Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 112

Russia’s powerful nuclear energy lobby won a major victory last week when lawmakers passed a package of controversial bills intended to turn Russia into one of the world’s leading importers of spent nuclear fuel. The June 6 vote was the latest installment in a furious battle that has been raging since late last year between Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) and environmentalist groups inside and outside of Russia. Duma deputies first approved the nuclear waste import bills by an overwhelming margin on a first reading last December. Resistance to the legislation, however, has stiffened since that time. The nuclear lobby appeared to suffer a setback this past March when a scheduled vote on a second reading was unexpectedly postponed. But, less than a month later, Duma deputies did approve the measures on a second reading, though by a vote considerably closer than in December (see the Monitor, February 21, March 29, April 19). Last week’s vote, which marked the third reading of the controversial legislation, was again a close one, with the votes in favor of the three bills ranging from 243 to 266. For passage, 226 votes were required. The legislation will now go to the Federation Council for approval (where there is some), and then on to the office of President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has had little to say about the bills, but the Kremlin is believed to be firmly behind them.

At issue is the import into Russia of up to 20,000 of tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. Supporters of the legislation, led by Minatom and its recently named head, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, argue that the import, storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from abroad could earn Russia more than US$20 billion over the next decade. The Russian nuclear lobby has pledged to use these revenues both to clean up the enormous damage done to Russia’s environment during the Soviet era and to begin revitalizing the country’s existing nuclear industry. In the lead-up to last week’s vote, Rumyantsev also suggested that passage of the legislation could help transform Russia into a major player on the world nuclear energy market, one capable of competing with France and Britain for lucrative nuclear storage and reprocessing contracts. And on June 2 he was quoted as saying that the controversial legislation could help Russia’s beleaguered nuclear energy producers. If Russia’s foreign partners knew that they could return their waste to be treated in Russia, he told radio listeners, then they would be more eager to buy Russian-made nuclear fuel. Indeed, Rumyantsev and those supporting the nuclear waste import legislation have not been above playing the nationalist card in other ways as well: They have intimated that the bills’ opponents are linked to foreign interests which are allegedly angling to limit the penetration of Russia’s nuclear industry into international markets. Officials of Russia’s nuclear establishment, meanwhile, are predicting that they could begin to start importing spent nuclear fuel for storage at two Russian sites within three years, and that reprocessing of the fuel could begin sometime around 2020.

Opponents of the spent nuclear fuel import legislation, meanwhile, have taken issue with virtually every argument Minatom has put forth. Led in the State Duma by Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko faction, and including environmental groups and activists both inside and outside of Russia, they have charged that the real result of the nuclear legislation and Minatom’s plans would be to turn Russia into the world’s biggest nuclear waste dump. These critics have disputed the economics of the Minatom plan, arguing that revenues would likely be far lower than the ministry is projecting and that costs associated with plan would eat up much or all of those revenues. They point particularly to the requirement of massive investment in the construction of infrastructure and new nuclear processing facilities in Russia. Opponents have likewise criticized the lack of control the draft legislation provides for oversight of the revenues that would be flowing into Minatom if the plan were implemented. They warn, in addition, of the obvious environmental and proliferation dangers that would adhere to the import of thousands of tons of nuclear waste into a country already facing enormous problems in each of these areas. Critics of the plan, finally, point to polling data that suggest that the Russian public is overwhelmingly opposed to the Minatom plan. As Yavlinsky put it to Russian lawmakers just before last week’s vote: “The vote today can make history. One hundred million Russian citizens are against it, and only 500 people are for it–300 hundred members sitting here and 200 hundred bureaucrats who will be getting the money.”

Moreover, as environmental groups and other opponents of the plan have been quick to point out, the United States may actually hold the main trump card in the battle over whether spent nuclear is ever sent to Russia in the quantities needed to make the plan economically viable. Greenpeace, for example, points to U.S. Department of Energy data showing that more than 90 percent of the foreign spent nuclear fuel sought by Moscow for import–or roughly 2,200 of the 2,400 tons of spent nuclear fuel produced annually by Minatom’s potential client countries–is actually under the control of the United States as the country of origin. The export of that spent nuclear fuel to Russia can therefore not take place without Washington’s permission. And according to a statement released last week by the U.S. State Department (in response to the Duma vote), that permission will not come out without some stringent conditions. They include assurances that the transfer to Russia was for eventual disposal, and not for reprocessing; that the transportation, storage and disposition of the spent nuclear fuel imported by Russia was conducted with appropriate safety and security; and, in a clear reference to growing nuclear ties between Moscow and Tehran, that Russia satisfy U.S. concerns with regard to its “nuclear cooperation with third parties.”

The first and third of these conditions in particular would seem to make any near-term approval by Washington of the Russian plan a real long shot. Washington has in general been opposed to plans whereby spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed rather than disposed of. Yet, according to Greenpeace, Minatom foresees reprocessing virtually all of the spent nuclear fuel that it hopes to import. Indeed, Russia’s nuclear establishment is believed to be seeking the creation of a “closed nuclear fuel cycle,” or a “plutonium economy,” one in which plutonium separated out from nuclear waste would be fabricated into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and then loaded into Fast Breeder Reactors. Russian ambitions in this area have raised alarm bells in the United States, for reasons of safety (related to the technologies involved) and security, because of the potential proliferation problems that would be created. Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation, meanwhile, could prove to be an equally large obstacle to any U.S. Russian agreement on this score. Moscow and Washington have clashed repeatedly on this subject over the past five years, and there is little to suggest that Moscow is prepared any time soon to meet U.S. demands that it terminate its nuclear ties with Iran.

This set of circumstances led Tobias Muenchmeyer, a representative of Greenpeace International, to say last week that “Russia is neither able nor willing to fulfill U.S. conditions, which amount to a de facto veto on this dangerous Russian nuclear waste import scheme.” “Without U.S. controlled fuel,” he added,”the Minatom program, if it proceeds, will involve mainly spent nuclear fuel from former Eastern Block countries.” Indeed, Russia already accepts spent fuel rods from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary on the basis of Soviet-era contracts, but they pay far less for the service than could the countries Moscow is seeking as clients. That group includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Switzerland and Germany. What is unclear is whether this set of circumstances will have any impact on Minatom’s determination to plow ahead with the nuclear fuel import plan. The potential obstacles posed by U.S. control of much of the world’s spent nuclear fuel stores has long been known to Moscow, but have done little to deter Russia’s nuclear lobby thus far (AFP, June 4, 7; AP, Reuters, June 6; The Guardian, Washington Post, Moscow Times, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Izvestia, June 7;, June 8).