late November, a conference of land ministers of the German interior department adopted a decision indicating that they “stand against the transport of nuclear materials to a country with a low standard of safety.”

Over the course of the following week, the opinion of Germany’s environmental minister, Norbert Rettgen, radically changed. If earlier he had announced that he was sure of the high level of safety surrounding nuclear waste storage in Russia, then later confirmed that permission to transport the load would only be given after a positive evaluation of the situation by experts on the situation at Mayak. The decision, at the very least, delayed the date of the intended shipment by several weeks.

Nonetheless, an anonymous German government official told the environmental group Ecodefence that various authorities were discussing the possibility of shipping the waste via a French port if they could not come to some agreement with the German port that have turned the radioactive waste shipment away. The source named December 15 as a date that the transport may be shipped.

“The pressure on [federal] authorities is very high, and therefore a decision will probably be taken in the near future – either to begin [the shipment] soon, or completely shut down preparations for the shipment,” the source told Ecodefence.