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Mayak storage facility: U.S. weighs proliferation risk vs. existing policy

Publish date: June 8, 1998

Written by: Thomas Jandl

In the wake of the Norway-Russia agreement on nuclear waste management, the U.S. policy community is debating Mayak again. The policy of transporting nuclear fuel to the Mayak chemical combine is still alive, but reprocessing remains a 'no-no.' An exercise in squaring the circle?

The Norway-Russia Framework Agreement on Cooperation Related to Dismantling Nuclear Submarines and Enhancing Nuclear Safety, signed by Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov and Norway’s Foreign Affairs Minister Knut Vollebaeck in Moscow on May 26, has sparked a round of policy debates in the United States. Several agencies implementing nuclear safety projects in Russia evaluated the agreement and looked at U.S. policy in the process.

The main bone of contention in U.S.-Russian talks in the field of nuclear safety cooperation is the issue of reprocessing. While U.S. policy is still favorable to shipping nuclear waste to the reprocessing plant in Mayak, near Chelyabinsk, the Administration’s policy is a clear ‘no’ to allowing U.S. funding going towards reprocessing of nuclear materials. Washington fears the high risk of proliferation in the process.

An Energy Department official said the Mayak question is not technical, but one of financing, infrastructure, licensing and permissions. A good list for starters. The official also said the Russian side is beginning to come around to accepting dry storage in Mayak rather than the pool storage that has so far been the preferred solution. The facility has a 30% completed pool storage facility. The construction for this pool had been interrupted in 1986.

One source tells Bellona Web the chances for U.S. funding to construct any additional facilities in Mayak, whether they are wet or dry storage, are small. This is because the State Department, which controls a part of the funding for international nuclear activities, does not want to sink any additional money into the plant.

Even within the Energy Department there are those who favor alternative solutions. According to one expert who works for a DoE contractor, storage facilities should be built in the shipyards where the waste occurs after dismantlement or defueling of submarines. Potential local protests could be met with the simple argument that even if the Mayak solution were agreed to, waste would pile up for many years and needs to be stored in the medium term under all scenarios. Better safe storage than betting the farm on the hope that one day it will all go to Siberia (Chelyabinsk).

The counterargument is that it is less than safe to predict what will happen to storage facilities built with Western help once the Western partners leave. If the waste was to be shipped to Mayak, future maintenance or the lack thereof would be Russia’s problem alone.

The U.S. military, which is in charge of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, appears to be in favor of waste transportation to Mayak. But that does not necessarily reflect the CTR program office’s preferred solution. CTR is under constant assault from Congress for doing too much (non-arms reduction work such as environmental restoration) or too little (not dismantling enough Russian weapons-the program has been attacked for not being able to spend all its money). As a consequence, CTR is careful not to alert congressional foes of the program to any activities they could use as ammunition. Supporting storage facilities on the Kola Peninsula could be construed as "environmental work," which Congress explicitly prevented CTR from doing.

Ultimately, the discussion burns down to the question whether it is possible to prevent Russia from reprocessing nuclear materials in case they are shipped to Mayak. DoE hopes for an agreement prohibiting reprocessing. But then, why would the Russian side agree to a deal under which it transports nuclear fuel almost 2,000 miles (3,000 km) to a reprocessing plant at a substantial cost, only to promise not ever to reprocess it there?

It may make sense for the European side, and particularly for Norway, to have the nuclear waste stored as far away from its borders as possible. But agreements are rarely signed because they are beneficial for one party.

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