Parliament rejects Minatom’s waste plans

30 May 2000

Russia’s nuclear energy ministry sees a potentially lucrative business opportunity in importing foreign spent fuel for storage or reprocessing. So far, however, Minatom’s plans have met stiff opposition.

The Federation Council (upper house of parliament) comprising regional representatives, has voted down a bill that would have helped amend Russian legislation in favour of spent nuclear fuel imports. The bill, introduced by Minatom lobbyists, was first discussed in several regional legislative bodies in early April but did not receive unanimous support.

The Russian Law on Environmental Protection prohibits import of any ‘radioactive materials’ into the country. Amendments to the Law were disguised in the bill presented to the Federation Council as “establishing a commission to study the development and incorporation of high technologies into the nuclear fuel cycle.” The commission would then have said that spent fuel imports must be allowed to ensure high technologies are incorporated into the fuel cycle.

A Minatom memo explained to house deputies that removing the legal obstacle to spent fuel import would allow Russia to enter the world market for reprocessing.

Minatom has long seen a potential market in spent fuel management, and in a paper presented in Krasnoyarsk in December 1999 it laid out the basis for this belief. The document suggests importing around 20,000t of spent fuel, partly for reprocessing and partly for storage, earning an estimated $21 billion. Minatom suggests a price per kg of $300-600 for long term storage of the fuel; $600-1000 for reprocessing and returning the resulting waste and plutonium; and $1200-2000 for reprocessing fuel and retaining the products.

Of the income generated, $10.5 billion would be spent on managing the spent fuel, and $3.3 billion would go to the state budget. The rest would be used for various social and environmental programmes.

Within this strategy Minatom would plan to upgrade the reprocessing plant RT-1 at Mayak in the southern Urals, complete the reprocessing plant RT-2 in Krasnoyarsk, build new storage sites for spent fuel and divert a part of the funds to solve environmental issues related to the nuclear industry.

Potential customers include East Asian countries, India, some European countries and even Iran. The US is opposed to reprocessing and the reprocessing of any fuel it holds title over would be illegal. Japan and Taiwan buy their fuel from the US and require US approval for disposal. The US is currently attempting to persuade Russia to stop reprocessing in return for a $100 million aid package.

Before these plans can be developed, Russia’s present Law on Environmental Protection must be amended. Minatom has been lobbying parliament to introduce the necessary legal changes for years.

President Putin has yet to decide whether to support the project. The Emergency Situations Minister, Sergey Shoygu, who also heads the pro-presidential Unity party, does not favour amending the law and the current chairman of the Duma Environmental Committee, Vladimir Grachev, is also thought to oppose it. Nuclear energy minister Yevgeny Adamov insists that the project would be extremely beneficial for Minatom “and we are intending to carry it out”.

Environmental groups object to the plan. “This is an extremely dangerous and cynical deal to generate billions of dollars which will add to the enormous environmental problems that already exist in Russia,” Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Tobias Muenchmeyer said in a press release.


Norwegian environmental organisation Bellona reports that behind the scenes Minatom has been actively promoting an alternative to reprocessing.

In a draft joint statement by Russia and the US, prepared by Minatom for a meeting with a delegation from the US Department of Energy (DoE) on 4 April, Minatom suggested announcing a 20-year moratorium on reprocessing to minimise the risk of nuclear proliferation. However, there would be a few exceptions; Minatom proposes to continue reprocessing spent fuel from submarines, research reactors and experimental reactors. This would keep in operation the RT-1 plant at Mayak. In return for the moratorium on all other reprocessing, the US would help Russia build a dry storage facility for fuel from nuclear power plants.

The facility may be able to provide a temporary home for spent fuel from outside the US, storing it for up to 40 years. The Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT), an organisation that includes some German and US nuclear organisations as well as former US government and Navy officials, is backing the proposal, which has been under discusion in various versions since 1998. NPT plans to raise $10-15 billion from industrialised nations to support the project should it get the go-ahead in Russia.

The Norwegian environmental group Bellona opposes the proposal and is in debate with the NPT over the project.

“While well-intentioned and innovative in its approach, the NPT project would cause long-term damage to Russia’s environment and nuclear safety,” says the Bellona position paper. “It also causes grave proliferation concerns. Last, but not least, it allows wealthy countries’ nuclear utilities to rid themselves of their nuclear waste forever, while Russia gets paid only for 40 years, and will have high level radioactive waste to deal with for hundreds of thousands of years – when it already cannot manage its radioactive materials safely today.”

Bellona develops three arguments to explain its opposition. Firstly the implications of creating a market in nuclear waste.

“The ‘monetisation’ of nuclear waste opens a Pandora’s box for an ultimately uncontrollable trade in fissile materials.”’ Bellona says. “If Russia, which has been viewed critically for its support of nuclear programmes in ‘risk states’ such as Iran, receives a green light for the storage of international high-level nuclear waste, how could Washington deny other nations the right to solve their economic problems the same way? Numerous poor nations have in the past earned hard currency in return for allowing hazardous waste storage on their territory, often at the expense of public health and environmental destruction. NPT’s precedent opens doors for nuclear waste as well.

“One main argument against all forms of trade with fissile materials, including reprocessing, has been that as long as these substances are traded, moved or altered, they are difficult to account for accurately.”

Bellona also argues that the NPT proposals would not solve nuclear waste problems as the issue is political rather than technical. It cites the political battles in the US over Yucca Mountain, the rejection of a proposed waste repository by two Swedish communities and the outcry in Australia over Pangea’s proposals to build a repository there.

