Without Adequate Safety Measures, U.S.-Russian Agreement Could Lead to Plutonium Theft, Environmental Harms, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (July 12, 2006) -- The Bush administration's proposed civilian nuclear agreement with Moscow could benefit the United States, Russia and other countries that generate large amounts of highly radioactive, used nuclear fuel; but without specific safeguards, shipping thousands of tons of spent fuel to Russia could make the world a more dangerous place, say experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"Exporting spent fuel to Russia could go a long way to help the Russians deal with their own nuclear contamination and waste problem and help out other countries with civilian nuclear programs," said Dr. Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and director of NRDC's Nuclear Program. "But if it is not designed carefully, it could promote the spread of nuclear weapons materials around the world."

Under the Atomic Energy Act, the United States retains control over spent nuclear fuel if it was produced, enriched or fabricated in the United States or irradiated in U.S.-supplied reactors. The United States has used these "consent rights" to bar countries that use U.S. fuel, such as South Korea and Taiwan, China, from shipping their spent fuel to Russia. The proposed agreement would lift the ban, according to recent press accounts, potentially generating more than $15 billion in revenues for Russia. There are no plans to export spent fuel from commercial reactors in the United States.

The proposed agreement could make Russia the destination of choice for spent nuclear fuel not only from allied countries, but also from those that pose a nuclear weapons proliferation risk, such as Iran and North Korea, making it impossible for those countries to use it to make weapons. But, according to NRDC, the benefits will be realized only if critical safeguards are in place to ensure that the imported nuclear fuel will not be reprocessed to recover weapons-usable plutonium, and that initial revenues from the project are properly managed and used to: construct a safe, environmentally sound, long-term disposal site in a remote, stable geologic formation; strengthen the security of nuclear materials in Russia; and clean up existing contaminated sites.

Without those safeguards, importing nuclear fuel into Russia would increase the risks of separated-plutonium theft and nuclear weapons proliferation, and further threaten Russia's environment, Dr. Cochran said.

The U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race had a devastating impact on the peoples and natural resources of the former Soviet Union, turning large swaths into radioactive wastelands and causing the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people from radioactive contamination and other pollution. If thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel are going to be imported into Russia, NRDC maintains that a substantial fraction of the revenues must be used to clean up existing nuclear contamination sites to offset the environmental risks associated with the imported fuel.

"Russia has yet to prove that it can manage large-scale nuclear enterprises responsibly to protect workers and surrounding communities," Dr. Cochran said. "Even today its efforts to secure its own nuclear materials still require technical assistance and funding from the West. So this proposed program should not go forward unless it's a joint U.S.-Russian undertaking and the United States can ensure that revenues are spent on the necessary safeguards."

Russia also does not have a geologic repository for disposal of its own spent fuel and high level radioactive waste, and it has yet to allocate the funds to construct one, Dr. Cochran pointed out. Therefore if any spent nuclear fuel is imported into Russia, he said, it is essential that some of the revenues are used to build an adequate repository in Russia.

Finally, a portion of the revenues must be used to secure existing stocks of nuclear materials in Russia to offset the increased security risks associated with importing additional nuclear materials, Dr. Cochran said.

"Given that the bulk of the commercial spent fuel market would come from fuel under U.S. consent rights, the United States should be able to exert substantial leverage over how Russia manages it and distributes the revenues," Dr. Cochran said. "If they truly care about security and environmental protection in Russia, the Bush administration and Congress owe the Russian people this much. Handing the Putin administration a blank check would inflate the bank accounts of Russia's permanent nuclear-industrial bureaucracy, but threaten the security of the Russian people and indeed the entire globe."