Russian Spent Nuclear Fuel
The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy plans to commercially import, temporarily store, reprocess, and repatriate spent nuclear fuel (material that has been withdrawn from a nuclear reactor following irradiation, or SNF). Illegal until July 2001, opponents continue to protest against the project, and fight to amend Russian laws yet again. Minatom avers that it needs SNF import profits to fund domestic SNF reprocessing and environmental remediation, while arguing that the project will help it promote its other exports as well as decrease global proliferation risks. Opponents counter that Russia will be unable to handle the additional SNF safely, may store the material indefinitely instead of reprocess it, will not reap the profits it claims or spent them on the environment, and would instead increase proliferation risks. Russia's plans hinge in large part upon U.S. decisions, as the United States controls some 80 percent of the world's SNF. At present, the U.S. administration has stated that authorization of U.S.-origin SNF exports to Russia hinge upon the cancellation of Russian nuclear projects in Iran. Nonproliferation experts have argued that the considerable U.S. leverage in this matter should be used to insist upon several other Russian concessions as well, including some degree of control over the spending of SNF import profits.
For much of the last decade, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) has promoted the idea of importing, temporarily storing, reprocessing, and repatriating spent nuclear fuel (material that has been withdrawn from a nuclear reactor following irradiation, or SNF) as a means for generating revenue. However, Article 50 of the Russian Environmental Protection Law of 1991  prohibited the "import for storing or burying of radioactive waste and materials from abroad...." Although Russian law allowed the import of such materials for reprocessing, Government Decree No. 773 of 29 July 1995 obligated Minatom to send back the radioactive waste resulting from the reprocessing of SNF to its country of origin within thirty days. The only exception was the fulfillment of contracts that predated the environmental protection law for the repatriation of SNF from nuclear power plants (NPPs) that the Soviet Union helped construct, in countries such as Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Bulgaria, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. Most of these contracts expired in the mid-1990s. Minatom continued to push for amendments to legislation and promoted its spent fuel import plan, while environmentalists in particular fought against any legal changes. Spent fuel imports were finally legalized in July 2001.
On 10 July 2001, President Putin signed a package of laws that would allow the import of irradiated spent fuel into Russia for "technical storage" and "reprocessing." Article 50 (Section 3) of the Environment Protection Law was amended so as to differentiate between SNF and radioactive waste. Minatom had argued that spent fuel is a valuable energy resource. It also cited the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, passed in Vienna in September 1998 and signed by the Russian Federation on 27 January 1999, which distinguishes between "spent nuclear fuel" and "radioactive waste."
This legal change was much fought over, and may still be amended. Large demonstrations have been held protesting against SNF imports, most recently in November 2002. In 2000, some 200 organizations gathered signatures to force a referendum on the issue. Although 2,561,000 signatures were submitted to regional election commissions on 25 October 2000, the Russian courts found that 800,000 were invalid (2 million signatures are required), many for technicalities such as "incorrect" street abbreviations.[7,8] The Yabloko political party in particular has made subsequent efforts to gather signatures and hold a referendum, but to date no referendum has been held. In addition, Yabloko deputy Sergey Mitrokhin has pushed for an investigation into the feasibility study Minatom presented to the Duma when it was considering the laws. According to Mitrokhin, reprocessing costs were understated and returns wildly overstated. Yuriy Vishnevskiy, chairman of Russia's Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (Gosatomnadzor), has pointed out other oversights in Minatom's analysis, including "incorrect" assessments of transport problems, the failure of transport containers to meet international standards, and the unsuitability of Mayak for imported SNF storage.
Some Russian papers have also suggested that the current National Security Concept, adopted in January 2000, might lead to alterations in the laws on SNF imports, since it identifies the main environmental danger to Russia as "a trend toward the use of Russian territory as a place for reprocessing and burying environmentally dangerous materials and substances." However, there is no indication at present that a new edition of the security concept will expand upon this statement or that the Russian government intends to stop Minatom's SNF import plans for security reasons.
Minatom Arguments for Importing SNF
In its argument to the Duma in support of the legal change, Minatom laid out six benefits:
- First, Minatom emphasized profits, maintaining that Russia has the capacity to import up to 20,000t of SNF before 2020, and could earn up to $1 billion a year for spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. The ministry argued that it needed these funds for several important activities, including environmental remediation. Indeed, the law On Special Environmental Programs for the Rehabilitation of Radiation-Contaminated Regions of the Territory, adopted as part of the package of laws allowing SNF imports, was based on a financial assessment that predicted Russia would earn over $20 billion during 2000-2010 from SNF management services. In addition to spending $7 billion on environmental programs, supporters proposed that SNF profits could be distributed to the federal budget ($3.5 billion), renovation of nuclear enterprises ($2.5 billion), and investment in new storage and reprocessing technologies ($7 billion).
