Russian spent fuel bill agreed by Duma

30 July 2001

Russia’s State Duma has adopted three bills lifting restrictions on the import of spent nuclear fuel at a third and final reading after a 20-minute debate.

On 11 July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a package of laws permitting the import of spent nuclear fuel for disposal and storage. The package was sent to Putin for signing at the end of June, following their passage through the State Duma (lower house of Parliament) and a debate in the Federation Council (upper house) on one of three bills involved. On 6 June, the Duma adopted the three bills at a third and final reading after a 20 minute debate.

The package comprises amendments to the federal law: “On the use of Nuclear Energy,” amendments to Article 50 of the law: “On the Environmental Protection,” and a set of ecological programmes for the rehabilitation of radiation-contaminated land. The Federation Council was not required by law to vote on any of the bills forming the package, but Council speaker Yegor Stroyev said that Putin wanted to know its opinion on one dealing with the clean-up of contaminated areas. If the Council decides not to debate a bill that has already been passed by the Duma, Putin can sign it into law anyway. However, Stroyev said Putin had told him that he would sign the bills after the upper house expressed its opinion on environmental protection. In the event, the chamber voted 92 to 17 in favour.

To allay the fears of those concerned that the income from the imports may be misused, Putin also signed a decree to set up a special committee to grant exclusive consents to import programmes. The committee, headed by Russian physicist and Nobel Prize Winner Zhores Alfyorov, will present annual reports to the president and the parliament. The 20-member commission will include five representatives of the president, five from the Federation Council, five from the Duma and five from the government.

What about the money?

During the Federation Council debate, Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said the ministry expects to invest 75% of proceeds from processing spent nuclear fuel into urgent environmental programmes. He noted that these funds will become a strong source of financing the nuclear industry and vital ecological programmes. The minister also noted that the distribution of funds will be “absolutely transparent” as the Audit Chamber will supervise the process.

The bills, championed by the Atomic Energy Ministry, which says that Russia could earn $20 billion over 10 years, are opposed by ecologists and liberal politicians who fear that the imports could turn the country into a nuclear dump. Greenpeace said Russians had been subjected to a massive public relations campaign by the media to defend Putin’s expected approval of the bills, which shut out any dissenting voices. It promised a non-violent fight against nuclear imports. But Rumyantsev said Russia only stood to gain from the laws which “potentially support domestic producers. They open opportunities for Russia to get to the world markets with its technologies,” he told a news conference. He added that work to secure deals was already under way to win enough contracts to secure the projected $20 billion earnings. “There are contacts (with potential exporters), but so far no shipments have been agreed,” he said.

Rumyantsev estimates that “in the most favourable political conditions,” Russia could claim a mere 10% of the world’s exhausted nuclear fuel which, however, can only happen in the case of the competitors giving Russia a “leg up”.

“In reality, we will in all likelihood end up with three times less, that is, some 3% of the world’s stockpile of spent fuel,” he said. “No ecological disaster is envisaged in the country.”

Rumyantsev insisted that after the nuclear waste law takes effect it will take several years to negotiate with prospective suppliers of spent nuclear fuel to Russia. The Nuclear Power Ministry plans to use the grace period to “win over public opinion and encourage it to back these laws.” He said it is too early to talk of specific consignments of spent fuel. “It is a very lucrative market, so they won’t let us in just like that.” When pressed, Rumyantsev said the cost of handling the fuel is about 30%. “Russia has special technologies, containers, trains, and we need the revenue from handling the exhausted nuclear fuel to sort out the radioactive waste we’ve stockpiled in this country over the use of nuclear technology in various industries,” he added.

The speed and ease of the bills’ passage through parliament surprised many observers, including first deputy atomic energy minister Valentin Ivanov, who had expected much stiffer opposition. “Although this is normally just a formality, environmental and political opponents are mustering their forces in an attempt to prevent the bill getting through the Duma and the Federation Council,” he told NEI in an interview before the third reading. But clearly, the lobbying undertaken by Minatom had its effect, not least the whole-hearted support given by the new Atomic Energy Minister Rumyantsev. This included a light-hearted debate with Yabloko head Grigory Yavlinsky for the “Bender Show” on Ekho Moskvy radio, broadcast live from a restaurant in Moscow’s Arbat Street. Rumyantsev insisted that earning billions of dollars by importing spent fuel was the only way to clean up areas contaminated by nuclear tests and storage leaks.

Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev, known to be opposed to the bill, had expected some corrections to be made, and had urged senators not to hurry with the approval of the law. “It is necessary to evaluate the situation and decide at first what to do with our own nuclear waste, despite pressure from the nuclear industry,” he said. However, many senators had already expressed their support. Saratov regional governor Dmitry Ayatskov, who heads the Union of Territories where nuclear energy enterprises are located, (29 regions), said: “Spent nuclear fuel is not waste, but a resource needed both to give our country additional money and to create new jobs.”

Ayatskov believes that the talk of Russia not being in a position to guarantee the safe storage of these wastes is groundless.

Pskov governor Mikhail Margelov believes that Russia “should be engaged in this sphere of international business” but added that “it is of paramount importance that the process is as open as possible.” Nikolai Merkushkin, head of the Republic of Mordovia, said: “There is no danger of Russia turning into a nuclear waste dump.”

