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Problems of Spent Nuclear Fuel Management and Storage Site Selection*

M. I. Solonin Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy

In this report I will cover the complex fate of the products of existing nuclear technologies, including spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes, as well as the degree to which they affect prospects for the development of the international atomic energy sector. I will also discuss the Russian experience and our long-range plans in this area.

As you know, there are currently a number of different assessments regarding the rates at which the world economy will develop in the twenty-first century. All these projections conclude that overall demand for energy will increase. These forecasts also promise growth in the absolute amounts of electricity to be produced at nuclear power plants. It is interesting to consider the objective capacities for increasing the nuclear production of electricity around the world.

Let us recall that the share of electricity produced by the nuclear power sector now totals 16 percent, and the majority of representatives of this industry express optimistic views regarding the long-term prospects for its development. It is noted that no substantial growth should be anticipated in the next 10–20 years. The most typical view is as follows: Hydrocarbon fuel will serve as the main source of energy in the coming decades because the entire current world infrastructure for energy production and consumption is based on this type of fuel. In addition, currently exploited deposits of hydrocarbon fuel are being exhausted, while bringing new resource deposits into exploitation requires ever increasing volumes of investments. As a result, it will become unavoidable to change the supply structure in the energy market, which in conjunction with

*  

Translated from the Russian by Kelly Robbins.



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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop Problems of Spent Nuclear Fuel Management and Storage Site Selection* M. I. Solonin Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy In this report I will cover the complex fate of the products of existing nuclear technologies, including spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes, as well as the degree to which they affect prospects for the development of the international atomic energy sector. I will also discuss the Russian experience and our long-range plans in this area. As you know, there are currently a number of different assessments regarding the rates at which the world economy will develop in the twenty-first century. All these projections conclude that overall demand for energy will increase. These forecasts also promise growth in the absolute amounts of electricity to be produced at nuclear power plants. It is interesting to consider the objective capacities for increasing the nuclear production of electricity around the world. Let us recall that the share of electricity produced by the nuclear power sector now totals 16 percent, and the majority of representatives of this industry express optimistic views regarding the long-term prospects for its development. It is noted that no substantial growth should be anticipated in the next 10–20 years. The most typical view is as follows: Hydrocarbon fuel will serve as the main source of energy in the coming decades because the entire current world infrastructure for energy production and consumption is based on this type of fuel. In addition, currently exploited deposits of hydrocarbon fuel are being exhausted, while bringing new resource deposits into exploitation requires ever increasing volumes of investments. As a result, it will become unavoidable to change the supply structure in the energy market, which in conjunction with *   Translated from the Russian by Kelly Robbins.

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop severe environmental restrictions will lead in turn to sharp price competition and corresponding instability. It is nuclear power, with its greater fuel resources using existing technologies, that may be able to stabilize the energy sector in the twenty-first century on an environmentally safe basis. The competitive advantages of this type of energy production are commonly known. Here I would like to focus on history, however: specifically those very joyous predictions that were made with regard to the rates of development of the nuclear energy sector in the 1960s. It should be acknowledged that the large-scale plans for building nuclear reactors that were made in the majority of the leading countries never materialized, and the hopes associated with these plans were not justified either. The basic reasons for this are well known. In the initial stage of development of the nuclear power industry, insufficient attention was paid to matters of comprehensive safety. The accidents at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl power plants had a severely negative impact on the views of the general population regarding the safety of nuclear technologies. The fact that in the mind of the average observer, the effects of radiation are intangible and therefore uncontrollable, led to widespread radiophobia among the masses. Here, naturally, there appeared certain individuals and even groups that for various reasons took an interest in ensuring that this fear of radiation became constant among people. We encountered this in Russia in this previous stage in the industry’s development partly because our nuclear power industry had to operate in a closed manner because of its close ties with military programs. Now, however, we are changing: We are building information centers, conducting scientific debates, and publicizing our activities in the media, and radiophobia is lessening among the population. Unprecedented measures have been taken regarding the safety of existing nuclear reactors as well as those under construction. Their high reliability has been proven by many years of operating experience, and the public recognizes this. What then is hindering the development of the nuclear power industry, its full renaissance? I will try to provide one answer to this question later in this paper. Russia has created its Strategy for the Development of Nuclear Power in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, the basic elements of which include the doubling of energy output and the formation of a closed nuclear fuel cycle. As a result, we must ensure fuller utilization of natural fissionable materials as well as those created during reactor operations, minimize the volume of radioactive wastes, and promote nuclear and radiation nonproliferation. This approach was presented in the initiative of the President of the Russian Federation at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000. This initiative called for broad international cooperation on nuclear energy to ensure stable development, nonproliferation of nuclear materials, and environmental, nuclear, and radiation safety. As you know, in the United States, efforts to improve reactors are being carried out under the Nuclear Energy 2010 Program, while work on innovative nuclear technologies is coordinated under the international program Generation

