Russia Ill-Equipped for Spent Nuclear Fuel Deal
By Anna Badkhen
Photo by Sergey Grachev
Mironova was on a mission when she was arrested. In just three days, between Sept. 27 and Sept. 29 - 42 years after an explosion at the Chelyabinsk Oblast Plutonium Plant scattered 2 million curies of deadly radio nuclides across 168,000 hectares of farmland - Mironova and other activists at her Movement for Nuclear Safety collected over 5,000 signatures in protest of the potential import of spent nuclear fuel from foreign countries into Russia.
These signatures were to be forwarded to Chelyabinsk Oblast Gov. Pyotr Sumin. Instead, the environmentalists were arrested, and Mi ro no va and four other activists - Svetlana Yekimova, Elvira Bodryakina, Andrei Talevin and Anton Noskov - were taken to a nearby police precinct. Yekimova and Bodryakina were released an hour later, Mironova was released five hours later after her fingerprints had been taken, and the two men were released in 24 hours following a court order.
All five are still under criminal investigation for hooliganism and for organizing an unsanctioned demonstration.
Chelyabinsk Oblast is still trying to recover from a number of environmental accidents caused by the activities of the plutonium plant, widely known by its current name, Mayak. Between 1949 and 1951, the plant dumped waste into the Techa River, which to this day emits 250 microrem per hour - four times the level of radiation considered acceptable by international standards. Those entrusted with the cleaning up of the 1957 explosion at the plant give birth to ill children.
In 1967, Lake Karachai - which has been used as a nuclear waste dumping site by Mayak since the 1950s - dried out, and its nuclear sludge was carried away by the wind and settled on farmland, where its effects will be felt for decades, if not centuries.
Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry claims that it has found the money and the cure for the consequences of these and other Soviet-era nuclear disasters: Russia would receive billions of dollars for accepting spent nuclear fuel from abroad for long-term storage.
In June 1999, the Nuclear Power Ministry and a U.S.-based company, Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT), signed a letter of intent. According to the letter, Russia would accept at least 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Switzerland, South Korea, and Taiwan for storage for at least 40 years. For its services, Russia would charge between $1,000 and $2,000 per kilogram of spent fuel - much cheaper than other countries which store and reprocess foreign fuel. Great Britain, for example, charges between $5,000 and $7,000 per kilogram of radioactive material.
All in all, this business could bring Russia anywhere between $10 billion and $20 billion. Of this money, the ministry says it plans to spend $200 million on various environmental programs.
This plan has met with controversy from environmentalists, who doubt the ministry is serious about the environmental side of the project, and worry that the nuclear fuel business will turn the country into a nuclear waste dump.
The ministry has never specified what kind of environmental activities it is planning to finance with the money it would receive from the long-term storage.
According to Thomas Nilsen of the Norwegian-based environmental group Bellona, who has conducted extensive research into Russia's handling of nuclear materials, $200 million is an insignificant amount of money when compared to the scale of environmental clean-ups Russia should conduct. This money, Nilsen said, is "absolutely not enough" even to rehabilitate the Chelyabinsk Oblast territories contaminated by Mayak's activities.
Moreover, Nilsen said, the ministry might spend the money on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in order to use it in its own nuclear reactors. "We are afraid that [the ministry] may call reprocessing an 'environmental activity,'" Nilsen said.
Nilsen may be right. Earlier this year, Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov said that he views the agreement with the NPT as a way of financing Russia's nuclear military development, and that some of the money from the storage business will be spent on the creation of sophisticated nuclear warheads.
In May, Adamov said that Russian Security Council instructed him to "speed up the development of military nuclear programs, but advised that [the ministry] use its own money" for these programs.
Environmentalists are alarmed by the possibility of Russia using the money to improve its nuclear military potential.
Russia has a significant nuclear waste problem of its own. The Nuclear Ministry says about 15,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is awaiting a permanent solution in Russia, where Mayak is the only plant that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel.
"To start producing more nuclear warheads for a society which can't take care of its own nuclear materials is absurd," Nilsen said.
And Alexei Yablokov, Russia's most prominent and outspoken environmentalist and a former advisor to President Boris Yeltsin on nuclear issues, said recently that "if we take the money for storing foreign spent nuclear fuel, Russia will look like a drunk who sells his suit or table silver for nothing, in order to buy a bottle of vodka."
The treaty between the NPT and the Nuclear Power Ministry can only become valid if the Russian Duma passes an amendment to Article 50 of the law on the protection of the environment, which stipulates that Russia cannot accept foreign nuclear fuel for more than 20 years' storage.
Adamov has been lobbying this amendment since last year, and has apparently made progress in persuading the Russian government - with the sole exception of Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko - that Russia should change its policy. "In general, I believe that this is the marketplace," Adamov said in a press conference last December.
Meanwhile, Nilsen and Mironova doubt that Russia would be able to guarantee adequate safety measures for storing the spent fuel.
"Countries that offer cheapest storage of spent nuclear fuel are not the countries that put most effort into safety," Nilsen said in a telephone interview from Oslo, Norway.
"It is technically possible that nearly safe storage" facilities for spent nuclear fuel could be built, Nilsen said. However, the maintenance of these facilities would be "very costly ... and even if it looks great and safe on the blueprints today, it will not look like that in 20 years."
In any case, Nilsen added, "There are no storage facilities anywhere in the world that are safe for 40 years."
At the moment, Russia has no facilities designed to store fuel from sophisticated Western VVER-1,000 reactors. Mayak can only store and reprocess fuel from Soviet-built VVER-440 nuclear reactors, and reactors from certain kinds of nuclear submarines and icebreakers.
The construction of RT-2, a facility near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk designed to store and reprocess fuel from VVER-1,000 reactors, has been frozen since 1992, owing to a lack of finances.
It is unclear whether the foreign nuclear fuel, if imported, would be taken to RT-2 in Siberia or to Mayak. Mironova of the Movement for Nuclear Safety says that the waste will most likely end up in her backyard, which is already plagued by nuclear-industry related accidents.
"The Chelyabinsk administration is much easier to negotiate with than the unpredictable Krasnoyarsk Oblast governor [General Alexander Lebed], and they will agree to build a more modern reprocessing facility [at Mayak] in no time," Mironova said, adding that in Janurary 1998, Chelyabinsk Oblast Gov. Sumin had signed a law which allows the import of spent nuclear fuel into the oblast.
Mironova's assumption was supported by Mayak spokesman Yevgeny Ryzhkov, who said his plant "will build a new facility if we are paid to do it."
And that, Mironova says, would not do the region any good.
"Mayak's storage technologies are not safe. Had there been safe technologies, the Nuclear Ministry would be selling them instead of selling our land [for storage space]," Mironova said. "But Adamov doesn't care. He is too far from Chelyabinsk, and it's not his children and grandchildren who will die of radiation sickness."