Ramazan Abdulatipov, who represents the executive branch of the Saratov region in the Federation Council, said that he would vote for the law because “there are no reasons not to believe the Atomic Energy Ministry.” On the other hand, Nizhny Novgorod governor Ivan Sklyar noted that a major nuclear centre is located in his region and added that approval of the law was impossible while Tula governor Vasily Starodubtsev thought that the law would only get through the Council with great difficulty. Altai governor Alexander Surikov fears that the import of irradiated nuclear fuel may further aggravate the already bad environmental situation in his region.

International opposition

Political and environmental opposition continues with the Yabloko movement planning a referendum on spent nuclear fuel (SNF) import and Greenpeace urging President Bush to veto shipments of SNF to Russia. Greenpeace points out that 92.5% of SNF produced by Russia’s potential clients is of US origin and so needs US approval for any transfer. Without such approval, nuclear campaigner Tobias Muenchmeyer said, potential exporters would be limited to China, Eastern Europe and former Soviet states. Norway has expressed concern and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Gry Haaheim said it will urge other countries not to send SNF to Russia.

Ivanov said Minatom had anticipated these problems. To get round them, Russia is embarking on a policy of expanding its own sales of fresh fuel worldwide so that it can later accept it back as spent fuel without this complication, he said. Customers will certainly include many East European and former Soviet states, but also Iran, India, China (where Russia is building nuclear plants) and possibly Egypt (where it plans to supply). Russia is also looking to sell fresh fuel to established nuclear states such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, which it will then be able to take back as SNF.

Ivanov recognises that the market for nuclear fuel is changing. Western companies, such as Westinghouse/BNFL, have already begun to encroach on Russia’s traditional client base (such as Ukraine, Finland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) in terms of fuel supply, he said. However Moscow, in turn, plans to take advantage of a European directive that requires all states to have several fuel suppliers to make inroads into Europe. (Siemens has already opened an assembly line under licence at Electrostal). The possibility of co-operative talks with Westinghouse on the division of this market is being considered.

Opposition to the spent fuel import plan is also coming from the State Atomic Inspectorate, Gosatomnadzor, with GAN head Yuri Vishnevsky saying that Russia does not have the facilities to deal with foreign SNF. He noted that last year the reprocessing facility (RT-1) at Mayak near Chelyabinsk reprocessed only 162t of fuel. In order to boost Mayak’s capacities it needs total modernisation. He added that plans to complete a second reprocessing plant at Krasnoyarsk (RT-2) within 10 years are unrealistic. Krasnoyarsk currently has a storage capacity of 3,000t and it would take six or seven years to build a new modern facility, while the import plan is for 2,000t a year in addition to the spent nuclear fuel from Russia’s 26 nuclear power plants.

But Ivanov points out that imports will not begin for a number of years, even if legislation is adopted. “Import will not be a simple matter,” he explained. “It will require a lot of further documentation such as intergovernmental co-operation agreements, contracts between enterprises, governmental approval at all stages, basic technology agreements, and agreed special procedures with the regions involved. It will be two or three years before any real activity can begin.”

Some of the income from the spent fuel imports is earmarked for construction of new storage facilities and for environmental clean-up. Ivanov said: “Russia already has storage for 3,000t of spent fuel in pools at Krasnoyarsk and the first 200t of imported material will go there. Money from that will be used to build new dry storage facilities which are needed also for Russia’s own RBMK fuel. The aim is to build 33,000t of dry storage capacity at Krasnoyarsk, half for the RBMK fuel.”

Russia does not intend to do anything with the imported spent nuclear fuel for at least 30-35 years, Ivanov explained. Then it could be returned to the owner or reprocessed using a new technology being developed at Dimitrovgrad. This is a form of regeneration which produces new fuel assemblies ready for use with very little waste.

“Mostly the money is needed for environmental remediation – the legacy of past military activities,” he said. “This includes submarine decommissioning and dismantling, dealing with Lake Karachai at the Mayak reprocessing facility in the Urals, other contamination in Chelyabinsk, and the results of industrial nuclear explosions,” said Ivanov. The Ministry plans to press the federal and local authorities to help with funding for these issues. Just tackling the most pressing problems is estimated to need $5 billion.

But it is precisely the income from the plan, estimated at over $20 billion, that is a major cause of concern to opponents who argue that most of it will be siphoned off and not used for the purposes intended. Ivanov admitted that this is a difficult area but added: “We are trying to stipulate legal restriction, which constitutes the main defence against any possible embezzlement.” This should ensure all money will be transferred to the federal budget and the Duma will then decide on its disbursement.

“We’ll receive money before the import of the first consignment; meanwhile all payments will be channelled into the federal budget. The 2002 federal budget will stipulate appropriations related to spent nuclear fuel. The Duma would thus be able to control this process. Once the federal budget has been endorsed, we are going to finance incipient fuel storage operations and environmental programmes. The Audit Chamber, which has conducted 12 checks at our ministry this year, will also take part in this process.”

Currently Minatom needs an investment of $2.4 billion to build new freight cars, ships and fuel storage compounds.

by JUDITH PERERA



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