Green Groups Worry Russia May Become World's Nuclear Waste Dump

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Russia has agreed to take back and recycle weapons-grade uranium that it originally supplied to Libya, but the broader issue of trading in other countries' nuclear materials has critics complaining that Russia could turn into the world's nuclear dump.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement that highly-enriched uranium (HEU) Russia supplied to Libya's Tajoura nuclear research center in the early 1980s had been returned to the Russians.

The agency, which is overseeing Libya's voluntary dismantling of its nuclear program, said the HEU was flown to a facility in Central Russia earlier this week, in an operation funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

There it would be "blend[ed] down ... into low-enriched uranium (LEU), making it unsuitable for a nuclear weapon," the IAEA said.

Apart from helping Tripoli dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs, Russia has in the past had agreements to reprocess nuclear materials.

Moscow's nuclear agency, Minatom, envisages a lucrative business. Advocates of nuclear-waste imports say Russia could earn $20 billion over the next decade by
importing, reprocessing and storing other countries' spent nuclear fuel.

Critics led by the environmental group Greenpeace have lashed out at the plan, saying the environmental fallout could outweigh the benefits.

They argue that Russia has enough nuclear waste of its own.

In Moscow, for instance, a facility located in a residential district just ten miles from the Kremlin has waste depositories containing spent nuclear fuel, water used as a cooling agent and worn reactor parts.

Until recently, Russian law forbade the importing of radioactive waste or nuclear materials from other countries for long-term storage or burial. Only countries using Russian-built nuclear power plants or technology could send nuclear waste to Russia, in
line with bilateral deals.

Attempts by environmentalists to lobby for a law opposing any import of spent nuclear fuel failed, when a campaign to collect the 2.5 million signatures required to initiate a national referendum on the question failed.

The campaigners acquired the signatures, but the Central Elections Commission, citing minor technical inaccuracies -- such as the use of an abbreviation for the word "street" in a signatory's address -- rejected more than a fifth of the signatures.

Following that campaign President Vladimir Putin three years ago signed a new law allowing the import of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and storage.

Minatom has since then offered to reprocess nuclear waste from around the world at its Chelyabinsk reprocessing plant. The site has had some serious accidents in the past, including an explosion of a high-level waste storage facility in 1957, when more than 10,000 people in the area had to be evacuated.

A nearby lake was used from 1948 until the 1970s to dump untreated high-level waste.

When a severe drought dried up the lake in 1967, its bed was covered by radioactive dust, which later were spread by winds over an area of 2,000-3,000 square kilometers, which included the homes of more than 40,000 people.

Two year ago, the Russian Supreme Court handed a victory to environmentalists, striking down a government decision that allowed the import of nuclear waste from a nuclear power plant in Hungary for storage in Russia.

Environmentalists have contested deals clinched before the law that allows the import of spent nuclear fuel.

Minatom has plans for more than 10,000 tons of foreign radioactive waste to be reprocessed and stored at the country's largest waste storage facility, Krasnoyarsk-26 in Siberia, although non-governmental organization say the site has only 3,000 tons of unused capacity.

There are also plans to build a new waste storage site in a remote northern region.

In one deal involving the United States, Russia has agreed to sell 500 tons of HEU to fuel American commercial nuclear power reactors.

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