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop IV. In support of the initiative of President Vladimir Putin, work on innovative projects has recently been included in the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) project of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). International cooperation in this area is developing actively, for which we can only be glad. In working on current types of reactors we are eliminating old mistakes, but we must not make new ones when questions of the end stage of the nuclear fuel cycle are pushed into the background. Here is my answer to the question raised a bit earlier: It seems to me that the development of the nuclear energy sector is held back mainly by the lack of clear and generally understandable solutions regarding the safe management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes. What is spent nuclear fuel? It is well known that on the one hand, more than 90 percent of it is made up of materials suitable for further industrial use, and therefore it represents a valuable raw material source for obtaining recycled nuclear fuel components and important isotopes. On the other hand, it contains, albeit in small quantities, potentially dangerous radioactive substances having no suitable application, given the existing level of technology, that is, substances that are radioactive wastes. It is because of this product duality and the corresponding contradictory nature of approaches to it (raw material or waste) that there is no end to stormy debates among nuclear, environmental, and economics specialists on the correctness of the choice of this or that means of managing spent nuclear fuel. It should be emphasized that the problem of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is one faced by all countries that operate nuclear power facilities. Spent nuclear fuel is accumulating in many geographic regions, in decentralized fashion and according to varying standards, a fact that represents a potential threat to global security and hardly coincides with the objectives of nuclear nonproliferation. The fact is that plutonium suitable for the creation of a nuclear explosive device can be separated from spent nuclear fuel. The spent fuel itself can be used to create a radiological bomb—or what IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei calls a “dirty” bomb—which is formed by combining conventional explosives with a radiation source. This problem gives rise to a political aspect as well. As you know, there are three concepts in the world regarding how to manage spent fuel: (1) reprocessing of the material at radiochemical plants in order to reuse the uranium and plutonium in the fuel cycle; (2) direct burial of it; and (3) long-term storage with the decision on final disposition left for a later date. The various concepts involved in the management of spent nuclear fuel depend on the strategies adopted by each nation regarding development of the nuclear power industry, the role of this industry in the country’s future energy supply, and the capacities of its natural resource base. Russia signed the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management in 1997, but the final

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop formal procedures for its ratification have not yet been completed. I will review the basic approaches to the management of spent fuel and radioactive wastes included in the convention. As I see it, the joint convention signified progress in international cooperation regarding the management of spent fuel and radioactive wastes. One of the most important disputed questions was the inclusion in the convention of the very topic of spent nuclear fuel, inasmuch as the approach to assessing the essence of spent fuel (raw material or waste) fundamentally differs in countries oriented toward reprocessing the material and countries that plan for its direct isolation. As a result, only spent fuel not subject to reprocessing was included within the scope of the convention. As for the position of each country on the matter of spent fuel and radioactive waste management, the parties to the convention recognize, first, that setting policy regarding the nuclear fuel cycle remains the prerogative of each individual state and, second, that some states consider spent fuel a valuable resource that can be reprocessed, while others prefer to bury it. The convention also notes that radioactive wastes must be buried in the country in which they were produced, recognizing that in certain circumstances the safety of spent fuel and radioactive waste management could be enhanced by an agreement among the parties regarding the use of the facilities of one country in the interests of other countries. It is acknowledged that any state has the right to ban the importation of foreign spent fuel and radioactive wastes into its territory. The convention creates good opportunities for international cooperation, and nothing in the convention infringes upon or affects the rights of the signatories, for instance, the rights of a signatory to export spent fuel for reprocessing the rights of a signatory receiving imported spent fuel for reprocessing to return (or ensure the return) to the producing state of the radioactive wastes and other products created during reprocessing operations In analyzing international law on this topic, one may conclude that there is an internationally recognized right of each state to set its own policy on managing spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes and, while observing international norms for ensuring security, to create its own legal and regulatory base. The question of legislative regulation of the conditions for managing spent fuel and radioactive wastes has special characteristics in each country depending on the concept selected there for spent fuel management. For example, when direct burial of spent fuel is selected, spent fuel is deemed by the legislation of a number of countries to fall into the category of high-level radioactive waste. The dynamic nature of the legal base in foreign countries bears particular notice. Effective and timely changes in laws and regulatory documents, taking into ac-

