Mother Jones


September/October 1999

Russia Wants Your Nuclear Waste

Julian Brookes and Jen Soriano

Russia is the most radioactively contaminated country in the world: Its nuclear industry is in collapse and its current economic crisis is so severe that it can barely manage waste from its own nuclear reactors. Given these circumstances, it seems unlikely -- not to mention ill- advised -- that Russia would position itself to become the world's nuclear waste dump. But Minatom, the Russian atomic ministry, is proposing just that -- offering the bright, circular logic that revenue from such ventures would help solve the country's existing nuclear crisis.

To cash in on a projected $150 billion market, Minatom wants to import thousands of tons of spent reactor fuel from Europe and Asia for both storage and reprocessing -- the recovery of fissile plutonium from used fuel. A Minatom document leaked in January outlines negotiations with Swiss utilities to import 2,000 tons of spent Swiss nuclear fuel. Another memo indicates that Minatom has its eye on "final disposal" of 10,000 tons of spent fuel "from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and possibly Japan."

Spokesman Yuri Bespalko says Minatom expects to make up to $10 billion over the next seven years from these deals, revenue that will pump up Russia's faltering economy. Bespalko adds that funds will also be set aside for "upgrading the nuclear industry" and "solving the ecological problems." Specifically, he mentions the task of cleaning up Lake Karachay in the Ural Mountains. (A person standing by the shore of Lake Karachay would receive a lethal dose of radiation in only half an hour, says Harvard nuclear expert Matthew Bunn.)

Minatom's proposal has drawn fire from environmental groups. "Minatom has never spent [its profits] cleaning contaminated areas," says Vladimir Slivyak of the Russian Socio- Ecological Union. "It does not care about safety of the population or environmental protection. But it cares about money -- a lot." Tobias Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace International pulls no punches, saying nuclear waste export to Russia "would be a criminal act of negligence by wealthy nations."

Minatom calls the dire depictions of Russia's nuclear industry overstated and emphasizes the use of reprocessed fuel in meeting the nation's energy needs. But Oleg Bukharin, Russian energy specialist at Princeton, cautions that reprocessing creates additional radioactive waste and that, done incorrectly, "it could be disastrous."

Although importing spent fuel for storage is currently illegal in Russia, this has not stopped Minatom from exploring potential deals:

In December 1998, Minatom chief Evgeny Adamov wrote Energy Secretary Bill Richardson proposing the "transferÉof spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants to Russia for its long-term storage and subsequent reprocessing." The Department of Energy refuses to comment on the Russian proposal, except to say that any plan that envisions reprocessing -- illegal in the United States -- would not be considered.

And in July, Minatom and a U.S. nonprofit called the Non-Proliferation Trust -- a group including an ex-CIA director and former Cold Warriors, and advised by the Natural Resources Defense Council -- agreed to jointly pursue a 10,000-ton Russian waste-storage facility.

"There has been an effort to set up international storage facilities for a long time," says Princeton's Bukharin. "None of them has been successful." Critics maintain that Russia is simply the wrong place to start: "Minatom has no idea about what to do with [our] own waste," says Slivyak. -- Julian Brookes and Jen Soriano

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