Russia offers a home to the world’s spent fuel

30 October 2000

Russia is pushing ahead with its plans to import and process the world's spent fuel. The project would import 20,000t of fuel over 10-15 years could raise up to $21 billion.

Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry (MinAtom) is preparing to amend the law so that Russia can profit from importing spent fuel. The State Duma is debating draft laws to amend the existing Law on the Environment which prohibits import of nuclear materials. The amendment would break down the term ‘nuclear materials’ into ‘radioactive waste’ and ‘spent nuclear fuel’ to allow spent fuel to be imported, processed, then stored in Russia or returned. First deputy atomic energy minister Valentin Ivanov insists on this distinction: “It is not as if we were going to bring in nuclear wastes, only spent nuclear fuel with a high content of unburned uranium and with other valuable energy products. The fuel also contains accumulated fission products which are highly radioactive.” The Ministry worked hard to win support from the regions which will benefit. Although the amendment has been previously rejected, Ivanov is hopeful it will now go through. Environmental organisations are trying to collect signatures to press for a referendum, but 2 million signatures are required before a referendum proposal can go to the Central Electoral Committee, which would rule on the signatures’ legality before setting a date. MinAtom has agreements with foreign partners to import 200t of spent fuel, but these projects are halted until the law is changed.

“Since Russia must deal with its own spent fuel, it may as well provide the same service for others”, explains Ivanov, “If we use high level technologies to deal with our own spent fuel, it is not stupid to propose that we do the same for foreign countries”. Russia already has 15,000t of spent fuel awaiting processing, including 90t of plutonium and 140t of U-235. This will total 23,000t by 2010, and 33,000t by 2025, including 240t of plutonium and 350t of U-235. “We will reprocess this after storing it in metal-concrete containers and in the meantime develop new technologies to manage and dispose of wastes and recover useful materials for reuse in a new generation of fast reactors.” Ivanov expects a total income of $20 billion from the project, and $2 billion is needed immediately, possibly in instalments, to renovate or build the infrastructure to store and process the fuel as well as to increase safety and environmental monitoring systems.

Only 10-15% of Russia's foreign spent fuel processing capacity is in use. “We are offering to deal with only 5% of the world's spent fuel. There is now 200,000t world-wide and the fate of only 70t has been decided. By 2030 there will be 400,000t, of which we are offering to take 20,000t.” The income could help solve the problem of scrapping nuclear submarines and other nuclear weapons, and cleaning up large areas of contamination.

Ivanov says 35% of the project revenue would be used to tackle environmental problems around nuclear facilities in Russia. “This is the essence of the project – to solve existing problems,” he says. “Some 10% would be paid into a special cumulative fund.” At an annual interest rate of 5%, the fund will be able not only to pay the annual expenses for spent fuel storage, but also build up resources so that when the uranium and plutonium have finally been extracted, the waste can be reprocessed and utilised.” Money could be invested in constructing new power plants. At present, an energy tariff of 0.5 cents per kWh is set for new units, but Ivanov says this is not enough. “If the government establishes cumulative funds, they can be used for long-term investment programmes. At first they will not be large, but in 5-10 years they will be considerable.” Ivanov believes nuclear power is the only rational energy for Russia. “Our gas resources are decreasing and becoming more costly. Exploiting these is costing a vast amount of money and will destroy a lot of territory resulting in extreme devastation both economically and environmentally – and all for just 70-80 years of fuel.” If the project goes ahead, the first 200t of imported spent fuel will be placed in the wet storage facility at the Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznorsk. Storage for another 3000t will be built there and transport systems will be modernised, says Ivanov. A dry storage facility would also be needed. Waste will be placed in geological formations or containers for controlled storage “depending on what will be more efficient and safe” Russia is offering a totally flexible service, Ivanov says. The fuel would be stored for 35-50 years, and could then be reprocessed and used to produce MOX. The fate of processed fuel would be open to negotiation.

Russia would not insist on returning the high level waste, but would store it in special facilities. Ivanov says this would benefit countries like Switzerland, Taiwan or South Korea, which do not have the territory to store waste. Russia also expects to take back spent fuel from reactors it is helping to build in Iran and India. The amount involved would be small. “All HLW could be put in one small area and stored safely in rock or ceramic.” Initial storage of 35-50 years would give time to develop new reprocessing technologies and construct a new generation of reactors. “Russia has approved plans to build a new generation of fast reactors which would use MOX fuel,” says Ivanov. “Without this, nuclear power will soon be finished because there will be no more cheap uranium. At the present rate it will be used within 80-100 years, but with fast reactors, nuclear power can go on for 1,500 years.” The technologies Russia is developing would make it possible to use stockpiled plutonium from the civil and military sectors. Russia developed a reprocessing technology which is cheaper and safer than the systems currently in use. A small pilot plant has been operating for some time at the Russian Institute of Atomic Reactors (RIAR) in Dimitrovgrad, where Ivanov was director. “The Dimitrovgrad technology means the fuel cycle could be completely closed with no transport of nuclear materials, as processing spent fuel and fabricating new fuel could be done at small units within each site.” This technology cannot be widely introduced at present because of the extent of the investment in existing technologies. “Russia has large-scale fuel fabrication plants in Electrostal and Novosibirsk which depend on these technologies while France and the UK have made major investments in conventional reprocessing technology.” Russia also operates a small conventional reprocessing plant (RT- 1) at the Mayak facility in Ozersk and planned to build a larger unit (RT-2) at Krasnoyarsk before funding ran short. If the new project goes ahead this will no longer be pressing. “There is no reason to build RT-2 for 20-25 years if the storage plans go ahead. Then we will be looking to use new technology," says Ivanov.

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