Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial set of laws July 11 allowing the import of spent nuclear fuel.
The most significant measure overrides an existing environmental ban on the import of foreign spent fuel for storage or disposal. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) A second law regulates spent-fuel import arrangements, and a third designates funds generated from imports for cleanup of radioactively contaminated sites. The Russian legislature approved the laws in June.
Putin also established a commission of government representatives to oversee spent-fuel imports and submitted a bill to the lower house of parliament that would make imports contingent on the group’s approval.
Russia hopes to generate substantial revenue by importing, storing, and eventually reprocessing up to 20,000 tons of foreign spent fuel, but critics maintain that there are significant environmental and proliferation risks in making Russia a global nuclear-waste dump.
Although demand for fuel-storage services appears high, at a July 11 press conference Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev said that “there are so far no potential clients in view.” Rumyantsev said Russia has begun raising the issue with foreign officials but emphasized that “this is a very long process” that would likely be drawn out for “several years.”
Most of the nuclear material in countries likely to be interested in costly spent-fuel storage originally came from the United States, and U.S. agreements with those countries give Washington veto power over transferring the material to third parties. The United States would therefore have to approve most spent-fuel shipments to Russia before they could proceed.
Before giving its consent to such transfers, the administration has emphasized that it would require Russia to meet proliferation, safety, and environmental standards and that it would want to reach an understanding concerning Russia’s controversial nuclear cooperation with Iran. Given the number and magnitude of disagreements between the two countries in these areas, it appears unlikely that Russia will be able to begin large-scale imports soon.