Nuclear Waste Solved: or, To Russia, With Love

One of the key issues surrounding the nuclear energy debate is the proper disposition of spent fuel rods. There are numerous concerns that encompass this issue, from radioactive contamination to nuclear proliferation fears, and about the only consensus that experts can agree on is the sheer complexity of the problem.

I'm not going to delve into this now, but recent developments in public opinion on the dangers of coal-fired power plants have softened opinion about the dangers of nuclear power, and a concerted effort by the industry itself has facilitated this shift even more. I find myself both concerned and dismayed by the trend, especially as exhibited by progressives. And if some magical new plan for getting rid of that pesky radioactive waste is promoted, I can only imagine the strong positive reaction that will result, which brings me (finally) to the reason for this diary.

The U.S. has entered into an agreement with Russia to, among other things, begin shipping our spent nuclear fuel rods to them for storage and/or recycling. This is a multi-billion-dollar venture which has been in the works since shortly after Bush was elected, and is being touted as an integral component of a wider nuclear security pact:

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership: We are working with a wide range of other states to develop the next generation of civil nuclear capability that will be safe and secure, improve the environment, and reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation. GNEP is aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of advanced fuel cycle technologies including recycling that do not involve separating plutonium. Such advanced technologies, when available, would substantially reduce nuclear waste, simplify its disposition, and draw down existing inventories of civilian spent fuel in a safe, secure and proliferation resistant manner.

Before I continue let me make a few admissions. I've been a Russia-watcher for many years, dating back to my Cold War Army days. I've also got a decent collection of tinfoil hats, as well. As such, I have viewed the Democratic reforms there with a healthy amount of cynicism, even during the good days. Well, these days aren't good anymore, and Putin's recent shift to PM and his installation of a puppet President, combined with the restructuring of the Duma have me more concerned than I was back in the Eighties. But I can't see into his heart like Bush, so maybe I'm just being paranoid.

Back to the spent rods, and our good fortune in finding some place to dump them:

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[1] 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.[2] 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.

It ain't just environmentalists that are against this, some 90% of the Russian population is against the importation of radioactive waste. But in Putinland, that means nothing:

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.[3] Minatom had argued that spent fuel is a valuable energy resource.[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.

As many reading this may suspect, there are serious questions about Russia's ability to actually do what Minatom claims it can. It's not like they've got a history of sound practices in dealing with nuclear power, or placing safety on any list, much less at the top of said list. In fact, they can't even handle their own waste, much less import ours:

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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36]

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.[17] 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.[6] Experts concerned that nuclear materials might be terrorist targets point out that such materials are most vulnerable when in transit.

This train wreck perfectly illustrates the potential for disaster in this plan. And it's not an isolated incident either, I'm afraid. From an ENS article back in 2004:

In June-July 2003, the transport of about 20 tons of Bulgarian spent nuclear fuel to the Mayak nuclear complex took place. In mid-June the ship caryying this nuclear cargo got stuck at the Danube River due to navigation problems, but by the end of July, the waste did arrive at Mayak.

But once it gets there, we can be assured things are handled properly:

In the beginning of 2003, for the first time in Russian history, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing was suspended at Mayak because the government revoked its license for violations of nuclear regulations.

But in spite of the fact that Mayak failed to eliminate the violations that caused revocation of its license, in March 2003 Gosatomnadzor, the Russian Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, reinstated Mayak’s license under the governmental pressure, Slivyak and Nikoulina report.

And we needn't worry about this stuff falling into the wrong hands or unsuspecting innocents being exposed to it:

"Anyone who is able to pay some hundreds of Rubles (US$20-30) to the security guards, can get into the secured areas" at Mayak, they write. They explain that the social situation in many closed nuclear units and settlements near nuclear power plants is "socially unfavorable," for personnel. "Alcohol and drug addictions are widespread."
In addition to these problems, smuggling of radioactive materials is taking place under the noses of customs officials, the authors say. They relate an April 2003 incident in which the illegal import of nuclear waste was detected by Kaliningrad Customs Service.

