Nuclear waste bid to boost economy

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The Independent Online

Moscow's Ministry of Atomic Energy said it wants to import 20,000 tons of nuclear waste to Russia to boost the country's economy, but parliament would first have to cancel a law forbidding most of such imports.

Under the proposed program, countries exporting nuclear waste to Russia would pay $21billion over 10 years. The waste would be spent fuel rods from civilian nuclear power plants in Europe and Asia, Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov said.

The expected earnings are nearly equal to Russia's entire federal budget in 1999.

"The deal is extremely beneficial for (the ministry), and we are intending to carry it out," Adamov said.

Deputy Minister Valentin Ivanov said the plan is at a stage of "market research" to study global demand among countries eager to unload their waste, and lobbying parliament. About 200,000 tons of nuclear waste is now stored at temporary sites worldwide.

The ministry plan proposes recycling the waste at the Mayak facility in the Ural Mountains.

The process extracts usable nuclear material for new fuel rods while improving safety by reducing the material's potential to be used in weapons, said Ivanov, the ministry's top nuclear scientist.

The spent fuel would travel across European Russia or Siberia by rail in armored wagons and inside containers said to be bullet and fireproof. The Norway-based Bellona environmental group has earlier criticized these containers as unequal to a serious train crash or terrorist attack.

Both Russian and foreign environmental groups object to the plan, which has been under discussion for several years, saying Russia is already awash in nuclear waste from domestic sources.

"This is an extremely dangerous and cynical deal to generate billions of dollars which will add to the enormous environmental problems that already exist in Russia," Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Tobias Muenchmeyer said in a press release.

A 1992 law on protecting the environment forbids importing nuclear materials from foreign countries other than former East Bloc nations with existing contracts.

Russia now imports spent fuel rods from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary for reprocessing, a system established during Soviet times.

Meanwhile, Adamov said his ministry plans to make $550million reprocessing Soviet bomb-grade material into civilian reactor fuel this year under a US-sponsored program begun in 1993. The program aims to reduce available bomb-grade material and reduce the risk of theft.