- Minatom also argued it needed the profits to fund reprocessing of domestic SNF. Reprocessing results in new fissionable material which could be used in a nuclear reactor (or weapon) and large quantities of radioactive waste. While U.S. industry has found reprocessing to be uneconomical, and nonproliferation experts see reprocessing as a proliferation hazard, Minatom has argued against any plan to permanently get rid of SNF (through vitrification, burial, etc.), arguing that technology may improve in the future, making the "closed fuel cycle" (where spent fuel is reprocessed and reused) profitable. Russia has approximately 15,000t of spent fuel, much of it in temporary storage at NPPs.[16,17] By 2025, this amount is expected to grow to 35,000t. At present there are two reprocessing facilities in Russia: the aged RT-1 plant (at Mayak) in Chelyabinsk and the incomplete RT-2 in Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26). Completion of RT-2 would cost some $1.5-2 billion (some sources say $6 billion).[5,16] With RT-2, Russia's reprocessing capacity would be boosted to 1,940 tons a year. Earnings from the storage and reprocessing of foreign SNF could fund the reprocessing of Russia's own SNF, as well as Russia's fast reactor program. Minatom intends to require 100-percent prepayment for storage services, and store the SNF for 40 to 60 years before reprocessing it.[12,20] This intermediate storage would facilitate reprocessing because the greater portion of the hazardous radioactive elements will decay over a period of 50 years.
- Third, the ministry maintains that the SNF import project will help the ministry deal with environmental problems, by funding the development of environmentally friendly technologies, as well as funding environmental remediation.
- Fourth, Minatom argues that the reprocessing of SNF will be necessary in the future to create a new nuclear fuel source. The ministry estimates that supplies of natural uranium will be largely used up in the next 100 years, and predicts that the reprocessing of spent fuel will be the most important source of fuel for NPPs.
- Fifth, Russia's other nuclear exports, according to the ministry, hinge on importing SNF. According to Kurchatov Institute president Yevgeniy Velikhov, Russia will get profitable orders for the construction of NPPs abroad (especially in China, India and Pakistan) if it is willing to import spent fuel, because clients are interested in sending their SNF back to Russia.
- Finally, Minatom argued that concentrating SNF reprocessing and storage in one country would decrease proliferation risks. In 1999, then Minister of Atomic Energy Adamov said that Minatom was ready to store and reprocess SNF under international control. In September 2002, Russian participants at the annual Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Management conference promoted the idea of an international SNF storage facility in Russia.
Arguments Against SNF Imports
The political party Yabloko, environmentalists, and others opposed to spent fuel imports have voiced the following concerns:
- Russia has already accumulated its own spent fuel in huge quantities, and lacks storage facilities to safely house its own waste. There is not enough space to store domestic SNF at Mayak's RT-1 plant, even with the completion of current plans to increase the capacity of the spent fuel storage facility at RT-1 from 6,000t to 9,000t by the end of 2004. Indeed, because it has continued to dump radioactive waste, RT-1's license, which expired on 31 December 2002, had yet to be renewed as of 10 February 2003 [negotiations over a renewal are ongoing]. RT-2, in Zheleznogorsk, can store up to 6,000t of SNF, or 12,000 spent fuel assemblies,[26,27] but is already half full. According to First Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Valentin Ivanov, RT-2 could be expanded to store up to 9,000t, or 18,000 spent fuel assemblies.[27,29] However, RT-2 is a wet storage facility (the fuel rods are stored in large water filled pools). A dry storage facility (where the SNF is housed in specialized containers), which U.S. officials argue is both more proliferation-resistant and avoids much of the fuel degradation that occurs in a wet environment, is expected to be put into operation at Zheleznogorsk by 2005, but it has already been designated the site where 6,100t of SNF from the Leningrad, Kursk and Smolensk NPPs will be stored. Environmentalists worry that the storage of additional nuclear fuel will increase the risk of an environmental disaster in an area where the environmental situation is already alarming. The United States is pushing Russia instead to develop a geologic repository, like the U.S. Yucca Mountain facility, for long-term storage. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) defines a geologic repository as a "system for disposing of radioactive waste in excavated geologic media, including surface and subsurface areas of operation, and the adjacent part of the geologic setting that provides isolation of the radioactive waste in the controlled area." The DOE has assisted Russia in locating a site for such a facility. However, housing imported spent fuel in a geologic repository conflicts with Minatom's reprocessing plans and the argument that the imported spent fuel is only going to be stored in Russia temporarily.
