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Russian Scientist Details Nuclear Fuel Plan at AAAS Capitol Hill Briefing
Russia is very interested in promoting use of nuclear power around the globe, a top Russian scientist said at a recent Capitol Hill briefing, and is working to establish an international center for the delivery of fresh nuclear fuel to participating nations as well as procedures for recovering the spent fuel to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
The fuel services center, which the Russia would like to open as early as next year, would be located near the Siberian city of Angarsk. It could provide an assured source of nuclear fuel to nations that forgo their own uranium enrichment plants, said Nikolai Laverov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"This kind of proposal is especially attractive to less-developed countries," Laverov said.
He spoke in Washington D.C. on 19 October at a briefing for congressional staff and others on the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle. The briefing was organized by AAAS's Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy.
"Debates about the future of energy are happening not just in the U.S., but globally," said Benn Tannenbaum, project director for the CSTSP. "This briefing helped highlight that for congressional staff and will hopefully help continue that discussion here."
The Russian Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academies are undertaking a joint study of some of the issues surrounding proposals to provide nuclear fuel services to nations using nuclear energy. The proposals are aimed at giving the nations incentives not to bother with the expense and difficulty of establishing their own uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. The spread of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities is a concern because these technologies can also be used to make the materials needed for nuclear bombs.
Fuel services centers, whether based in Russia or elsewhere, would provide one way to permit wider use of nuclear power while limiting access to enrichment and recycling technologies that could allow the spread of nuclear weapons.
Both the U.S. and Russia support access to nuclear energy for nations without their own fuel cycle technology. But there are many questions on the best way to accomplish that while providing assurance of safety and nonproliferation safeguards.
The joint U.S.-Russian study will address some of those questions, including whether it is feasible to establish international fuel supply centers; who should own the nuclear materials under such arrangements; and whether private companies could own some or all the facilities at such centers. The study is to be completed by the end of 2007.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in January that his country was ready to establish an international fuel services center. The proposal is consistent with recent calls by the International Atomic Energy Agency for the creation of multinational arrangements to manage the distribution and recovery of nuclear fuels.
The Russians have urged Iran to participate in their proposed fuel services center. Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow Center, has argued that such a step would permit Iran a face-saving way to halt its drive toward building its own fuel-enrichment facilities and help defuse the confrontation with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program.
Laverov, who is co-chair of the joint U.S.-Russian study, said that a mandatory requirement for the Russian facility would be that all fuel be sent back to Russia after use. The Russians propose to reprocess the spent fuel to extract uranium and plutonium for use in a mixed-oxide fuel to be burned in a new generation of fast reactors. The first of those BN-800 reactors is scheduled to come on line in 2013.
Reprocessing is controversial, however, since it produces plutonium that could be diverted for weapons use. As a matter of policy, the United States has not reprocessed spent fuel for decades, but President Bush's proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership includes a return to reprocessing in the United States—though using new technologies designed to reduce proliferation risks by not fully separating plutonium from spent fuel.
Matthew Bunn, senior research associate in Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs and a U.S. member of the joint study committee, said that the panel was not asked to assess the merits of reprocessing. "If the question was should we or should we not reprocess, I doubt we could come to a consensus," Bunn said.
From the Russian perspective, reprocessing makes sense as a means to further exploit the energy content in large amounts of spent fuel and ultimately reduce the amount of nuclear waste that must be stored either in above-ground casks or buried in deep geologic repositories.
Valentin B. Ivanov, a member of the Russian State Duma and also a member of the joint study committee, said the BN-800 reactor will consume two tons of plutonium a year. Russia currently has a stockpile of 40 tons of reactor-grade plutonium that has accumulated from the reprocessing of spent fuel from existing Russian reactors.
Russia is planning an ambitious expansion of its civilian nuclear power capacity, according to Laverov. Putin has set a goal of increasing the share of nuclear power in the country's total energy balance from the current 16 percent to about 23 to 25 per cent by 2020. That will require the construction of two new reactors a year, he said, each with a capacity of 1 billion watts of electric power.
27 October 2006