Carnegie Moscow Center
20 May 1999
I want to thank the Carnegie Moscow Center for this opportunity to share my views on U.S-Russian nuclear cooperation.
I would like to look at the issue broadly and, together with the idea of international storage for spent nuclear fuel, discuss the issues of non-proliferation and ecology. All these issues are interlinked, since it obviously makes sense not to have spent fuel and plutonium all over the Earth, but to have it consolidated and protected from unauthorized use.
My first thesis is that the issues of spent nuclear fuel, plutonium, and non-proliferation are elements of a single nuclear power engineering strategy. If we have such a unified strategy, we have answers to the questions of what to do with fuel, what to do with plutonium, and how best to address the issue of non-proliferation. I will attempt to illustrate how the two possible approaches to nuclear power engineering, of which one can chose, lead to different end-results in these three areas.
Considering all the different approaches, one can break these issues down into two strategies. The first strategy - a strategy of stagnating nuclear power engineering -- is what we have in the countries that pioneered this field, including the United States, United Kingdom and some European countries. The second strategy is one of developing modern nuclear power engineering into large-scale energy-technology. The first strategy, referred to here as conservation of nuclear power engineering at the modern level, leads to its eventual elimination, but still leaves us with spent nuclear fuel and other unresolved issues. The second strategy, of which I am a strong proponent, is backed by studies carried out in academic institutions in Russia and across the World.
Before we turn to the matter of todays discussion from the perspective of each of the two strategies, let us remind ourselves that as a result of operation of the Worlds nuclear power plants we have accumulated 150,000-200,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. Every year adds some 10,000 metric tons.
What is Russia doing currently about this problem? We are reprocessing fuel from the first Soviet VVER (LWR) reactors and fuel from the first reactors exported by the Soviet Union. We are reprocessing fuel from BN-600 and BN-300 (fast neutron reactors), although, reprocessing of the BN-300 fuel has been terminated because we have not decided yet what to do with the Kazakh fuel. Different approaches are under consideration in this regard. BN-600 fuel from the Beloyarsk power plant also is subject to reprocessing. We are also dealing with fuel from the nuclear powered submarines, and finally, fuel from many research reactors located at research institutions. This is the scale of the reprocessing problem in Russia.
What problems will we face if we chose the conservation, or stagnation, strategy? The problem of storage exists in both strategies, as do issues of transportation of spent fuel which includes costs associated with procurement of fuel containers, special protected rail-cars, etc.
There are numerous proposals on international storage for spent nuclear fuel. A group of Americans proposed that that all fuel be transported to an island - a crazy idea, in my view. Another idea is to build international storage facility on the national territory of a country and introduce international control. The non-proliferation problem might be addressed successfully if an international storage site were extracted from national jurisdiction of the host country and placed under international control.
Another important issue is plutonium. I received the first draft of Russian-American agreement on plutonium soon after I was appointed on 4 March 1998. But I did not sign the draft and later we introduced a number of changes. We believe that we have to work together with the U.S. side to find better use for plutonium. In the 1960s Russia planned to use plutonium, because we believed then that we did not have enough uranium. Yefim Slavskii, who headed the Ministry of Atomic Energy for more than 30 years, used to say that he did "not have uranium to waste in power plants." He thought, for some years, that power plants were academic toys. Kurchatov was allowed to work on the Voronezh power plant, but if you go back to history, you will notice that construction of Voronezh power plant was frozen for years after Kurchatov. Later it became known that there is much more uranium than was previously assumed and much more than the defense programs and undeveloped nuclear power engineering required.
The total number of nuclear power plants currently operating in the world is roughly one fourth the number that had been estimated would be running in the 70s and 80s. Both proponents, such as IAEA, and opponents of nuclear power engineering had the same prognosis. Because of slow development of nuclear power engineering, the dream of cheap uranium became real.