A container with radioactive materials hidden among the carpentry equipment was sent from Belgium to the address of a business in Kaliningrad, a northwestern region of Russia on the coast of Baltic Sea. Investigators discovered that the radioactive package was not declared and was hidden from customs supervision. The radiation level of the container was a million times higher that allowed, the Russian-Spanish news agency Vesti-RTR reported.

"According to a source in Kaliningrad Customs, each year there are several cases like that happening, and it’s suspected that the most radioactive packages get through the border many different ways," write Slivyak and Nikoulina.

So what does our Congress think of this nifty plan? Not much, but it may not make a difference:

In the Senate, a missive to Bush signed by 32 senators said Russia's "increasingly abrasive foreign policy" was one reason Bush should not send the civilian nuclear cooperation deal to Congress for review.

The letter written by Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh also said Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear fuel cycle program and support for Iran's ballistic missile program were hurdles to cooperating with Moscow on civilian nuclear technology.

The Bush administration is keen to have the pact with Russia go into force this year, its last in office. Once the deal is sent to lawmakers, it would take effect if Congress does not pass a disapproval resolution within 90 days.

I know. There's no way in hell Congress will have the sense to stop this, especially considering this lets us dump our problem on someone else.

And yes, there's a powerful U.S. group which has been working on this for many years, and it's a good bet nothing is going to stop them:

The Non-Proliferation Trust concept has gone through several major changes since it was first described to NIRS in a private meeting about 18 months ago. This article is based on the most recent material available to NIRS, dated October 1999. The details of the plan may have changed again since then.
According to these materials, the NPT would import some 10,000 metric tons of high-level waste from commercial nuclear reactors, apparently primarily from Asia, which would result in revenues of more than $11.5 Billion.

Nearly $3.5 Billion of this would go toward transporting the fuel and establishing a temporary storage facility to accept the waste. Somewhat over $2 Billion would go toward building a permanent geological high-level waste storage dump in Russia—a project that has eluded the U.S. despite costs more than ten times that amount. Three Billion would go toward clean-up of Russian nuclear sites—a worthy task by anyone’s evaluation: although it is unclear who would oversee this task (in an early version of the contract, the Natural Resources Defense Council would have received some $200 million to oversee this work; but NRDC declined to take on this role), and clean-up of the U.S. facilities—which are not as dirty, but do cost more to clean—is anticipated to be on the order of $50 Billion or more. The proposal also would provide about $2.5 Billion to protect jobs in the formerly closed nuclear cities in Russia—to ensure that nuclear experts do not move to rogue countries--and more than $2 Billion in direct aid to Russian citizens, especially pensioners and orphans.
And in return, all Russia would have to do is agree to become a dumping ground for commercial nuclear waste from across the world.

The NPT plan has earned the enmity of virtually every Russian environmental organization, despite its intent at stopping reprocessing and assisting in clean-up of contaminated sites. Why? Because Russians, like everyone else, don’t see a reason for their nation to become a dumping ground for the world’s atomic waste.

In addition, they doubt that NPT, or any other organization, can effectively control Minatom—the Russian nuclear governmental agency—or stop it from reprocessing. Indeed, Minatom is working on its own to import radioactive waste and keep the money for itself—forget clean-up or a commitment to ending reprocessing.

I know this diary is a little wordy, and I could have posted briefer quotes. But this is an incredibly important issue, and it needs to be addressed. If any lawmakers are reading this, please take some steps to force more discussion on this agreement. Those spent fuel rods of ours represent a danger, no matter where they are. In the hands of incompetents and money-hungry pseudo politicians, they represent a grave danger, and one we will have little control over.

Comments

Depressing

There's no way in hell Congress will have the sense to stop this, especially considering this lets us dump our problem on someone else.

Hell, if Congress doesn't have the spine to take on Blackwater, you know they'll roll over and play dead on this.

It's nauseating.

The thing is, it appears

they (Congress) are more concerned about Russia's relationship with Iran, and whether or not the administration is using this bargaining "tool" properly.

I am concerned over strategic issues, but I am much more concerned about our tendency to seek the easy way out, without taking a serious look at how our actions impact the lives of people on the other side of the world.

