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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Legislation Allows for Sale of Nuclear Fuel

Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry is seeking to pass legislation that would permit the import and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, so that Russia can cash in on a profitable but controversial world market in plutonium, a senior ministry official has said.

If passed, the amendment to Russia's environmental law would open the way for the ministry, Minatom, to import spent nuclear fuel into Russia for reprocessing and then reexport to the country of origin as plutonium.

Minatom's deputy minister, Nikolai Yegorov, said in a letter to the parliament's ecology committee last month that it was necessary to continue reprocessing because it "provides more than $100 million and some billions of rubles from CIS countries annually".

Yegorov said in a telephone interview that parliament would soon discuss the ministry's proposal and that the committee is "basically supportive".

The plutonium produced after reprocessing would have some civilian applications, but the prospect of Russian commerce in the fuel has environmentalists and U. S. arms control negotiators worried that it could be used to build a nuclear bomb.

At a hearing in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington this week, retired Major General William Burns said that for Russia to begin a commerce in plutonium would be "very dangerous". Burns is the U. S. State Department's special envoy negotiating warhead-dismantlement agreements with four republics of the former Soviet Union.

Dmitry Litvinov, campaign coordinator of Greenpeace Russia said that if Russia enters the reprocessing market, the country "will not only become the world's garbage dump for nuclear waste, but will also rekindle the threat of mass destruction that we hoped was gone with the end of the Cold War".

In order to circumvent a Russian law that prohibits such work, the ministry is proposing an exception for radioactive materials, including spent nuclear fuel from atomic installations, that are being brought in for reprocessing or temporary storage for future reprocessing or future return to the country of origin.

Minatom has already begun negotiations with the government of South Korea for a reprocessing contract, according to Sergei Yermakov, the ministry's press spokesman.

The South Korean embassy confirmed that Russia's first deputy minister for atomic energy, Vitaly Konovalov, has been in Seoul for the past two weeks to "negotiate about the problems of nuclear fuel".

South Korea has been trying to get reprocessing technology for years, but the United States has been reluctant to comply. Concerned about nuclear proliferation, the United States turned down South Korea's request in the late 1970s.

The reason for South Korea's interest in plutonium is unclear since South Korea's nuclear reactors use only enriched or natural uranium, according to Kim Youngsik, the science attache at the South Korean embassy.

Minatom has been approached by many countries, such as Germany and the U. K. but in particular, South Korea, according to a recent article in Literaturnaya Gazeta.

Only seven kilograms of plutonium are needed to build a nuclear device.