Nuclear Fuel: Russia's Potential Environmental Disaster

Reported by Nenad Sebek, Moscow correspondent, The World

WALTER CRONKITE: Both environmentalists and Western governments sharply criticized Russia when its parliament voted last summer to store and reprocess other country's spent nuclear fuel. Critics say the plan could cause an environmental disaster and encourage the spread of nuclear weapons. But the Putin administration sees an economic opportunity and claims certain Western governments are just trying to protect their monopoly on a lucrative, but little-known area of nuclear technology.

NENAD SEBEK: The government argues it's a smart move. Russia wants to become the new member of an exclusive club of nuclear powers that import spent nuclear fuel and reprocess it. It creates new energy and helps eliminate radioactive waste. It would also boost Russia's national income—income that is badly needed to solve the problems left over after the breakup of the Soviet Union, says Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister Valentin Ivanov.

VALENTIN IVANOV: (Via Translator) We have a huge burden left over from the past. In the centralized economy of the communist era, we were told not to worry about the price of decommissioning power plants and storing or recycling fuel. We were told that when the time comes, the money will be there. And then, in 1991, everything fell apart and the line we're hearing now is, sorry guys, there is no money. So what else can we do but earn it in one way or another!

SEBEK: The Vladimir Putin administration says it can raise many billions of dollars by allowing other countries to export their nuclear waste and store it in Russia for 35 years. Russia would then reprocess it into fuel for nuclear power plants. Britain and France make money this way. Why not Russia, he asks? But exactly how safe would such storage and reprocessing be?

[Sounds of factory]

Just 30 miles east of Moscow, lies the Electromash, one of three largest producers of raw nuclear fuel in the world. It exports nuclear fuel to 12 countries. It was here that the fuel for the first Soviet atomic and thermonuclear bomb was produced. The enormous factory employs 11,000 people.

Even though it's a producer of fresh nuclear fuel, Electromash stands to benefit from the new law to process spent fuel, says Deputy Technical Director Nikolay Balagurov.

NIKOLAY BALAGUROV: (Via Translator) When we offer our nuclear fuel for sale, and can promise to take it back for recycling once it's spent, that makes our offer much more attractive to foreign buyers. Therefore, the new laws are opening up very good business prospects for us.

[Sounds of factory]

SEBEK: If it were not for the specific protective clothing, it would look as if the technicians here are churning out a new toy. But the small, dull silver colored pellets going into long slim tubes are actually made of enriched uranium. It's the first stage of creating nuclear fuel for power plants—the form of fuel that Electomash Director General Genady Potoskaev says is actually environmentally cleaner than other forms of energy production.

[Sounds of factory]

Potoskaev proudly points out the window to his factory, which is surrounded by lush greenery and even boasts chirping birds.

But the chirping birds just happen to be ravens—known not just in Russia as forebearers of bad news.


SEBEK: And in the office of Russia Greenpeace, Ivan Blokhov believes all this is very bad news indeed.

IVAN BLOKHOV: There are no technologies in the world—not only in Russia—which can safely reprocess spent nuclear fuel. And you can see the examples of British and French reprocessing plants where they are discharging into the ocean and extremely polluting the environment.

SEBEK: Pretty much like here in Russia.

BLOKHOV: You already have an example of the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in Chelyabinsk where they still continue to discharge low and middle level waste into open basins. And there are no environmental controls, and it's absolutely unacceptable.

SEBEK: What is more, says Blokhov, there are no guarantees that the future, planned reprocessing plants would be any better than the current ones.

BLOKHOV: In Russia the technology which is being proposed now by the nuclear ministry was developed in '84. And since that time, there have been no changes to the proposed technology.

SEBEK: But Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister Valentin Ivanov says by the time the actual reprocessing begins in three decades, technology will be far more sophisticated.

VALENTIN IVANOV: For 25, 30, maybe 35 years the spent fuel will simply be stored, under strict, even international supervision. In the meantime, there will be a new generation of nuclear reactors and fresh technology that will make the process of regeneration even more efficient.

[Mikhail Gorbachev informing country about disaster at Chernobyl]

SEBEK: It was a somber looking Mikhail Gorbachev who informed his country about the disaster that struck at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the spring of 1986. The catastrophe has left a deep scar on the national psyche.

[Band—Syabry—singing about Chernobyl]

SEBEK: "That Chernobyl night I remember like a nightmare..." says this song by the band Syabry. "I cannot pick up berries and mushrooms like I did before. What will I leave to my grandson, what can I tell my son..."

[Band—Syabry—singing about Chernobyl]

SEBEK: But Chernobyl is just the most famous disaster says Alexei Yablokov, the head of Russia's Independent Centre for Ecological Policy. He should know, he was former President Yeltsin's environmental advisor. The nuclear bomb tests in Semipalatinsk were conducted when the winds were blowing towards the Soviet Union, so that particles—which could give away scientific data—would not reach China or the "American imperialists." Plus, Yablokov says the three largest factories for producing plutonium regularly leak massive amounts of radiation.

ALEXEI YABLOKOV: (Via Translator) In each one of these plants around one billion curies were released. Can you imagine that? For comparison, the Chernobyl disaster released about 50 million curies— each one of these plants released 20 times that much!

SEBEK: The past experiences, says Yablokov, give him no confidence whatsoever that the import, then some 35 years of storage, and then the reprocessing of the spent nuclear fuel, will be safe. But it's another aspect of the new law that worries Yablokov just as much.

YABLOKOV: Practically, this law is killing off the agreement on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Half a century ago, nuclear power stations were a byproduct of research into nuclear weapons. Today, nuclear weapons are a byproduct of having nuclear plants. Any country that has a nuclear power plant, can build a bomb. It's no secret that Iran, for example, wants nuclear weapons and Russia is building a nuclear power station in Iran!

SEBEK: Yablokov says he believes the whole project of importing and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was introduced so that Russia could increase the export of its nuclear technology. That, he says, could dramatically increase the number of countries which would have nuclear weapons twenty years from now. And this is a prospect that DOES worry the United States. But strapped for cash, the Kremlin seems determined to see this project through... The expected earnings in the next ten years add up to some 20 billion dollars. Despite the domestic and international criticism, negotiations are going on now that could result in the first shipments reaching Russia in less then two years.

For the Russia Project, I'm Nenad Sebek, Moscow.

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