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Russia Sees Payoff In Nuc Storage*

[No better example of rich dirtying local while jetting to a global retreat. As submarine Kursk and reactor Chernobyl show, Russia doesn't have technical prowess to manage own nuclear industry. If Russia imports nuclear waste it will be like the people who paid for cryogenic storage.--RSB]

May 26, 2001

Russia Sees Payoff in Storing Nuclear Waste From Around the World


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OSCOW, May 25 — Despite some strong opposition from the public at home and by the government in the United States, Russia is preparing to open its borders to become the largest international repository for radioactive nuclear wastes.

With strong backing from President Vladimir V. Putin, the Ministry of Atomic Energy is expected to get a new legal mandate from Parliament next month to offer permanent storage for the highly toxic spent nuclear fuel that has been piling up in temporary storage basins at power plants around the world.

Moscow estimates that it can earn $21 billion in the next two decades by accepting 20,000 tons from 15 countries Russia has identified that would send used reactor cores by ship and train to new installations in Siberia, one of which is nearing completion.

The program would represent a far-reaching development in the international nuclear power industry, as governments in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are in the midst of national debates over how to dispose of highly radioactive reactor fuel cores. Spent fuel assemblies, filled with toxic byproducts of the nuclear fission that occurs inside reactor cores, must either be buried in secure geologic formations for thousands of years, or reprocessed to recycle the plutonium and uranium in them as new fuel.

But the reprocessing of nuclear fuel has become one of the most delicate issues of the nuclear safety debate because it separates plutonium and uranium in forms that might be stolen or diverted to illicit nuclear weapons programs. Russia, France and Britain reprocess fuel for civilian reactor programs, and Germany and Japan ship spent fuel to England and France for reprocessing, but the issue of permanent storage for most of the world's spent nuclear fuels and their wastes remains an open question.

The United States abandoned reprocessing technologies in the Ford and Carter administrations, citing proliferation dangers in creating a "plutonium economy," higher costs and environmental concerns. The United States is still evaluating whether it can safely store spent fuel and wastes from 104 American reactors at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

A key element in the Russian proposal is to accept the world's spent fuel, charging up to $1,600 per 2.2 pounds to hold it in perpetuity, but also preserving the option to reprocess and resell it should national policies and economics lead to safer reactor designs and new fuel configurations.

Russian officials say they hope to use profits from the new industry to help pay for an extensive environmental cleanup program here and to promote the development of more efficient reactors that would use plutonium-based fuels in a form designed to prevent their diversion for weapons use.

Russia faces enormous cleanup tasks from Soviet-era radiation accidents and illicit dumping at sea by the Soviet and Russian navies. At the same time, the country has trouble meeting the demand for electricity and has five nuclear plants in various stages of completion to bolster the 29 existing plants.

At the heart of Russia's proposal, officials here say, is an attempt to seize a large share of the future market for nuclear energy at a time when industrialized nations are facing increasing demand for electricity and growing concerns about global warming.

"Russia will demonstrate to the world that its technological potential is high, and it will pave the way to new projects," said Aleksandr Rumyantsev, the country's new minister of atomic energy.

Valentin B. Ivanov, the deputy minister, said in an interview this week that Russia was not sure what shape the nuclear industry would take, but that by garnering a significant share of the nuclear fuels market, it could secure a place for itself as an international supplier of nuclear technology.

The Russian initiative comes at a time when the Bush administration has cut funds for joint projects with Russia to reduce plutonium stockpiles, close Soviet-era bomb-making installations and provide financing to Russian nuclear scientists formerly employed in weapons production. At the same time, President Bush has ordered a broad review of nuclear power in the United States, including an examination of safer reactor designs and nuclear fuels resistant to diversion.

The Russian proposal faces immediate obstacles because the United States controls the movement, through licensing agreements, of nuclear fuels now powering most of the reactors operating overseas.

Nonetheless, Russian officials say they hope to reach an agreement with the Bush administration to enter this business. And Washington is expected to come under some pressure to cooperate from governments that have not resolved what to do with their spent nuclear fuel. Some is stored in high-risk earthquake zones, like Taiwan, which has six American-built nuclear reactors and will soon have two more.

Japan has 53 operating reactors and is in the midst of a national debate over how to store its nuclear wastes. In Europe, there are more than 150 nuclear reactors, and France generates 76 percent of its electrical power with nuclear energy.

Though American companies like Westinghouse and General Electric have sold nuclear reactors around the world, the United States government has made no commitment to assume responsibility for the long- term storage of spent fuel and its wastes. Washington does retain veto power over where that fuel can be transported.

During the Clinton administration, Washington encouraged Russia to remove a ban on importing spent fuels. By removing the ban, American officials calculated, Russia could help solve the coming crisis over the long-term disposal of toxic wastes, most of them from reactors sold by American companies.

A group of influential Americans, including a former director of central intelligence, William H. Webster, helped to create the Nonproliferation Trust, a private company that has worked to win support and financing for a permanent repository in Russia for 10,000 tons of spent fuel from reactors operating outside the United States.

Despite those efforts, an agreement has been stymied by American concerns over proliferation, Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, and Moscow's ambition to make use of spent fuels.

Thomas B. Cochran, a longtime environmental activist who promoted the idea of building a Russian repository as a consultant to the Nonproliferation Trust, said Russian officials were unwilling to accept a moratorium on reprocessing spent fuel. For this reason, he said, the new Russian plan will be "dead on arrival on this side of the Atlantic."

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