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 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. 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. Minatom had argued that spent fuel is a valuable energy resource. 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.”
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.