Congress should stop this, but it should stop it for the right reasons, or the lesson won't be learned.

Radioactive Russia

I think it's a plot to turn the populace in Russia into android mutants that can take over the world. Terminators.

Grim!

That bit of information negatively affects the entire "renewable energy" milieu.

Unwelcomed as it is, I appreciate hearing this news through your post.

Amazing how people forget Three-mile Island or...

Chernobyl. The corporate gang counts on this, and now it's to be our alternative to coal? Having lived in an area downwind of Three Mile Island, I remember how horrified people seemed when they were told that with a meltdown, there was no way to neutralize the active radiation that would escape into the environment, and probably costing many thousand lives. Of course this information had been public for thirty something years, but few pay attention, until something happens. So, now, we will be told 'it' can be transported safely, but nothing is 100%. And you will be left with the idea that it's like acid that can be neutralized with water. Stuff like this should be front page news, but I haven't seen much on it. I guess the corporate world doesn't feel it's that important.

BlueNC Energy vs Nuke Energy

I know. There's no way in hell Congress will have the sense to stop this, especially considering this lets us dump our problem on someone else.

scharrison

No. For us to “dump our nuclear waste problem on someone else” undermines ALL efforts for renewable/sustainable energy. Am I the only one blown away by this? Is this old news? There is no more important stand for renewable/sustainable/clean energy than to keep us from further burying our heads in the sand. There is no There, and all that … “easy” nukes discouraging/delaying solar, wind, etc. potential … yet another sterling example for us to give to the world …

Stuff like this should be front page news, but I haven't seen much on it. I guess the corporate world doesn't feel it's that important.

denno

The corporate world feels that it is so important that it must be kept quiet … so that GWB et al can slide it through congress, and “we the people” will never know …

But now we know. For this, grassroots was made. Well, grown.

Let’s take it on, BlueNC! Power up your connections to blogs and environmental groups … widely circulate.

BlueNC Energy = truth = accountability = action.

We Can Stop This.

Yes. We. Can.

Scharrison, many thanks for your detailed information. Can you please provide us with specifics about related current/proposed legislation?

Three links do not work.: touted, Not much, and U.S. group.

Thanks, Zate

I don't know why those links hit expired pages from here, but still work from the kos version. Weird. Here they are if you want to cut and paste, or maybe one of the more adept can fix 'em for me:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/04/20080406-4.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSL0659405920080507

http://www.nirs.org/mononline/nptarticle.htm

Am I the only one blown away by this? Is this old news?

As I wrote above, (apparently) the administration has been working on this for some time, but only a few weeks ago actually signed the formal agreement.

I actually sort of stumbled onto this, as it was only briefly mentioned on the radio a few days ago and caused my antenna to pop up. The more I dug, the more alarmed I became.

I'll do some Thomas surfing when I get home to see what legislation (if any) exists on this.

Powerful links!

Thanks!

Further information, through your Reuters link: In a May 13th article, "Bush sends Russia nuclear pact to skeptical Congress".
"http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSL0659405920080507
(Sorry about that, I can't do the link thing, either).
The article notes that many in congress are skeptical, and lists requirements to halt the Bush proposal:

A resolution of disapproval blocking the agreement would need to pass Congress by a two-thirds vote, a steep climb. But Congress could also seek to attach conditions to the deal or block financing for its implementation, aides said.
The deal could also collapse if Congress does not stay in session for 90 more legislative days in this election year, one aide said. Congress has an August recess and is scheduled to go home at the end of September, but Congress almost never goes home on its targeted adjournment date.

From http://www.platts.com/Nuclear/News/6873243.xm l

The agreement would allow the US to send its spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing. It also would pave a path for the Bush administration's
Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which aims to promote nuclear power around the world through new kinds of fast-neutron reactors and spent-fuel reprocessing plants.

So: Bush's answer to global warming/fuel crisis etc etc is ... Nukes!

