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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministry Proposes Spent Fuel Imports

WASHINGTON -- The Russian Nuclear Power Ministry has drafted an ambitious proposal to earn $21 billion over the next 10 years by importing 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Asian and European countries for storage and eventual reprocessing in Siberia, according to confidential ministry documents obtained by environmental activists.

The plan, which is aimed at cashing in on a worldwide shortage of secure storage sites for spent nuclear fuel, has alarmed environmental groups that argue that Russia risks being turned into a nuclear dumping ground for richer countries. U.S. officials oppose the idea because it would add to the already huge Russian stockpiles of plutonium, a key ingredient in building a nuclear bomb.

"This document appears to fly in the face of American efforts to halt (nuclear fuel) reprocessing in Russia, and the separation of plutonium," said Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.

"Any action that increases the stockpile of plutonium in Russia will only heighten proliferation concerns about that country."

While the Nuclear Power Ministry has made no secret of its desire to earn precious hard currency from the storage of other countries' nuclear waste, the draft documents provide new details about Russian recycling proposals, which are more extensive than previously understood in the West. The documents, which appear to have been drafted last fall and bear the signature of Deputy Minister Valentin Ivanov, were obtained by the environmental group Greenpeace from anti-nuclear campaigners in Russia.

A ministry spokesman, Vitaly Nasonov, confirmed the target figure of $21 billion for the storage and reprocessing plan, but described it as "a very rough estimate" of "maximum" possible revenues. The estimate is based on the predicted emergence of a huge market for spent nuclear fuel storage because of unsatisfied demand from countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany and Switzerland.

Implementation of the plan would require a change in Russian laws that prohibit the import of nuclear fuels from all but a handful of former Soviet bloc countries. Such a change is possible, as the country's political pendulum has been shifting against costly environmental protection programs.

A more serious obstacle, in the view of Western nuclear experts, is the fact that countries like Japan and Taiwan must get U.S. government approval before they can send their spent nuclear fuel to Russia because of its American origin. Other countries like Germany are unlikely to break ranks with Washington on a sensitive non-proliferation issue.

Disclosure of the detailed ministry proposals comes at a time when the United States is seeking to negotiate a moratorium on future plutonium production with Russia. Last month, U.S. officials suggested the moratorium was practically a done deal, but Russian officials have insisted that they are merely at a "preliminary'' discussion stage.

Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who flew to Moscow to continue discussions with ministry officials, said it was safe to say "the U.S. would not agree to any project that involved reprocessing" by Russia of American-origin nuclear fuels.