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop count changes in the political, economic, and social spheres, are necessary in order to ensure that the laws correspond with current realities. Russia is not standing idle in this regard. As you may already know, we in Russia have passed new legislation that expands our capabilities with regard to international cooperation on spent fuel management and makes Russia’s position on this question more flexible. The legislation includes provisions that facilitate relevant shipments involved in the nuclear fuel cycle (fresh and spent nuclear fuel) enhance the regime for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons strengthen the future raw material base for the power industry through the use of regenerated uranium and plutonium help to attract financial resources for the resolution of Russian environmental problems that built up during the creation of nuclear weapons in the country facilitate the development of the national infrastructure for spent fuel management in accordance with current international requirements encourage the development of international cooperation on spent fuel management in the scientific-technical and industrial spheres Now is an appropriate time to discuss our practical experience in the management of spent nuclear fuel. In Russia at present spent nuclear fuel from water-moderated water-cooled power reactors and fast neutron reactors (VVER-440, BN-600, and BN-350), the majority of research reactors, and nuclear reactors from atomic-powered ships and submarines is reprocessed. This reprocessing is carried out at the RT-1 plant at the Mayak Production Association. The plant has been operating since 1976 as an experimental production facility. The spent fuel from VVER-1000 reactors is currently shipped to a centralized wet repository at the Mining-Chemical Complex in the city of Krasnoyarsk, and the spent fuel from high-power channel reactors (RBMK) is stored in facilities at each relevant power station. Adherence to the principle of demand for the output from the regeneration process means that a substantial increase in spent fuel reprocessing volumes makes sense only after the construction of a new generation of fast reactors begins on a full and regular basis. Therefore, it is necessary to store the spent fuel from thermal reactors for a long period. This material must be stored in dry conditions, which ensures that the process will be reliable and the spent fuel will be kept hermetically sealed, and it also reduces the costs of construction and operations. At the same time, dry storage also makes reprocessing easier, as during the period of storage the radioactivity level of the fuel is substantially reduced. Thus, storage becomes a process of technological restraint. Plans for a 33,000 metric-ton dry container-type repository at the Mining-

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop TABLE 1 Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel at Russian Nuclear Power Plants Type of Reactor Current System Planned System VVER-440 Temporary storage of spent fuel in holding pools (3–5 years) with subsequent shipment for reprocessing Temporary storage of spent fuel in holding pools (3–5 years) with subsequent shipment for reprocessing VVER-1000 Temporary storage of spent fuel in holding pools (3–5 years) with subsequent shipment to centralized repository Temporary storage of spent fuel in holding pools (3–5 years) with subsequent shipment to centralized repository or for reprocessing RBMK-1000 Permanent storage in holding pools; filling of pools to capacity in 2005–2007 Containerized storage (3600 spent fuel rods per year at each power plant) with subsequent shipment to centralized repository BN-600 Temporary storage of spent fuel in holding pools (3–5 years) with subsequent shipment for reprocessing Temporary storage of spent fuel in holding pools (3–5 years) with subsequent shipment for reprocessing EGP-6 and AMB Permanent storage in holding pools Containerized storage (Bilibino Atomic Power Plant: 8200 spent fuel rods; Beloyarsk Atomic Power Plant: 7200 spent fuel rods) Chemical Complex for spent fuel from VVER-1000 and RBMK reactors are now being developed and subjected to expert review. Tables 1 and 2 present information on the current capacities of existing industrial facilities to manage spent nuclear fuel, as well as plans for their modernization. The tasks are clear and precisely formulated, so I do not believe that any detailed commentary is required. Considering the volume of spent nuclear fuel that has accumulated in the world, it is my opinion that the situation demands the creation of international spent fuel storage facilities. The creation of such large-capacity facilities, especially in nuclear countries that have no need for weapons-grade plutonium but on the contrary are involved in reprocessing it, in my opinion increases the safety of spent fuel management and reduces the possibility of theft and unauthorized proliferation of nuclear materials. I will now say a few words about the practices and plans in the area of radioactive waste management. Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) has adopted the Convention on the Management of Radioactive Wastes (ratified by the Decree on Minatom of 2000). Also in 2000 a resolution by the government of the Russian Federation launched the Federal Targeted Program on the Nuclear and Radiation Security of Russia. One of the top-priority objectives of