- Minatom will face difficulties reprocessing the waste. The capacity of Russia's single reprocessing plant, Mayak, is limited, and the facility uses obsolete technology. Besides, Mayak can not reprocess foreign SNF, only spent fuel from Russian VVER-440, BN-350, BN-600, research, and naval propulsion reactors.[ 31,32,33] It will take an estimated 25 years to introduce any new technology. In addition, reprocessing SNF would create large volumes of radioactive waste, and Russia will have to build facilities to handle that waste. That, however, will prove politically difficult, as local populations and environmentalists are sure to object to the siting of new storage facilities.
- The SNF may end up stored in Russia indefinitely, despite Minatom's statements regarding reprocessing and repatriation. According to current legislation, the owner of the SNF continues to hold the title for the radioactive waste obtained after reprocessing, and has the right to repatriate this waste. The ownership of SNF as well as nuclear materials obtained from reprocessing is to be determined by international agreement and valid contracts. The law does not explicitly prohibit the unlimited storage and burial of the SNF in Russia, however, and on 7 October 1999, Adamov actually said that the waste from reprocessing should stay in Russia.
- Safety concerns are high on the list of arguments against the import of SNF. Minatom has proven unable to ensure the safety of its own personnel employed in SNF reprocessing. In addition, the poor condition of Russian railways increases the danger of transporting large quantities of SNF. Although Minatom argues that it already transports large amounts of radioactive materials, there have been incidents in the past, such as inadequate packaging of SNF and a dangerous railroad accident during SNF transit from Bulgaria. Experts concerned that nuclear materials might be terrorist targets point out that such materials are most vulnerable when in transit.
- Minatom would not be able to earn enough from SNF imports to ensure environmental safety. Indeed, some Russian politicians question both Minatom's numbers and whether SNF earnings will actually be spent the way Minatom has promised. Yabloko's Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, for instance, said that "The money will be stolen, and no one will know where it ends up, but the nuclear waste will remain" (Деньги будут разворованы, они исчезнут в неизвестном направлении, а ядерные отходы останутся.)
- Opinion polls indicate that the majority of the Russian population oppose SNF imports.
- Other countries involved in reprocessing repatriate the reprocessed waste.
- If Minatom begins importing SNF it increases the market incentives for Russia to develop a closed fuel cycle, and create more of the nuclear materials the destruction of which SNF imports are supposed to fund. Some experts are concerned that SNF imports will open the door to an uncontrollable trade in fissile materials. Besides, it will be difficult accurately to account for fissile materials once they are traded, moved, or altered, increasing the likelihood that some will end up in the hands of potential or real proliferators.
Although Minatom has yet to begin importing spent fuel from NPPs it did not help construct, it has been negotiating with potential customers for some time. On 17 September 1998, Minatom subsidiary Tekhsnabeksport signed its first letter of intent, with Internexco (a Tekhsnabeksport subsidiary, in Germany) and the Swiss company Suisse Utilities, on the import of over 2,000 tons of SNF for reprocessing and subsequent repatriation between 2000 and 2030. The following year contacts were made with the nuclear industries of Switzerland, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
However, some 80 percent of the non-Russian origin nuclear fuel in the world is of U.S. origin, and as such remains under U.S. control. Other countries cannot send U.S.-origin SNF for storage or reprocessing to third nations without U.S. consent, and under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, the United States must negotiate a Section 123 agreement for nuclear cooperation in order to give such permission. Minatom is very aware of this issue, and has been trying to persuade the U.S. Department of Energy to begin such negotiations. On 23 December 1998, Adamov sent a letter to then U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson proposing a joint study of options for the temporary storage and subsequent reprocessing of U.S. spent nuclear fuel in Russia, both with and without its eventual repatriation to the United States.[41,42] Although Richardson declined this initial proposal, he did say that the United States was looking forward to further discussions.
The U.S. government has yet to agree to the Russian SNF import plan, objecting to Minatom's reprocessing plans due to plutonium proliferation concerns as well as to Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran. In April 2000, Minatom reportedly suggested that a 20-year long moratorium on reprocessing of nuclear spent fuel should be established in exchange for U.S. assistance in the construction of a dry storage facility. In any event, Minatom has no plans to begin reprocessing for the first 40-60 years, as noted above.