Even without lawmakers' support, the pact will go into effect after 90 days of "continuous" congressional sessions, which is about the amount of time
left in Congress' calendar for this year. Congress also can pass a resolution of approval, with or without conditions, or a resolution of disapproval.

Interesting timing.

Before Bush sent the agreement to Congress, sources said both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee likely would prepare a resolution of disapproval.

A bright spot!

I am unable, with help from Thomas, to locate specific legislation (I guess a 123 agreement is not, technically legislation?)

A 123 agreement, so-called because it falls under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, is required before countries can cooperate on nuclear materials, such as storing spent fuel, or work together on advanced nuclear reactor programs.

Perhaps you, scharrison, could locate the specific document so that we could articulately communicate our concerns to congresspersons.

Thanks again for this "find".

The 123 Agreement is a section

of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 dealing with requirements for cooperation between the U.S. and other countries in nuclear technology and/or materials. Here's an extremely fat pdf, from Senate digital archives:

http://epw.senate.gov/atomic54.pdf

And how (some of) this section was translated into U.S. Code:

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode42/usc_sec_42_00002153----000-.html

If, after March 10, 1978, the Congress fails to disapprove a proposed agreement for cooperation which exempts the recipient nation from the requirement set forth in subsection (a)(2) of this section, such failure to act shall constitute a failure to adopt a resolution of disapproval pursuant to section 2157 (b)(3) of this title for purposes of the Commission’s consideration of applications and requests under section 2155 (a)(2) of this title and there shall be no congressional review pursuant to section 2157 of this title of any subsequent license or authorization with respect to that state until the first such license or authorization which is issued after twelve months from the elapse of the sixty-day period in which the agreement for cooperation in question is reviewed by the Congress.

Just an added note: our treaty with India:

http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h109-5682

pretty much undermined the importance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and set a legal precedent for the wholesale promotion of nuclear power worldwide.

Yikes!

The more I learn from you on this matter the worse it gets!

That being said, however; at this point, where is intervention potential? Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee?

Do you think our NC Legislators know of this? And are aware of it's impact?

How about our Congresspersons? Well, some of our Representatives.

Not sure about our Reps,

but Congress has shown resistance to GNEP, but it appears to be (as I mentioned before) more about proliferation fears as opposed to the potential dangers of mishandling the stuff by Russia:

http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_01-02/fuelcycle.asp

Lawmakers in December approved legislation that would sharply scale back the Bush administration’s proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and cut money for an unrelated facility meant to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the annual funding measure includes $50 million toward efforts to establish an international nuclear fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As you can see, it appears Congress doesn't want us (the U.S.) engaging in any recycling, but isn't totally against some other country doing it. Which is ass-backward, as far as I'm concerned, since the U.S. "controls" some 80% of the world's spent fuel (we supply it to others), and is responsible for the end disposition of such.

Congress authorized and appropriated $50 million toward the establishment of an international nuclear fuel bank under IAEA auspices. Such a fuel supply reserve would be aimed at countries that “have made the sovereign choice to develop their civilian nuclear energy industry based on foreign sources of nuclear fuel and therefore have no requirement to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel enrichment capability.”

Which is all well and good, but it still puts (potentially) weapons-grade plutonium in the hands of some who have no business with it.

Brad Miller on House Committee

Brad Miller is on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/members.asp?committee=full&subnav=subcommittees

Looking at membership on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, there are enough good folks to make a difference. A Miami friend is Joe Biden's friend, and might forward a message to Biden.
http://foreign.senate.gov/about.html

Apologies if I'm out of line/unreasonable about the need for action. No offense taken if you'd just as soon not, for whatever reason.

However, oh articulate one ... would you consider composing a short, effective message that can be sent to Congresspersons on the two Foreign Relations Committees, and others for whom knowledge of this 123 "event" would be of value? It is difficult to corral the many reasons that this is a bad idea, but it definitely should not hinge on Iran. That is the point that really needs to be made, otherwise there will just be a delay ...

Much appreciation for all you've already done!

