Russian parliament agrees to spent fuel imports

30 May 2001

It had been thought that the decision on whether or not Russia would accept spent nuclear fuel would not be made quickly. This proved to be wrong.

Russia’s State Duma (parliament) on 18 April gave a surprise second reading to three bills, including amendments to Article 50 of the law “On Environmental Protection” which will permit the import of spent nuclear fuel (see NEI May 2001, p9). The reading had earlier been postponed in the wake of nuclear energy minister Yevgeny Adamov’s dismissal. All three bills are now cleared for a third reading, normally just a formality. The bills will be submitted for approval to the Council of Federation (upper house) which is expected to approve them, and president Vladimir Putin has already indicated he would sign them into law as soon as possible.

The key bill amending the law on environmental protection was approved by 224 votes, with 114 against and seven abstentions. (There were 320 deputies in favour of the bill on the first reading in January.) The second bill – introducing amendments and additions to the Law on Atomic Energy Use, defining “temporary technological storage” and indicating that all spent fuel works would be subject to civil legal contracts – was supported by a majority of 244 deputies (318 in the first reading). The proposed Law on Special Ecological Programmes of Contaminated Territories’ Rehabilitation won the majority support of 267 deputies (compared with 319 at the first reading).

Acceptance of the bills was largely due to Russia’s newly-appointed atomic energy minister, Alexander Rumyantsev (see NEI May 2001, p15). “These bills have a social target. We shall be able to increase three- or four-fold the reprocessing of our own spent nuclear fuel, to create many well-paid jobs and, of principal importance, improve our positions in competition on the international market for spent fuel reprocessing services,” he told the Duma. This could bring $20 billion in 10 years. The minister suggested that the money should be accumulated in a special fund for regeneration of territories contaminated with radioactive wastes as a result of accidents and weapons development.

Earlier the issue of spent nuclear fuel imports had triggered a series of scandals and the resignation of Ruyantsev’s predecessor, Yevgeny Adamov. The second reading was postponed several times, and new expert investigations were initiated by right-wing factions in the Duma amid protests initiated by the “greens”. Although rightists and environmentalists are still not happy about the bills, Rumyantsev’s “clean” reputation as a dedicated scientist rather than a politician was enough to sway the majority of deputies. He achieved what Adamov would have found impossible.

However, some deputies are concerned that government environmental experts did not submit their assessment of the bills between the two readings, normally required for environmentally risky projects. One of the most controversial amendments introduced between the two readings was submitted by president Vladimir Putin. It stipulates that the contracts for importing spent nuclear fuel should be civil contracts which would allow all government and commercial trading companies to sign their own deals. Robert Nigmatulin (brother of Deputy Nuclear Power Minister Bulat Nigmatulin), a member of the Duma’s ecology committee, says provisions in the other bills that contracts must be signed within the framework of international agreements would ensure against private concerns seeking quick profits.

The bills’ opponents also failed to push through amendments guaranteeing that reprocessed fuel and any waste byproducts would be returned to the countries of origin. Nigmatulin says repatriating byproducts such as radioactive plutonium, would contradict Russia’s international obligations on non-proliferation of nuclear technologies. Rumyantsev said each specific case will be looked into separately. “Everything will depend on the terms of the contract. But before a contract is concluded, the documents have to pass through a whole sequence of offices. They must first be approved by the government, then an international co-operation agreement has to be signed, a draft foreign-trade contract prepared, and a joint comprehensive project worked out and subjected to expert analysis. Only after that can the contract be concluded.” He is emphatic that Russia will adhere scrupulously to the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. “If we send waste back, we should bear in mind that it contains plutonium. So here the question of adherence to the international non-proliferation treaty comes to the forefront. It is the most delicate aspect in the entire issue of spent nuclear fuel. In our relations with foreign partners, including Iran, we will insist that the waste remains in our country.” Nuclear Power Ministry officials see plutonium as potential fuel in a new generation of nuclear reactors rather than a dangerous waste product. Deputy minister Valentin Ivanov says it will take Russia “some time” to build these new reactors but the money for research and construction would come from importing spent fuel. Russia has advanced technology for reprocessing spent fuel which allows 80% of the overall quantity to be returned to power stations as “fresh” nuclear fuel, he explains. A pilot operation is already successfully under way at the Russian Institute of Atomic Reactors in Dimitrovgrad. He hopes to see wider use of this technology not only for Russia’s own use but also for reprocessing imported spent fuel.

Rumyantsev expressed similar views in an interview with Komersant. He said Russia will also extract precious metals from spent fuel, accounting for another 5-10% of the total mass, and only what remains will be viewed as waste. This should first undergo calcination in reactors to reduce its radioactivity. The reactors could be of the solid-fuel type or liquid-salt calcination reactors designed at the Kurchatov Institute. After that, the waste will be vitrified.

Russia is looking to Japan as a potential business partner in its plan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel for foreign countries, according to Rumyantsev. “We hope Japan would buy nuclear fuel from Russia. In that case, spent nuclear fuel could also be reprocessed in Russia,” he told a press conference.

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