What happens once you decide to pursue a large-scale nuclear power engineering strategy? What happens technologically? At present, the portion of nuclear energy in the worlds total energy balance is 5%. I well understand those representatives of green movements who say that if there are no reasonable arguments in favor of nuclear energy, we are better off killing it now. But as soon as we realize that we will nuclear energy to supply 30% of the worlds total energy balance (let us not be extremists, extremists say we need 50%) -- because only at this level of development of nuclear power engineering we can successfully address ecological, economic, and energy problems -- then the illusion of the existence of endless amount of fuel disappears. Under the stagnation approach, current fuel reserves will last for 40, at most 50, years if we do not increase the scale of nuclear power engineering. They will not last for 100 years for sure. So we will need additional fuel; we will need the uranium contained in the irradiated fuel. Fuel is extracted now from reactors not because it is fully "burnt", but because we have fission products under the blanket and these products may have destructive effects. So in spent fuel we have uranium and we have plutonium. Energy-wise, extracted spent fuel has a utility "equal" to (sometimes is less, sometimes - more, than) what we put into reactor. This is the first reason why spent nuclear fuel must not be regarded as nuclear waste. It is a most valuable source of energy, leaving aside the number of useful isotopes contained in spent fuel, which find application in various fields. The actinides, or long-life-time fission products must be removed during reprocessing, but recovered uranium and plutonium can and must be used in nuclear power engineering as secondary energy source.
There are ideas in the United States, for example, to use accelerators for transmutation of waste, thereby increasing the safety of spent fuel. But if we turn to the closed fuel cycle (large-scale nuclear power engineering strategy becomes possible only within the closed fuel cycle), the process of transmutation runs parallel (and without additional costs) to the process of energy production. And importantly, the so-called "approach of equivalent radioactivity" can be implemented.
What is the concept of equivalent radioactivity? A study, launched by a group of scientists headed by Professor Ganev approximately seven years ago concluded that the strategy of large-scale nuclear power engineering allows for preserving the natural radioactivity of the Earth. That is the radioactivity of the waste accumulated as a result of large-scale nuclear power engineering will not increase the natural radioactivity of the Earth as a whole.
Considering that today we use natural uranium ineffectively (ineffectively in a sense that we operate our reactors on thermal neutrons), we will achieve equivalent radioactivity in about 240-250 years. Once we have achieved this level of radioactivity, we can put the accumulated waste back into the earth in place of the extracted uranium and thorium, and end with a level of radioactivity roughly equal to that the Creator gave us to start with. Once we start using uranium more effectively, as with the case of the closed fuel cycle, this period will increase to around 400 years. We are threatened with the risk of having to deal with the radioactivity of wastes for millions of years, causing us to isolate waste from the environment and provide reliable storage.
If we adopt the strategy I propose, it makes sense to delay reprocessing the bulk of spent fuel until we have first launched the serial production of a new generation fast neutron reactors and second, that the radioactivity in spent fuel drops to lower levels. Its a fact that the radioactivity of spent fuel drops sharply during the first 30 years, after which it does not change significantly enough to make further storage for many more decades reasonable. It is also important to note that during this early period, the highly radioactive fuel is less prone to theft.
We have already said that the transport of nuclear material is a costly operation which also increases chances of accident, terrorist attack, etc. Therefore, if we decide to store spent fuel at international storage site for the period preceeding its reprocessing and subsequent use, it would be expedient to think about creating such storage site near reprocessing sites. This would remove the need for multiple long transport legs.
Now let us turn again to the idea of creating international storage on a remote island. How do we define countries with developed nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure? These are the countries which worked on development of nuclear weapons. There will never be a Mayak in Switzerland, or Finland, but there could be one in the United States, although today the Carter policy does not allow reprocessing. But there are sound politicians in the United States, as well as technical experts from Argonne National Laboratory, for example, who believe that this law has not prevented the proliferation of nuclear weapons as it was intended to do and that it has also become a burden for the United States. One need not be a prophet to predict that the law will become void. Today Americans do not care about it - they have enough resources; they do not even use their own oil; they use Mid East oil. That is why Middle East is an area of Americas interests.
There are some who say that technological enterprises in Russia are undeveloped, right or wrong? They are absolutely right. First, there is no limit for such development. Second, the last ten years were not the best years for our economy; and let us be honest - the 1980s were not most active years as far as development of our enterprises. Stagnation did not avoid our industry.
But let us look at the market for spent fuel reprocessing. 150,000 metric tons of spent fuel means there is a $150 billion market. Cost of the RT-2 reprocessing plant in Krasnoyarsk, which was not completed (of course today we have to look for more up-to-date technologies, and we will not continue with the same project), was estimated at $1.8 billion. Please do not think that I want all that market. First, the British and French are already there and the Japanese are developing technologies. I am confident that the Chinese and Americans will start moving in this direction as well. But even a portion of this large market gives us the chance not only to develop sophisticated technologies, but also to solve a number of ecological problems.
