“To Preserve, and Not to Reprocess”[1]

Nezavisimaya Gazeta- Nauka

July 19, 2000 

by Matthew Bunn[2], Neil J. Numark[3] and Tatsujiro Suzuki[4] 

Billions of dollars are urgently needed to deal with the many problems of Russia’s vast nuclear complex.  Although international cooperative programs are making progress dealing with pieces of these problems, foreign governments are simply unable to provide money on the scale needed for permanent solutions.  

But it may be possible to find significant sums by attracting the funds foreign electric utility companies may be willing to pay for a solution to their spent fuel problems.   Utilities in some countries are facing an urgent problem as they run low on storage capacity and certain political circumstances prevent them from building more.  Absent a solution, they would have to shut their reactors down.  They may thus be willing to pay more than million dollars a ton, by some estimates, to someone who would take the stuff off their hands. 

The Ministry of Atomic Energy has proposed to do just that, amending Russia’s environmental law to make it possible to import foreign spent fuel for long-term storage in Russia.  MINATOM has estimated it can make tens of billions of dollars in this business. However, the Ministry’s idea is to spend that money to build a new reprocessing plant at the closed city of Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26).  Although then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cast doubts on the MINATOM plan last year, the Russian government reportedly gave its approval to the plan in late May as part of its approval of MINATOM’s overall strategy for the future of nuclear energy in Russia.  The State Duma will presumably consider MINATOM’s proposals, which are likely to meet wholehearted support of most of the parties but “Yabloko.” 

Unfortunately the MINATOM plan ignores the dwindling market for expensive repro­cessing, already dominated by the British and French.  Moreover, the United States holds consent rights over the fate of most of the foreign spent fuel of interest to MINATOM, and there is no hope of getting U.S. permission for the spent fuel to be shipped to Russia for reprocessing because of the proliferation threat posed by separation of weapons-usable plutonium.  [Finally, MINATOM’s scheme is unacceptable to the Russian environmentalists concerned both about the import of spent fuel and establishment of more dangerous reprocessing enterprises.] 

But MINATOM need not abandon its interest in providing spent fuel services to overseas customers, and indeed stands to bring in a great deal of revenue if it would offer simply to store foreign spent fuel in Russia, without reprocessing.  There is likely to be a strong and steady market for such storage services, potentially leading to benefits for MINATOM, the foreign utilities, the United States and Russia’s environment.  [B]illions of dollars of revenue from such a project could be legally set aside so that it would be available for protecting nuclear materials and facilities from thieves and terrorism; for eliminating the vast stockpiles of excess plutonium built up over decades of Cold War; and for providing alternative jobs for nuclear workers laid off from jobs maintaining Russia’s nuclear arsenal. 

For Russia’s nuclear cities, such a deal would mean billions of dollars to employ scientists and other workers on critical cleanup, nonproliferation and conversion tasks.   For the foreign utilities, it would mean an acceptable solution to their spent fuel problems at a reasonable price.  For the United States, such a deal would provide the money needed to address a wide range of security headaches, without the proliferation hazards and political problems of reprocessing.  Most importantly, there could be a large net benefit for the Russian environment, as the environmental hazards posed by importing spent fuel in safe, modern dry casks whose safety has been demonstrated in use around the world are minimal while the environmental hazards to Russian citizens that could be corrected with the money from such a plan are immense.  Moreover, the venture would require very little up-front investments by Russia. 

Spent fuel transportation and storage are proven safe technologies with many years of positive experience worldwide.  The fuel could be shipped in robust, state-of-the-art containers meeting the highest international standards.  It would be held in steel and concrete casks in dry form requiring no active intervention to ensure safety. 

We have previously proposed that Russia consider such a scheme, and advocated that Russia use the substantial revenues the project would generate to pay for critical nuclear disarmament activities in Russia that remain unfunded.  Now a commercial group called the “Nonproliferation Trust” (NPT) proposes to carry out such a scheme.  If the Russian and U.S. governments manage to agree, the group believes it can get storage contracts from foreign utilities that would provide the necessary capital for the project.   If properly designed, such a program could represent a major breakthrough for both nuclear cleanup and arms reduction. 

