Russia is considering storing foreign spent nuclear fuel in a project that could help fund its own storage facility. At the same time, the IAEA is reportedly considering making a proposal whereby it would take control of between eight and ten fuel cycle facilities worldwide.

Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Russian Federal Nuclear Energy Agency (Rosatom), explained the idea at a Moscow conference, Multilateral Approaches to The Nuclear Fuel cycle and Non-Proliferation Issues. He said that Rosatom proposed setting up the first facility to store foreign spent nuclear fuel at the mining and chemical plant in the closed Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk, in the Krasnoyarsk region.

Russia’s own spent fuel stocks come to about 16,000t and grow by 750t/y. By 2015 the total would be 24,000t. If $4.7 billion were spent on the Zheleznogorsk facility, its capacity could be raised from 40,000t to 70,000t.

Rumyantsev said: “We are currently studying the project,” adding: “The question of five to seven countries participating in spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and use is being discussed now.”

About 900kg of foreign spent nuclear fuel is currently held in Russia under arrangements dating back to the Soviet era. The material comes from Bulgaria, Latvia, Libya, Romania, Serbia and Uzbekistan. According to Alexei Lebedev, deputy chief executive of Technabexport, there are 29,700 fuel rods left over from communist research reactor projects, mainly in Eastern Europe, that will likely be transported back to Russia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin held talks with IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei about the idea of an international repository in June 2004. ElBaradei’s deputy, Yuri Sokolov said that national programmes for treatment and burial of spent nuclear fuel are not an efficient way of resolving the problem, but that “we are at the beginning” of the road to international spent nuclear fuel centres.

The Russian repository idea is in line with comments ElBaradei has made over the last few years about international nuclear energy parks and regional fuel cycle facilities, which could break national control of nuclear policy and lift the technology from some of the problems of weapons proliferation.

A recent report by the Japanese news service Kyodo said that the IAEA may be planning to submit a draft proposal to the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review in 2010 whereby it would take control – or closely monitor – up to ten fuel cycle facilities worldwide. Countries named in the report include Finland, Japan, Russia and the USA.

The proposal has drawn criticism from Iran, Japan and the USA where it is considered that such an arrangement would infringe state sovereignty. The IAEA, however, thinks that international management of sensitive parts of the fuel cycle would ensure the technology could not be used to create atomic weapons, whilst at the same time assuring peaceful uses of nuclear energy were open to all.

Sokolov said in Moscow that the IAEA “is seeking to promote enhanced controls over sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, in particular uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology.”

At the same meeting ElBaradei added: “We should be clear: there is no incompatibility between tightening controls over the nuclear fuel cycle and expanding the use of peaceful nuclear technology. In fact, by reducing the risks of proliferation, we could pave the way for more widespread use of peaceful nuclear applications.”

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