Nevertheless, Russia has continued to construct nuclear power reactors in Iran, despite U.S. objections, and is even considering bidding for a contract to construct additional reactors after the completion of Bushehr. In October 2002, Undersecretary of State John Bolton said that the U.S. had proposed a deal in which "if the Russians end their sensitive cooperation with Iran...we would be prepared to favorably consider" transfers to Russia of U.S.-origin spent fuel held in third countries for long-term storage. In "Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Seven Steps for Immediate Action," Matthew Bunn, John Holdren and Anthony Wier point out that the United States should not use all of its considerable leverage on the Iran issue. They suggest insisting that a portion of the revenues be spent on securing and destroying WMD stockpiles. In addition, they argue that effective arrangements (including independent regulation) of the entire operation, the elimination of excess plutonium stockpiles, and a democratic process whereby those most affected by the project might have their concerns effectively addressed, should also be criteria for determining if the project contributes to international security and deserves support.
The Nonproliferation Trust: SNF Imports for Nonproliferation
Tom Cochran, a physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., developed the idea of establishing a non-profit trust located outside of Russia that would control the spent fuel profits, assist in the creation of a safe geologic repository for SNF in Russia, and make sure that all additional profits are spent on securing fissile material, environmental remediation, and the provision of alternative jobs for nuclear workers as well as support for pensioners and orphans, while no funds would be spent on reprocessing plants. A trust, named the Nonproliferation Trust (NPT) Inc., was then established, and on 5 May 1999 Minatom and NPT signed a memorandum, according to which NPT would hold title to the fuel in storage. An additional agreement, signed on 25 October 1999, also mentions the receipt and disposal of radioactive wastes. That agreement specifies that after 40 years, the spent fuel could be removed to another "duly authorized location" or transferred to Minatom for ultimate disposition, at NPT II's sole discretion. According to the second agreement, the spent fuel would never be converted for weapons use or be reprocessed, even were its ownership transferred to Minatom. The spent fuel would be stored in accordance with Russian and IAEA safety requirements and the storage facility under Gosatomnadzor review. [For more information on NPT, see the Spent Fuel Imports Overview in the NIS Nuclear Profiles Database.]
Some nuclear industry sources have reportedly questioned who will accept liability for the operations and how the money will be raised up-front. Foreign utilities, they argued, would be unlikely to commit large sums of money unless they could send their fuel for permanent disposal. At a conference in September 2002, Kurchatov Institute Deputy Director Nikolay Ponomarev-Stepnoy voiced his opposition to the project because at the end of the project the long-term interim cask storage facility would remain the property of the trust, the foreign SNF would remain in Russia, and the project would not have paid for construction of a final repository, he said. Reportedly USEC, Inc., the managers of the U.S.-Russian "Megawatts to Megatons" program, also known as the HEU-LEU deal, have also indicated their interest in involvement in SNF imports, which might be modeled after the HEU deal. Others have questioned whether Russia would agree to have all profits devoted to the purposes NPT proposed. Russian environmentalists and even the Duma Environmental Committee have worried about the plan to hold the funds earned in accounts outside Russia, and thus outside the control of both Minatom and the Russian government. Environmentalists often argue that the import plan could be a Western plot to dump its waste in Russia and leave it there, and that the Russian government would have little recourse. While this objection should be dealt with, the project offers the transparency and clarity of purpose (and ability to audit funds) that the United States has the leverage to insist upon.
If Russia can come to an accommodation with the United States regarding Russia's nuclear reactor projects in Iran, the United States has suggested it would conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia and authorize the export of U.S.-origin SNF to Russia. Although Minatom statements regarding the possible profits resulting from SNF import plans far exceed the revenues from constructing reactors in Iran (particularly since the construction projects are all funded from cheap loans offered by Russia itself), Russia has yet to indicate that it might consider dropping its Iran projects. However, it seems likely that an agreement will eventually be concluded. If the United States accedes to something less than cancellation of Russia's projects in Iran, it should push for further transparency of the Iranian program, and ask Russia to demand that Iran sign the Additional Protocol that would make spot inspections by the IAEA possible.
The SNF import project has been touted as a possible source of funding for plutonium disposition and safer storage of Russian SNF. However, Minatom never agreed to use these funds for plutonium disposition, and instead expects international assistance to turn plutonium into MOX fuel. Otherwise, Minatom plans to maintain its surplus plutonium stocks. If Minatom can be persuaded to dispose of excess plutonium, it is unclear why the ministry should be required to fund plutonium disposal itself (in much of the world, the defense industry doesn't fund itself and polluters aren't required to fund clean-up projects by earning money handling additional waste).
