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Russian Duma Passes Bill Allowing Import of Spent Fuel
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Philipp C. Bleek

Russia’s lower house of parliament approved a controversial bill June 6 that would allow Moscow to import spent nuclear fuel from other nations. Importing spent fuel could generate billions of dollars for the cash-starved country, but the initiative has raised concerns about the environmental and proliferation consequences of making Russia the world’s nuclear-waste dumping ground.

The Duma approved the hotly contested legislation by a vote of 250-125. The bill, which will bypass the Federation Council and must now be approved by President Vladimir Putin, would amend an existing environmental protection law that bars the import of spent fuel for storage or disposal.

Opponents of the measure claim that, given Russia’s lax safety and environmental practices and deteriorating infrastructure, making the country a major nuclear waste repository could have dire environmental and proliferation impacts. But after stagnating for years, the plan was shepherded through the Duma by Putin and the influential Ministry of Atomic Energy, who argued that portions of the potential revenue stream could in fact be used to improve Russia’s infrastructure and finance much-needed cleanup work at contaminated nuclear sites.

Demand for the spent-fuel storage services Russia may soon offer is evident. In many countries, temporary spent-fuel storage ponds located at reactor sites are reaching capacity. Construction of several geologic repositories—such as the one proposed for Yucca Mountain in the United States—has been delayed, and a number of reprocessing programs have been cancelled or postponed.

Assuming transfers could be made politically palatable—which is far from certain, given the vociferous protests already coming from both Russian and international environmental groups—it appears likely that countries such as South Korea and Taiwan would pay considerable sums to be relieved of their spent-fuel burdens. Russian officials have indicated that they hope to import and reprocess 20,000 tons of spent fuel over a 10-year period, which they have predicted would yield more than $20 billion in revenue and about $7 billion in profit.

In the short term, Russia would store the imported spent fuel, but in the future Moscow apparently hopes to transition from a storage provider to a supplier of advanced-technology reprocessing services and nuclear fuel. Not only would providing such services yield significant additional revenue, but it would also mesh with Russia’s long-term vision of generating energy by using plutonium in a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle. (See ACT, October 2000.)

The U.S. government remains the primary barrier to the plan’s implementation. Nearly all the fuel in countries likely to be interested in the Russian service is of U.S. origin, and nuclear cooperation agreements with those countries give Washington a veto over shipment to third parties. The United States does not have a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, and historically it has only approved transfers to states with which it has such an arrangement.

Russian officials have indicated in recent weeks that they hope to reach agreement on nuclear cooperation with Washington. U.S. officials have responded by emphasizing that a range of non-proliferation, environmental, and safety considerations need to be taken into account.

According to a State Department official, the negotiation of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia has been impeded since the early 1990s by the U.S. government’s decision to use the issue to discourage Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran. It appears that the Bush administration remains firmly committed to making a deal on Iran a requirement for agreement, while Russia appears equally committed to completing at least the first power reactor at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear site.

Whether the differences can be bridged remains unclear. The official put the matter bluntly, saying, “Russia will have to make a decision about whether to cast its lot with the United States or with Iran.”

Establishment of a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement requires a lengthy process, including congressional review and approval, that the State Department official indicated would likely take at least two years.

Washington is also concerned that Russia’s potential reprocessing plans would work at cross-purposes to U.S.-financed initiatives to secure and dispose of fissile materials and reduce the proliferation risk from Russia’s deteriorating nuclear weapons complex. Washington has sought a commitment from Moscow that it will not reprocess any more spent fuel and thereby produce weapons-usable plutonium. The Clinton administration came close to reaching, but did not secure, an agreement with Russia on a 20-year plutonium-reprocessing moratorium.

In a policy statement released after the Duma’s passage of the new law, the Bush administration said that Washington would not allow Russia to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel. Whether this policy would apply to future reprocessing technologies that would not fully separate reprocessed plutonium into weapons-usable form, as apparently envisioned in both Russia’s plans and the administration’s recently released energy policy document, remains unclear.

Posted: July 1, 2001