“There is no indicator that Russians will react any differently,” says Bellona. “Given that the US government is promoting democracy in Russia, overriding democratic manifestations of public will [would] be counter-productive to the public image of the United States in Russia and bad policy.”

Bellona argues that the corruption in Russia means that it is inevitable a significant proportion of the money will be diverted from its proposed use. Even the best foreign management is unlikely to be able to stop this from happening and as a result Bellona expresses scepticism over whether the long-term storage facilities would ever be completed.

Bellona’s third criticism is that the proposals include no clear indication of what would happen to the waste at the end of the initial 40-year period.

“The fact that Russia accepts this possibility without demanding guarantees as to the fate of the nuclear waste after the lease period indicates that Minatom is either negligent in its duties to the Russian population, or else has already made up its mind about the future of the materials. Since Minatom’s head Adamov is openly advertising Russia’s earning potential from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for export, it is probable that Minatom intends to go for a double bonus: first, several billion dollars for storage, then more money for the export of reprocessed fuel.”

After the 40 year lease period expires, Russia would, according to Bellona, be in a dominant position and would look to reprocess and export the fuel.


Thomas Cochran of the NPT responded to Bellona’s criticisms. Bellona put the dialogue between the two organisations on its web site at Cochran describes Bellona’s criticisms as being based on outdated proposals and says that the most recent NPT proposals address the organisation’s concerns.

According to Cochran any spent fuel plan would have to have the agreement of the US and Russia, and as the US government is opposed to reprocessing, this could not happen. The proposal involves interim storage of waste in Russia and not its final disposal there, although it would provide finance to construct a geologic repository for Russia’s waste.

“Bellona says do not do this project because (a) it is a bad precedent; (b) it ‘subsidises’ nuclear power in Russia and in countries from which spent fuel is derived; (c) one cannot trust Minatom, and (d) there is no final solution for the waste,” says Cochran. “I say this project (a) represents a new paradigm for conducting business in an environmentally and socially responsible manner – if this project is going to set any kind of precedent, it does so only insofar as future projects are consistent with the environmental and non-proliferation objectives of this project; (b) it provides a strong economic incentive for Minatom to clean up the environment and promote sound non-proliferation objectives; (c) the success of the project is not dependent on the West trusting Minatom, rather the project incorporates safety mechanisms and some unique elements in the form of contractual conditions enforceable in US courts, requirements backed by government-to-government agreements, and mechanisms for managing the funds to obviate the need to rely on personal trust; and (d) the project has been modified to fund the qualification and construction of a geologic repository for spent fuel and high-level waste.

“Moreover, we have an obligation to reduce the proliferation risks associated with spent fuel currently stored in countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, including the risk that their fuel will be reprocessed to recover plutonium; and if some countries have no viable geologic repository alternative, we should be willing to ‘subsidise’ the nuclear power industry at least to the extent necessary to find a better storage alternative.”

Cochran then responds directly to specific criticisms made by Bellona. On the monetisation of waste he argues that the NPT is opposed to the current version of the nuclear waste legislation Minatom is pushing in the Russian Duma.

“NPT would support alternative legislative language that: (a) would limit the amount of spent fuel that could be imported in Russia; (b) specifies how the revenues from such a project would be allocated; and (c) insures that the project’s benefits greatly outweigh the risks. The NPT project meets these criteria.

“Bellona’s characterisation of Russia accepting payment for providing a spent fuel service as ‘monetisation of nuclear waste’ is misguided. The NPT proposal is not a precedent for every bad idea that might follow.”

Bellona responded to this by arguing that the history of Western business and governmental involvement in Russia suggests that Minatom is likely to change the terms of the deal once too much money has flown to cancel the project.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” says Bellona. “Once Minatom has physical control over a large chunk of the down payment, all bets are off for contract fulfilment.”

Bellona also claims Minatom is on record saying this project is the beginning of potentially a $150 billion business.

NPT claims Minatom could never achieve these kind of revenues as the US government would have to approve the transport of most spent fuel to Russia. Bellona’s concerns over the lack of control over imported fuel could only become successful if Minatom succeeds in getting the Duma to pass the environmental legislation in its current form. The legislative format which the NPT supports would limit the amount of fuel that could be imported into Russia to that encompassed within the NPT project.

Cochran describes the Bellona claim that moving or reprocessing fuel makes it difficult to account properly as ‘clutching at straws’.

“Under the proposed NPT – Minatom agreement, it will be easier for the US to account for the spent fuel and the plutonium in it, since title to the spent fuel will be transferred to a US company.”


The debate between Bellona and Cochran is insightful as much for its honesty as its content. It is the kind of discussion, taking place within the public domain, which is necessary to attempt to shift public opinion on nuclear issues. Bellona, as an environmental organisation, is not interested in promoting the nuclear industry, but its expertise is likely to be vital to addressing the problems the industry faces. As the organisation concludes:

“Bellona has been in the front line of those who advocate that Russia’s spent fuel problem must be addressed with the help of the international community. These projects, however, must be undertaken with clear long-term national security, not near-term commercial considerations, in mind.”

In response Cochran welcomed Bellona to the front line and added:

“Lets begin by getting behind a programme to provide Minatom with economically viable alternatives to nuclear fuel reprocessing, construct a geologic repository for nuclear waste, improve the security of fissile materials, clean up the environment, improve the conditions of pensioners and orphans in Russia; and let’s find a viable means for disposing of the spent fuel in countries that represent a potential proliferation risk or whose geology is unsuitable for a spent fuel repository.”

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