The principal motivation for the NPT project is not profit but raising revenue for Russia’s critical nuclear security and environmental projects.  Indeed, a draft agreement prepared by the NPT for MINATOM’s consideration explicitly states that the organization itself will not retain any profit (although the firms that would perform work for the NPT project would certainly hope to profit).  The fees generated by the storage project would not go to either MINATOM or a commercial firm, but would be channeled into a trust legally required to use the money only for nuclear security and cleanup projects, as well as other social programs agreed to in advance.  At the same time, the project would provide for the safe storage of the spent fuel and time to determine suitable non-proliferation approaches to its ultimate disposition. 

Such a commercial agreement could be permanent – meaning that the spent fuel would ultimately be disposed of in Russia [– or interim,] meaning that unless some further agreement was reached between the parties, the fuel would be shipped back to its original owners after some fixed storage period (say, 40 years).  NPT proposes a permanent approach, under which NPT would take title to the fuel and after 40 years transfer ownership to MINATOM for final disposal in a Russian geologic repository.  

Russian environmental groups oppose the NPT scheme even though the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council is an advisor to NPT and has made the case that the project’s benefits for Russia’s environment would be much greater than its hazards.  We believe an interim approach, in which Russia provides temporary stewardship while foreign utilities continue to own the fuel, could [address] some of their concerns.  Approval might be simpler to achieve, avoiding for now the complications of the permanent nuclear waste disposal issue.  The disadvantage of a storage-only approach is that the revenue generated per ton of fuel would be smaller, but this might be compensated for by increasing the amount of spent fuel imported. 

Russian environmentalists are also concerned that the NPT proposal could give MINATOM [a backdoor approach to] its goal of reprocessing imported fuel.  But several barriers reduce this risk.  First of all, the contract NPT proposes would specifically prohibit reprocessing. Second, the United States will surely insist on such a prohibition before giving its consent to ship the fuel to Russia.  As the fuel would be under international safeguards, MINATOM could not take it away for reprocessing without visibly violating an international agreement.  With all the other spent fuel that already exists in Russia, MINATOM would have no incentive to do that.  Third, if this is a serious concern, the amendments to Russia’s environmental law necessary for such a spent fuel import deal could specify that the fuel may only be imported for storage.  Finally, if the storage facility was built in the Russian Far East close to potential Asian customers, reprocessing the fuel would require re-shipping it to MINATOM’s existing  reprocessing facilities at Zheleznogorsk, Mayak and Seversk. 

[Besides addressing the concerns of Russian environmentalists, Russia and the United States would have to conclude an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation before a spent fuel import and nuclear cleanup deal could move forward.]  Without this the United States could not, under its own laws, grant consent to ship U.S. origin fuel to Russia. The United States has refused to negotiate such an agreement because of its concerns over Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran.  A way forward would be to enter into a limited agreement focusing only on this project.  A broader agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation could be postponed until the Iran issue is resolved (possibly by Russian agreement to build only the first nuclear reactor in Iran and forego further Iranian contracts, since there is more money to be made from spent fuel imports in any case). 

[There is much to be done before any project like the Non-Proliferation Trust would come to fruition.  The Russian and U.S. governments are studying the matter and will need intensive negotiations, and agreements will also be necessary with other foreign governments, their utilities and the Trust.]   But if the legitimate concerns can be satisfactorily addressed, so that the fuel would be managed safely and securely and with adequate assurance that billions of dollars in revenue would be set aside for nuclear security and cleanup, such an approach could represent a real breakthrough for the cause of nuclear disarmament and environmental cleanup.  We urge Russia to consider these proposals very seriously.

[1] This document is an English translation of an article published in Russian in Nezavisimaya Gazeta- Nauka (Independent Newspaper, special Science Section) on July 19, 2000.  Omissions from the original submitted text that the authors believe are necessary for a correct understanding of the article have been inserted here in brackets.

[2] Assistant Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

[3] President, Numark Associates, Inc.

[4] Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Quantum Engineering and Systems Science, Tokyo University