And, finally, there is plutonium. In the case of stagnating nuclear power engineering we have to deal with the costly problem of plutonium storage and we have to deal with MOX fuel. We have an political agreement with the United States, signed last September by our presidents, to dispose 50 metric tons of weapons plutonium. We are faced with the need for international financial and technological assistance, because our economy simply does not allow us to pursue this path on our own. Of course, the costs of simply storing plutonium as compared with burning it are incomparable. Experts argue whether MOX is two, three, or even four, as some believe, times as expensive as simple storage. In any case, this is a political agreement and the difference should not be covered by Russia only.
Again, this is in the case of the stagnating nuclear power engineering model. The picture changes dramatically in case of the "developing nuclear power engineering" model. We can burn plutonium in the fast neutron reactors, for example, in BN-600s. Kazakhstan proposes to resume work on the BN-350 at Aktau. But genuine large-scale nuclear power engineering will become possible only after the start of the necessary number of fast neutron reactors. One such reactor requires an initial load of about 5 tons of plutonium, and once you have loaded it, it runs in a self-sustaining regime, as far as fuel sources are concerned. This is what a fast reactor is about.
What about the non-proliferation issues? If we continue with a "stagnating nuclear power engineering" model, we will have to keep strengthening the NPT regime. As you know despite all the positive aspects of the NPT, it has not prevented the emergence of new nuclear-weapon states. The longer we keep spent fuel in storage, the lower the natural radiation barrier I mentioned earlier. Radioactivity drops and hence theft and unauthorized reprocessing, in underground laboratories for example, becomes possible.
What can the developing nuclear power engineering strategy do for non-proliferation? We believe that this strategy creates opportunities for shifting from a non-proliferation regime based on the good will of every member-state and verification measures, to what we call a technologically-strengthened non-proliferation regime. This is something tangible - technology preventing weapons proliferation. What makes us think so?
First, it is one thing to steal material from a warehouse and another to remove it from an operating reactor. There are no examples in history when a fuel rod was stolen from an operating reactor, and I do not think this is possible.
Second, plutonium, which you have in permanent storage, is being transferred into the closed fuel cycle employing fast neutron reactors. In this case there is no need to reprocess plutonium. Let us not forget that the nuclear cycles of Russian Federation, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France were aimed at production of weapons-grade plutonium. Fast neutron reactors can use fuel contaminated with isotopes, that is fuel which cannot be used for weapons purposes. Here is the key non-proliferation element. First generation fast neutron reactors had U-238 blankets, and they produced weapons-grade plutonium. The goal was to accumulate plutonium quickly as we thought there was not enough fuel for nuclear power engineering. Today we have assumed different views and we need not use uranium blankets.
The same strategy can be implemented using the thorium fuel cycle, which might be employed when cheap uranium stocks have been used up, that is in 50-60 years.
So what do we get if we prefer large-scale development of nuclear power engineering and drop the idea of its conservation? We will have strengthened the non-proliferation regime and we will have ecologically acceptable means for spent fuel disposal, because to end up after 200, or even 400, years with the same radioactivity we started with, is much better than to live with the accumulated radioactivity which is inevitable in case of open fuel cycle. I do not think that I need to remind the audience of the Kyoto Protocol. It is unlikely that the requirements set forth in the Kyoto Protocol can be implemented without employing the advantages of nuclear power engineering, especially after we have developed nuclear reactor technologies which absolutely exclude Chernobyl-, or Tree Mile-, or Windscale-type accidents.
The probability of a serious accident at the existing nuclear power plants in Russia and in the world is hundreds, in certain cases thousands, of times lower than it was around 12 years ago. This was achieved thanks to strengthening of safety measures. In 1979, for example, this probability was around 10-2, now it is around 10-4-10-5 .
Finally, we believe that IAEA which today focuses primarily on non-proliferation should get back to its primary mission - international cooperation in support of the technologies we are discussing. Because even for an economically strong country, the costs are high. These technologies should be made available for the countries, in the first place, which face a need for rapid development of their energy sectors. Countries which belong to the so-called third world but which are rapidly developing right now. We are working on this issue. We have made proposals at the IAEA General Conference last year. Those proposals were later backed by materials, which are being now reviewed by a number of countries; and we hope that our proposals will provide solutions for the plutonium, non-proliferation, spent fuel, and other problems which were subject of our discussion today.
Thank you for your attention.