WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Energy Department and its Russian equivalent this week agreed to collaborate on potential new ways to improve nuclear safety following the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy plant (see GSN, Sept. 22).
The facility was severely damaged by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 that left more than 20,000 people missing or dead. Roughly 80,000 residents were evacuated from a 12-mile ring around the plant as workers fought to stem radiation releases from breached reactors.
The "Joint Statement on Strategic Direction of U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperation" -- signed on Sept. 20 -- details scientific and technical efforts that the Energy Department and the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, or Rosatom, hope to undertake over the next several years. The initiatives would address safety, including developing nuclear fuel cladding that does not produce hydrogen in an emergency, and exploring "severe accident models."
The nuclear fuel used at Fukushima is composed of uranium oxide pellets encased in a zirconium cladding. At extreme heat, zirconium reacts with water and gives off oxygen, which is required for combustion, and hydrogen, which is flammable. That was the cause of two explosions at the site, observers say.
Washington and Moscow will examine the development of a variety of reactor types, including the Russian "multi-purpose fast research" reactor. They will also explore new models, such as wave reactors -- which gradually convert nonfissile material into fuel -- or a joint pilot high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor power plant, according to the document. Officials will also study the improvement of nuclear fuels and construction materials, it adds.
"The Fukushima incident was an impetus to consider cooperation in this area, too," an Energy Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Global Security Newswire on Thursday.
The official noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors last week approved an action plan designed to strengthen nuclear safety (see GSN, Sept. 13). There is "global concern, global attention being paid to the issue," the official said.
On Monday, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told the IAEA General Conference that nuclear energy would continue to play an important role around the world as demand for power increases.
However, "Fukushima reminds us that nuclear safety and security require continued vigilance," he said.
Since the March event, a panel of the bilateral Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security Working Group -- an entity created in 2009 under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission -- expanded its purview to include "nuclear safety research" on the list of topics it would examine, according to the official.
In the area of nuclear energy cooperation, the working group, led by Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and Rosatom Director General Sergey Kirienko, previously focused on reactor demonstration projects; research and development of new technology; and developing a global civil nuclear energy framework, the official said.
The nine-page joint statement also lays out ways the former Cold War enemies work together on nuclear security and could collaborate in the commercial, security and scientific sectors, as well as on used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management.
A civil nuclear trade agreement between the United States and Russia entered into force in January (see GSN, Jan. 11). So-called "123 agreements" allow other nations to purchase U.S. nuclear materials and technology for their civil power programs. Washington has inked such deals with over two dozen nations around the world, including Australia, Canada, China and India.
"I would say where the 123 is a general legal framework, the joint statement is more of a political statement of our intention," the DOE official said. "It doesn't obligate either side or commit either side to anything but it basically sets out what we want to do going forward."
The official said the United States has similar arrangements with other countries but did not name them.
"You could say the 123 agreement's the foundation on which you build something. This is when you've decided what kind of house you want and how it's going to look," said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "If you're building it together, you've built the foundation and now you're saying, 'OK, do we want a ranch house or a several-story house?'"
He credited both sides for deciding to look at cladding that would not produce a hydrogen explosion, noting that such an event blew the roof off of the Fukushima site and dangerously exposed the reactor's nuclear fuel rods to the open air.
If researchers could come up with safer alternatives, "that would be very helpful" in handling potential future accidents, Pomper told GSN during a Wednesday phone interview.
He added that some study has been done on the various proposals set out in the joint statement, but that the event in Japan "has given new impetus" to the work.
The joint statement also details efforts by the United States and Russia to cooperate on nuclear security, such as the Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement that requires the two nations to each convert 34 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium into nuclear power plant fuel. That work is slated to begin in 2018, the document says.
In addition, a joint program on material elimination has successfully downblended 425 metric tons of Russian high-enriched uranium, while another collaborative has eliminated 15 tons of excess nuclear material not from weapons, according to the joint statement. It did not name the specific initiatives.
A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department that conducts nonproliferation work worldwide, did not respond to questions about the cited efforts by press time.
The two countries also continue to remove Russian-origin highly-enriched uranium from a number of other nations, including former Warsaw Pact states such as Ukraine and Romania. Both sides intend to conduct joint efforts to convert HEU-fueled research reactors around the globe to instead use proliferation-resistant, low-enriched uranium fuel, the statement adds.
The non-legally binding document restates the commitment by Washington and Moscow to internal nonproliferation efforts, such as nuclear forensics, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 -- which is intended to prevent non-state actors from obtaining unconventional weapons, their means of delivery and related materials -- and the Group of Eight nations' Global Partnership.
The joint statement provides for scientific cooperation between national laboratories and institutes on a broad range of topics, including experiments with irradiation of construction materials and nuclear fuels at U.S. and Russia test facilities.
"It's a very ambitious list of activities that they're doing," said Pomper, referring to the complete document. "That's generally a good thing for the world, given that these are the two biggest nuclear complexes around. It's a tangible payoff from President Obama's attempt at a reset [in relations] with the Russians."
He added that the statement brings Russia to the same level as other major U.S. technical research partners, such as South Korea.
The Energy Department official said the bilateral working group would meet again sometime in the future to go over specific projects the two nations could undertake in each of the areas mentioned in the joint statement.
"I think overall it is a positive joint statement," the official told GSN. "We have substance to work on going forward. We're not just patting ourselves on the back for things we did in the past."