G21 World Forum

Spent Nuclear Fuel Imports into Russia: the Government's Will vs the Public 'Won't'

A statement by Yekaterina Terenova, Natalia Stoulova, Alexandra Kopieva, Darya Fyodorova, Makar Alexandrenko, Natalia Borzenko, Maria Faingor, and Marina Mache Moscow State University, Russia

The year 2001 can be regarded as a "milestone" in the dismal nuclear history of the Russian Federation. This year Russia was to become the world's nuclear dumpsite. On July 11, 2001, the Russian authorities passed the legislation authorising the importation and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into Russia in an attempt to reverse a continual budget deficit. The changes to Russia's environmental law purporting to enhance Russia's presence in the world market for spent fuel management were made due largely to the lobbyist efforts by the Ministry for Atomic Energy (MINATOM) promoting SNF imports as a very profitable deal. MINATOM believes that over the next decade it could import up to 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from various countries including Japan, Switzerland, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea, China, under contracts worth up to $21 billion. MINATOM promises that budgets of different levels will receive about 3 billion dollars in duties and taxes, approximately 7 billion dollars will be spent on ecological programs, in particular, on cleaning up nuclear contamination. The money will also be used to refurbish nuclear facilities in order to enhance safety.

Spent nuclear fuel is one of the two forms that high-level radioactive wastes take. It is used fuel from a reactor that is no longer efficient in producing energy, because its fission process has slowed. This irradiated fuel is the most intensely radioactive material on the planet, and gives a lethal dose of radiation if unshielded. According to MINATOM, the imported fuel will be stored under control in safe storages for 40 to 50 years. After that period, when the major part of partitioning product has decayed naturally, a certain part of the spent fuel will be sent back to the customer, and the rest will be processed and used in the nuclear cycle. MINATOM has carried out a feasibility study on imports of foreign spent fuel to Russia for storage and processing. "The number of sites to build, reconstruct and modernize has been determined. The cost of transportation, storage, processing, and disposal of the wastes have been assessed. Technical readiness of the projects has been approved". Thus, MINATOM's answer to the question of whether Russia is ready to import spent fuel is 'yes'. Russia currently imports spent fuel from Soviet-designed reactors under international agreements. A special park of carriages and containers corresponding to IAEA requirements has been formed, which will allow foreign spent fuel to be held in existing storages. After that new, 'dry' storages will be built. Foreign and Russian spent fuel will be stored there. The money for construction of new storages will be raised by rendering service to foreign clients.

Supporters of radioactive waste imports claim that, by importing radioactive waste, Russia could enter a profitable international market for nuclear reprocessing services. The initiator of the above-mentioned legislative amendments, Sergey Shashurin, Vice-Chairman of the Environment Committee, believes that profits from the import and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel can be used to cover the expenditures of Russian radioactive waste dumping, completing the processing mill RT-2 and depository in Zheleznovodsk, and destruction of 154 written-off nuclear submarines. He notes that "although there certainly is a risk of contamination, it is not high". Still, the Head of the Environmental Policy Centre, Alexey Yablokov, states that the billions expected to be received in compensation are not worth the risk. Radiating power of the fuel that MINATOM is planning to import is 20 times stronger than that of Chernobyl. Furthermore, Russia is currently storing about 15.000 tons of its own nuclear fuel, and at least 8.000 tons will be produced in the coming 10 years.

The proposed sites for SNF storage are "Mayak" nuclear waste facility in Chelyabinsk region (RT-1) and Krasnoyarsk Mine Chemical Plant (RT-2). "Mayak" is the world's largest nuclear complex, which was the site of several accidents, including an explosion in 1957. This region, in which during the Soviet era nuclear wastes were dumped in lakes and rivers, has been described as the most contaminated spot on the planet.

The environmentalists violently oppose this scheme convinced that the permission for importing radioactive nuclear waste lobbied through by the cash-strapped MINATOM, will result in nothing other than allowing Russia to become the world's nuclear waste dump. In the opinion of the ecologists, the high technologies that allegedly allow safe reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel will, in reality, mean burying millions of cubic meters of radioactive waste in the ground and the resultant radioactive contamination of vast territories. The Duma's vote ignored popular opposition to the proposal, with more than 2.5 million Russians signing a petition sponsored by Greenpeace and other environmental groups and calling for a national referendum on the issue. However, on November 2, last year, Russia's Central Election Committee declared 600,000 signatures invalid, taking the number below the 2 million threshold required to trigger a referendum. Furthermore, an opinion poll, conducted for Greenpeace in May, this year, by an independent Russian public research center ROMIR, found that 78.9 per cent of Russians were opposed to the import of radioactive waste and would not vote for Duma members who supported the legislation permitting it. (Greenpeace activists even gathered enough signatures to warrant a referendum, but the Central Election Commission ruled a large number of them were invalid, and the referendum proposal was drowned in numerous legal proceedings).

According to an opinion poll conducted in Chelyabinsk by an independent group, the overwhelming majority of the respondents (82.2%) are aware of the existence of the plant "Mayak" in the region and of its activity being connected with storage and reprocessing of radioactive elements (80.2%). The inhabitants find this dangerous presence alarming. Only 0.6% of the inhabitants of the city believe there is no risk of radioactive contamination from the plant, while 99.4% of the respondents indicate the opposite opinion. 87.4% of respondents consider import of the foreign spent nuclear fuel to Chelyabinsk region for its further storage there unacceptable.

One would have thought the general public had every reason (or, should we say, in the case of Russia, no reason?) to expect to have a word in matters directly relevant to (and infringing on) the interests of the citizens and concerning national security, but the reality fell short of expectations. The results of sociological studies showing that more than 90% of the Russians are against importing nuclear fuel were ignored. Nobody is interested in what the people want or don't want, and, moreover, there are still no laws protecting the interests of the population when it comes to radiation safety.

The main argument in favour of the imports scheme, therefore, is money. But even here, there are no guarantees that: (1) Russia will effectively receive the money in compensation for accepting the wastes (the agreement with Bulgaria, which was the first to send nuclear wastes to Russia, and its wording are still a cause of concerns for our experts, because it provides virtually no remedies to enforce Russia's right to receive payment from an off-shore mediator firm); and (2) if the money is received, MINATOM uses it appropriately as promised (the budget of this ministry is classified and thus cannot be controlled).

Meanwhile Hungary, Finland, Germany and Switzerland are in line for getting rid of the radioactive fuel at the expense of Russia. Top-level officials are calculating profits while the rest of the population feels a bit "down in the dumps".

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