Russian commentary:
http://www.bellona.org/subjects/Nuclear_Russia

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/JB09Ak03.html

Why we don't need nuclear power:
http://www.mng.org.uk/gh/no_nukes.htm

(very) minor correction

As such, I have viewed the Democratic reforms there with a healthy amount of cynicism,

I'd lowercase the "D"—it's not the Democratic Party of the United States that reformed Russian politics in the 1990s. (It wasn't the Republicans, either, no matter how high one gets from Reagan Brylcreem vapors.)

--
relocating from Indianapolis, IN to RTP, NC soon; got any advice for me?

I wouldn't recommend drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me. -- Hunter S. Thompson

--
Garner, NC

I wouldn't recommend drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me. -- Hunter S. Thompson

More on GNEP:

http://www.gneppartnership.org/

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is cooperation of those States that share the common vision of the necessity of the expansion of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes worldwide in a safe and secure manner. It aims to accelerate development and deployment of advanced fuel cycle technologies to encourage clean development and prosperity worldwide, improve the environment, and reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.

The cooperation will be carried out under existing and, where appropriate, new bilateral arrangements as well as existing multilateral arrangements such as the Generation IV International Forum and the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles.

Today the partnership consists of 21 partners, three permanent international nongovernment observers; and seventeen participating observer countries. These partners are: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, France, Ghana, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation, Senegal, Slovenia, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States. The three permanent international nongovernment observers are: the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Generation IV International Forum and Euratom.

And some of the more questionable partners:

Bulgaria and Romania:

Bulgaria and Romania will receive a stern rebuke Wednesday from the European Commission for failing to root out corruption and organized crime, fueling concerns that the two nations were admitted prematurely to the European Union.

Though neither nation will face special sanctions that the EU could impose, officials will make it clear that both countries need to intensify efforts to rein in bribery, criminal networks and contract killings.

So concerned was the European Commission that it had threatened to postpone the two nations' entry to the bloc until January 2008 but it decided against such a sanction because it thought it might prove demotivating for reformers in the country.

Romania and Bulgaria had more endemic corruption than the eight newest EU members from the east did before joining, according to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog whose reports are widely read within the commission. In progress reports leading up to their admission on Jan. 1, the Commission expressed fears about the countries' sluggish pace of judicial reform, a worrying backlog of cases in their court systems, and a persistent problem with organized crime and human trafficking.

Ghana:

The Security Minister of Ghana,Mr Francis Opoku has been sacked and his house has been besieged by number of Police Officers.
On Saturday 12 January, the Minister in charge of Security, Mr. Francis Opoku was sacked by President John Kufuor.

The release of his sacking was issued to the press and signed by Ambassador D.K.Osei, Secretary to the President. There was no reason to the sacked of the former Security capo.

“This is a debriefing exercise that the Security apparatus is having with Mr. Opoku and everyone needs to be calm” she said.

Until last year, President Kufuor decorated Mr. Francis Opoku as Order of the Volta, which was a national award to his dedication to the State.

Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan has yet to hold an election that meets OSCE standards for free and fair elections. Due in part to government manipulation, opposition candidates did not win a single seat in the August parliamentary elections. Constitutional amendments adopted in mid-2007 now make it possible for President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has led Kazakhstan since before independence from the Soviet Union, to run for an unlimited number of terms.

The broadcast media are dominated by government loyalists, and independent journalists are threatened and harassed for criticizing the president or government. Libel continues to be a criminal offense. Alikbek Zhumbaev, an opposition activist, is currently serving a five-year prison term for insulting President Nazarbaev.

Senegal:

The southern Casamance region is effectively an enclave as The Gambia lies between it and the rest of Senegal.

From 1982 to 2004 the picturesque river delta was the setting of a drawn-out conflict between seperatist rebels of the Casamance Democratic Forces Movement (MFDC) and government forces.

A peace agreement was signed in 2004 but since then there have been several clashes between the army and unidentified armed groups.

I understand these countries are undergoing a "transition period", and we should be taking whatever prudent steps we can to help them achieve progress. But including them in GNEP is just one more piece of evidence that this plan has some basic flaws which could prove deadly, and Congressional scrutiny/action may be the only way to stop it.