Nuclear Waste Piling Up at Russia's Overloaded Facilities

MOSCOW, Russia, June 23, 2004 (ENS) - The Russian government's three year old program to enter the nuclear waste reprocessing business is failing to attract customers, but even so, the country's inadequate storage and reprocessing facilities cannot handle the radioactive waste that is being sent there, according to new research by the anti-nuclear organization Ecodefense.

At a time when the G8 and the United States want to stop the spread of uranium and plutonium, Russia plans to produce more of these materials, say the report's authors Vladimir Slivyak and Alisa Nikoulina. Making clear their opposition to the Russian import of other countries' nuclear fuel, the authors say Russian policy is, in fact, the reprocessing of imported nuclear waste, and the extraction of plutonium from it.

President Vladimir Putin signed three laws to allow spent fuel imports into Russia in the spring of 2001, over the opposition of the vast majority of Russian citizens, according to ROMIR Research Group, an independent Russian public opinion and market research agency affiliated with the U.S. based Gallup Group.

According to 2001 public opinion polls, 93 percent of Russian citizens opposed the import of spent nuclear fuel.

fuel

Spent nuclear fuel in the water pool storage at Krasnoyarsk-26 (Photo by Nils Bøhmer courtesy Bellona)
A poll in 2002 found that about 90 percent of Russians fear nuclear energy. In 2002, on the 16th anniversary of the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, protest actions against importing spent nuclear fuel were held in 82 Russian cities.

In 2001, the Russian Ministry for Atomic Power, Minatom, claimed the waste import plan would be a good business move for Russia and estimated it would bring in US$20 billion in business over the next 10 years.

"According to these calculations," the Ecodefense report states, "the first two years of import should have made profit of about $4 billion. However, in 2001-2003 Minatom earned on operations with foreign spent nuclear fuel only $100 million, which is 40 times less than estimated."

Minatom has only those clients whom it had had before the legislation was changed, while negotiations aimed at attracting new clients have been unsuccessful. Russia's biggest nuclear waste client, Ukraine, is now organizing spent nuclear fuel storage on its own territory and may stop sending its spent fuel to Russia as soon as in 2005.

The report stresses that Russian nuclear waste facilities are in poor condition and that the transportation of spent nuclear fuel involves high risks for the countries on the route. The two major facilities working with spent nuclear fuel - Mayak and Krasnoyarsk-26 - are economically ineffective and, far from standing on their own economically, are 50 percent subsidized by the government.

Mayak, near Ozersk City in Russia's Chelyabinsk region, is the country's only spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility, while Krasnoyarsk-26, in Zheleznogorsk, stores spent fuel but does not reprocess it.

Mayak

Russian nuclear warheads are reprocessed at Mayak as well as spent nuclear fuel. Here, highly enriched uranium (HEU) warhead components are machined into metal shavings. The shavings are heated and converted to an HEU oxide on their way to becoming reactor fuel. (Photo courtesy NNSA)
The Russian nuclear industry has space enough to store 2,000 to 2,500 metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel, Slivyak and Nikoulina say, which is not enough to provide for even a single large international contract, given that Russian spent nuclear fuel must also be stored at Mayak and Krasnoyarsk-26.

Still, Ada Amon, director of the Hungarian NGO Energy Club, points out that on April 30, the day before Hungary became a full member of the European Union, the Hungarian government announced that an agreement had been signed with Russia that allows Hungary to transport to and store spent nuclear fuel in Russian facilities.

"This is a clear manifestation of the hypocrisy around any nuclear issue and also demonstrates the so-called openness of the nuclear industry as well as the respective governments to any real public discussion on the problems connected to nuclear waste does not exist," said Amon, who is in Budapest for the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health opening today.

The Hungarian nuclear waste would be transported by train to the Mayak complex. In 1997, Minatom signed a contract to import 3,500 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from Hungary, though later the Russian Supreme Court nullified the deal. Nevertheless, Hungarian nuclear waste is still stored at Mayak awaiting final disposal, Slivyak and Nikoulina explain.

Security around Russian nuclear waste facilities is very low, they warn. Any country sending nuclear waste to Russia must understand that there is a high risk that the waste might end up in the hands of terrorists and could be used for weapons of mass destruction. Also, the transport of spent nuclear fuel is vulnerable to terrorist attack, say Slivyak and Nikoulina.

"The transport of spent nuclear fuel - which also contains plutonium - should be halted," Slivyak says, and "the export of EU nuclear waste to Russia should not even be considered."

But European nuclear waste is being imported. Slivyak and Nikoulina cite the comments of a Bulgarian governmental official to the weekly "Rusenergy" in 2002 that they say provide grounds to believe that Bulgaria's nuclear cooperation with Russia is based on the intention to get rid of as much of spent nuclear fuel as possible at the least cost before Bulgaria joins the EU, which could take place as early as 2007.

Since the laws permitting import of spent nuclear fuel came into effect in June 2001, about 10 trains carrying spent nuclear fuel have arrived in Russia from Ukraine and Bulgaria.

Soon after the Russian legislation was passed, Bulgaria sent its first spent fuel shipment. It roused protests in Ukraine and Russia with demonstrations in seven cities along the Trans-Siberian Railway. In the end of November 2001, 41 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from the Bulgarian Kozloduy nuclear power plant was transported to Krasnoyarsk-26.

Bulgarian and Ukranian spent nuclear fuel was delivered to Krasnoyarsk-26 several times in 2002, says the Ecodefense report.

