Russia considers international waste stores

30 June 1999

The prospects of large financial rewards mean the possibility of Russia constructing an international repository for nuclear waste is becoming ever more likely. Judith Perera explores recent developments.

Members of Russia’s lower house, the Duma, encouraged by the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), have presented a draft law on ‘Industrial Storage and Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel’ intended to remove all the legal obstacles to the import of foreign spent fuel, currently banned. The State Environmental Committee has twice refused to approve the draft law, arguing the issues have yet to be debated publicly. Nuclear power minister Yevgeny Adamov told Duma members that spent nuclear fuel collection from other countries is a “$150 billion business” and “a golden opportunity for Russia”.

On the assumption that the law will eventually be changed, various projects are already in the pipeline. A group of US and German companies have formed the Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT) and have recently signed a preliminary agreement with MINATOM, according to the Norwegian Bellona Foundation.

Russia expects to net $4 billion from the venture. NPT will manage the money.

The project entails shipping 6000 tonnes of spent fuel from various countries to a new storage site in Russia, probably at Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26) in Siberia. Spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants will be stored for 30-40 years. After that, it will either remain in storage, be buried in a Russian repository, or moved to another international storage site.

MINATOM also wants to retain the right to reprocess the fuel at a later stage. The US is totally opposed to this.

Clients wishing to dispose of nuclear waste by sending it to Russia will be charged between $1000 to $2000 per kilogram, raising $6 to $12 billion for the planned total of 6000 tonnes. Russia’s share of the proceeds would be managed by a MINATOM development trust and would be spent on both nuclear safety measures and social programmes.

These include:

• Fissile materials and safeguards enhancements, including disposition of 50 tonnes of weapon grade plutonium ($1.8 billion).

• Spent fuel decommissioning and disposition, including the development of a spent fuel geological repository ($700 million).

• Additional non-proliferation programmes and charitable programmes administered by MINATOM ($600 million).

• Pensions and salary arrears for nuclear and defence workers ($200 million).

• Various Russian environmental programmes ($200 million).

• General pension payments for eligible retirees ($200 million).

• Payment to orphans ($100 million).


Any expenditure will need approval from the NPT, to be headed by former FBI director William Webster, and including Admirals Daniel Murphy (former chief of staff to President Bush) and Bruce Demars (former Nuclear Navy head). The company also employs Alex Copson, who has been independently promoting this type of arrangement for some time, and Tom Cochrane from the Natural Resources Development Council.

Alaska Interstate Construction will have the responsibility for the construction and management of the new spent fuel storage site, although a substantial proportion will be subcontracted to MINATOM. The German companies Wissenschaftlich-Technische Ingenieurberatung GmbH and Gesellschaft für Nuklear Service GmbH will contribute expertise in spent fuel storage constructions and cask development and monitoring systems. The storage will be modelled on the German facility at Ahaus.

The US company Halter Marine will build special transportation vessels to bring in the spent fuel. The law firm Egan & Associates will take care of international nuclear regulations and agreements.

NPT’s scheme is linked to the ongoing project for safe plutonium storage in Russia. It proposes that Russia would use part of the profits from the fuel storage to help finance the Chelyabinsk-65 compound for storing Russian weapon-grade plutonium. The plant is already under construction with US funding.

The Americans are suggesting delivery of spent nuclear fuel from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to Krasnoyarsk-26 under US auspices, according to Vladimir Mikheyev of Krasnoyarsk, chairman of the civilian Nuclear Non-proliferation Centre.

The NPT scheme is not the first project for waste storage in Russia. Yevgeny Velikhov, head of Russia’s Kurchatov Institute, held discussions with deputy US energy secretary Ernest Monitz in February on the possibility of storing Taiwan’s spent fuel at Krasnoyarsk-26. Russia was seeking US permission for this possibility as 75% of such fuel originates from America, whose legislation expressly forbids such transfers.

Another project being considered by Adamov involves recycling spent foreign nuclear fuel in Krasnoyarsk-26. This was discussed in Zurich in September 1998, and included the possibility of Russia receiving 2000 t of spent Swiss fuel, as well as 550 m3 of highly active radwaste from the year 2000.

There are a number of obstacles to all of these plans, not least the fact that Krasnoyarsk has no reprocessing facilities. There is no dry storage facility which could take Asian nuclear fuel, only a wet store which is already half full.

Russia’s nuclear lobby is seeking an amendment to the law ‘On Environmental Protection’ and Russian newspaper Izvestia reports a claim by Mikhayev that the nuclear lobby has paid Duma deputies $20 million to ensure its passage.

According to Izvestia Ivanov confirms that the US is studying the possibility of building an international facility for storing spent nuclear fuel at Krasnoyarsk.

“However, any construction is out of the question, unless the relevant legislation is approved,” he says. “Therefore all talk about the division of profits and various benefits is irrelevant. I can safely say that the Americans, who are interested in Krasnoyarsk, would like to improve the local system for ensuring the safe storage of radioactive waste, thereby preventing such waste from – God forbid – falling into the hands of unfriendly ‘terrorist’ states. As to those confidential Zurich talks, this is what we call the monitoring of the market for recycling spent nuclear fuel. Russia, which is now being pressured on that market by Great Britain and France, can accomplish the same without any threat to environment or health.” Russia currently imports spent nuclear fuel from countries using Soviet-designed reactors, including Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Russia has no repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. However, four candidate sites are under investigation:

• Disposal in permafrost at Novaya Zemlya.

• Deep disposal in granite formations at Kola Peninsula.

• Deep disposal in porphyrite at Mayak in Southern Ural.

• Deep disposal in granite at Zheleznogorsk in Krasnoyarsk.

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