On the negative side, the SNF import plans create a market for spent fuel and radioactive waste. Kazakhstan has already proposed its own SNF import plans, while Minatom is likely to argue for the import of radioactive wastes if the level of SNF imports is less than expected. In addition, the plan promotes a closed fuel cycle market and the attendant increase in materials of proliferation concern. Finally, the United States is putting itself at political risk by allowing the import of U.S.-origin fuel, even if it is able to control much of the earnings (through an arrangement such as the Non-Proliferation Trust) and assists in the construction of safe storage facilities and helps insure the safety of SNF transport. The United States is likely to be blamed in the event of any accident with U.S.-origin or other spent fuel, unless the process is opened up to local and national politicians, and there is oversight by Gosatomnadzor and Russian citizens. The Russian public will surely blame a new influx of SNF for stressing their SNF storage system to the brink of collapse, and argue that the storage of imported SNF in "safe" storage facilities takes up space that may otherwise have been used for Russian material (even if the facility might not have been built without SNF import money). While opening up the process with have no affect on legal liability, it will make a great difference in public opinion, and thus increase the likelihood that an accident would affect U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation in other areas. Without democratic involvement, it will be difficult to control Minatom, while other Russian organizations are unlikely to promote project success, help alleviate project problems, or shoulder the responsibility for dealing with Russia's own legacy of spent nuclear fuel.
- Greenpeace Russia, "Radioaktivnyye otkhody i problema vvoza, khraneniya i pererabotki v Rossii otrabotavshego" www.greenpeace.ru.
- Igor Kudrik, "Import of Spent Nuclear Fuel to Russia," www.bellona.no.
- Matthew Bunn, John P. Holdren, Allison Macfarlane et al, Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Safe, Flexible, and Cost-Effective Near-Term Approach to Spent Fuel Management, A Joint Report from the Harvard University Project on Managing the Atom and the University of Tokyo Project on Sociotechnics of Nuclear Energy, June 2001, www.bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu.
- Matthew Bunn, John P. Holdren, and Anthony Weir, "Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Seven Steps for Immediate Action," Harvard University, May 2002, pp. 77-78, www.bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu.
- Paul Webster, "The Grab for Trash," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, www.thebulletin.org, Volume 58, No. 5 (September-October 2002).
- "Spent Fuel Import Project Overview," NIS Nuclear Profiles Database, www.nti.org.
- "OYAT – Syrye dlya energetiki budushchego," Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, www.minatom.ru.
- For information on U.S. assistance in Russia, particularly regarding plutonium disposition and the search for a geologic repository, see Preventing Nuclear Proliferation: The Post-Cold War Challenge, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, www.llnl.gov.
- For general information on spent fuel and information on spent fuel storage in the United States, see the "Materials in Inventory Spent Nuclear Fuel Report - Executive Summary," Department of Energy, www.em.doe.gov, www.em.doe.gov.
Laws (Text in Russian)
- On the Insertion of Additions to the Law on the Use of Atomic Energy, www.nti.org.
- On the Insertion of Additions to Article 50 of the Russian Federation Law on Environmental Protection, www.nti.org.
- On the Special Commission on Questions of Importing Irradiated Fuel Assemblies of Foreign Manufacture onto the Territory of the Russian Federation, www.nti.org.
- On Special Environmental Programs for the Rehabilitation of Radiation-Contaminated Regions of the Territory, www.nti.org.
- Dr. Thomas Cochran, Director, Nuclear Program, www.ceip.org, Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org, "The Non-Proliferation Trust: An Update, "presentation at a Proliferation Roundtable at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 30 November 1999, www.ceip.org.
- Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Management conference, 8-12 September 2002, Moscow. Participant statements (in Russian), "Obrashcheniye s obluchennym yadernym toplivom 2002: Novyye initsiativy Rossii," www.tenex.ru.
- Bellona, Spent Fuel Imports News, www.bellona.no.
- Greenpeace Mayak, http://archive.greenpeace.org.
- Minatom, www.minatom.ru.
- NIS Profiles Database, "Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Developments," www.nti.org.
- PIR Center, www.pircenter.org.
- Russian Nuclear Nonproliferation, www.nuclearno.com.
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 Non-Proliferation Trust II, Long-Term Fissile Materials Safeguards and Security Project, Unpublished Draft, 25 October 1999.
 Ann MacLachlan, "Moscow Conference Vets Key Hurdles to Any Russian Spent-Fuel Import Deal," NuclearFuel, Vol. 27, No. 19 (16 September 2002), p.1.
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2015.
The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy plans to commercially import, temporarily store, reprocess, and repatriate spent nuclear fuel.
the Nuclear Threat
Reducing the risk of nuclear use by terrorists and nation-states requires a broad set of complementary strategies targeted at reducing state reliance on nuclear weapons, stemming the demand for nuclear weapons and denying organizations or states access to the essential nuclear materials, technologies and know-how.