In June-July 2003, the transport of about 20 tons of Bulgarian spent nuclear fuel to the Mayak nuclear complex took place. In mid-June the ship caryying this nuclear cargo got stuck at the Danube River due to navigation problems, but by the end of July, the waste did arrive at Mayak.

Rumyantsev

Russia's top nuclear administrator Director Alexander Rumyantsev of the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Photo courtesy Kurchatov Institute)
In addition, small consignments of nuclear materials from the research reactors of Romania and Yugoslavia have been imported to Russia on a non-commercial basis under a joint program with the United States to keep research reactor fuel out of terrorist hands by repatriating it to Russia.

Under a new U.S.-Russia agreement, more than a dozen countries will be eligible to receive financial and technical assistance from the United States to ship their fresh and spent research reactor fuel - originally obtained from Russia or the Soviet Union - back to Russia for safekeeping and reprocessing into safer materials.

An agreement for the fuel repatriation program was signed by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Director Alexander Rumyantsev of the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy May 27 in Moscow. It is part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative announced by Abraham the day before at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna which aims to keep weapons grade nuclear materials out of terrorist hands.

Abraham

America's top nuclear administrator Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo by Jack Dempsey courtesy U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab)
"With today's agreement, we are moving forward to complete the important work of repatriating fresh and spent HEU [highly enriched uranium] fuel, which will reduce the threat of terrorism and prevent the proliferation of weapons-grade uranium," Abraham said.

More than 20 research reactors in 17 countries have been identified as having Russian/Soviet-supplied fuel, according to the U.S. Energy Department. This new initiative builds on existing U.S. nonproliferation efforts to minimize and eventually eliminate reliance on HEU in the civilian fuel cycle, including converting research and test reactors from the use of HEU to the use of safer low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels, Abraham said.

But Slivyak and Nikoulina point out that this nuclear deal covers fresh as well as spent nuclear fuel, which is the only material permitted for import under the new Russian law.

Another difficulty with the plan to repatriate the research reactor fuel is that the Russian nuclear industry is in fact focusing on storage, not on reprocessing, they say.

Yet within Russia, Minatom presents its plans as targeted exclusively towards reprocessing and a future plutonium based economy. "Launching of a new spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant is impossible at least until 2020, while the old one lacks capacity and urgently needs large investments," Slivyak and Nikoulina write.

They cite the publicly stated opinion of Mayak's own management officials that conditions at the Mayak facility are inadequate. "The facility needs nearly US$600 million for reconstruction and has no plan for obtaining that sum," write Slivyak and Nikoulina. "A radioactive waste vitrificating facility at Mayak works with long interruptions which increases the already serious problem of radioactive waste accumulated at the facility."

In the beginning of 2003, for the first time in Russian history, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing was suspended at Mayak because the government revoked its license for violations of nuclear regulations.

But in spite of the fact that Mayak failed to eliminate the violations that caused revocation of its license, in March 2003 Gosatomnadzor, the Russian Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, reinstated Mayak’s license under the governmental pressure, Slivyak and Nikoulina report.

In spite of the worldwide tendency to improve physical protection of nuclear sites since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 there is no confirmed information on improvement of security at Minatom’s sites, the Ecodefense report states. "On the contrary, a number of facts provide evidence of a low level of physical protection of those sites."

"In the first half of 2002, the secured zone of a nuclear site at Krasnoyarsk-26 was illegally visited by a group of people who recorded their visit and then made it public at one of the Russian TV channels (NTV)," write Slivyak and Nikoulina. "Later on, local environmentalists repeated their inspections of the facility that were later repeated by Federal Security Service (ex-KGB). Both discovered unavailability of the facility’s security forces to prevent possible terrorist acts."

storage

A worker checks the reactor fuel storage pool in Zheleznogorsk where the Federal Security Service planted a fake bomb. (Photo by Thomas Nilsen courtesy Bellona)
"Anyone who is able to pay some hundreds of Rubles (US$20-30) to the security guards, can get into the secured areas" at Mayak, they write. They explain that the social situation in many closed nuclear units and settlements near nuclear power plants is "socially unfavorable," for personnel. "Alcohol and drug addictions are widespread."

In addition to these problems, smuggling of radioactive materials is taking place under the noses of customs officials, the authors say. They relate an April 2003 incident in which the illegal import of nuclear waste was detected by Kaliningrad Customs Service.

A container with radioactive materials hidden among the carpentry equipment was sent from Belgium to the address of a business in Kaliningrad, a northwestern region of Russia on the coast of Baltic Sea. Investigators discovered that the radioactive package was not declared and was hidden from customs supervision. The radiation level of the container was a million times higher that allowed, the Russian-Spanish news agency Vesti-RTR reported.

"According to a source in Kaliningrad Customs, each year there are several cases like that happening, and it’s suspected that the most radioactive packages get through the border many different ways," write Slivyak and Nikoulina.

Finally, they warn, Minatom contracts contain no requirement that reprocessed spent fuel be sent out of Russia, back to the country of origin. "Russia, already having enormous problems with accumulated radioactive waste, has chained itself to an aggravation of this problem in the course of the next decades."

"Unless import of spent nuclear fuel is stopped," conclude Slivyak and Nikoulina, "Russia will become the world's leading nation by amount of radioactive waste, and then by the number of nuclear waste dumps."

The name Minatom is retained throughout their report although in early spring 2004, President Putin disbanded Minatom and established the Federal Agency for Atomic Power (FAAP) instead. Some Minatom functions were incorporated into the Ministry for Industry and Energy and issues related to the nuclear weapons industry were handed over to the Ministry of Defense.