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop TABLE 2 Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel at the Mayak Production Association, City of Ozersk, Chelyabinsk Oblast Type of Reactor Current System Planned System VVER-440 Reprocessing at current RT-1 plant Reprocessing at modernized RT-1 plant VVER-1000 Reprocessing has not yet begun After modernization of RT-1 plant, storage in centralized 1700 metric-ton repository and reprocessing BN-600 Reprocessing at current RT-1 plant Reprocessing at modernized RT-1 plant Research reactors and those powering naval vessels Reprocessing at current RT-1 plant Reprocessing at modernized RT-1 plant Construction of facilities for underground isolation of wastes from spent fuel reprocessing VVER-1000 Storage in centralized wet repository with capacity of 6000 metric tons Increase in capacity of wet repository to 9000 metric tons, storage in centralized “dry” facility with capacity of 9000 metric tons, and reprocessing at plant RBMK-1000 Facilities not yet ready Storage in centralized dry facility with capacity of 24,000 metric tons Construction of facilities for underground isolation of wastes from spent fuel reprocessing this program is the comprehensive resolution of problems regarding the management of radioactive wastes. Subprograms involved in this targeted effort include the management, recycling, and burial of radioactive wastes and the organization of a system for state accounting and control of these wastes. Anticipated results of the targeted program include the development and use of modern technologies for ensuring safe operations with radioactive wastes, the recycling and reliable isolation of wastes, and the creation of radioactive waste burial sites and repositories. Planned activities include the following: improvement of technologies for managing radioactive wastes at enterprises involved in the nuclear fuel cycle improvement of technologies for managing radioactive wastes at nuclear power plants improvement of technologies for managing radioactive wastes accumulated during the production of nuclear materials for weapons purposes management of radioactive wastes in scientific organizations

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop management of radioactive wastes at specialized radon complexes creation of burial sites and repositories for radioactive wastes development of a methodology for selecting appropriate geological environments for waste repositories development of principles for selecting and creating new types of protective barriers to ensure the security of radioactive waste storage facilities Russia has accumulated radioactive wastes with a total activity of about 2000 MCi, with more than 95 percent of them being concentrated at Minatom organizations and enterprises. The main problems involved in radioactive waste operations at enterprises involved in the initial stages of the nuclear fuel cycle are as follows: removal from service and mothballing of quarries, mines, and mine-tailing storage pits reprocessing of wastes from the production of enriched uranium reprocessing of solid radioactive wastes at enterprises manufacturing nuclear fuel The main problems involved in radioactive waste operations at nuclear power plants are as follows: creation of installations for the concentration and conditioning of various types of radioactive wastes creation of liquid and solid waste storage facilities at the plants transportation of radioactive wastes to a centralized repository Separate mention should be made of the problems of two previously discussed enterprises engaged in spent fuel management: the Mayak Production Association and the Mining-Chemical Complex. With these enterprises, the problems of managing radioactive wastes accumulated during the production of weapons-grade nuclear materials have come to the forefront, including mothballing and elimination of pulp storage tanks, specialized reservoirs, and test sites for the underground storage of liquid radioactive wastes cleanup of radiation-contaminated land sites and bodies of water decontamination of structures, buildings, and equipment The saddest thing here is that these problems, which arose from the military sphere, are viewed by the public as being purely problems of the nuclear power industry and not as a national inheritance created by the well-known conflict that occurred in an ideologically bipolar world. As a result, Minatom truly has already become an environmental agency with its own environmental doctrine.

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop The arms race, nuclear weapons testing, major radiation accidents, and the wastes and emissions of enterprises during the early years of the nuclear industry led to the appearance in the biosphere of engineered radionuclides, the radioactive contamination of certain areas, and the presence to this day of a large number of facilities, mainly from the defense sector, that are hazardous from a nuclear or radiation standpoint and must be decommissioned or returned to environmentally safe status. Overcoming the negative consequences of past activities is one of the most important tasks assigned to and being addressed by Minatom. A Minatom decree in 2003 set forth the Foundations for the Environmental Policy of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. The main goal of Minatom’s environmental policy is the creation of conditions in which nuclear industry enterprises can operate most effectively to achieve the strategic goal of the environmental policy of the Russian Federation; this policy seeks the preservation of natural systems and maintenance of their integrity and life-sustaining functions to ensure the stable development of society; improve the quality of life, public health, and the demographic situation; and promote the environmental security of the country. These conditions must promote the environmental security of existing production facilities as well as those under construction or being planned and those removed from operation the resolution of previously accumulated environmental problems the development and implementation of new economically efficient and environmentally safe technologies in the nuclear power industry and other sectors where nuclear energy is used To provide an example of how the previously listed conditions are being put into practice, I will discuss the existing and potential future technologies for spent fuel reprocessing at Mayak’s RT-1 plant. Besides transforming high-level wastes into aluminum-phosphate glass, the plant also carries out the fractionation of nuclides (cesium, strontium, transplutonium elements, and rare earth elements) by activity level and other nuclear properties as shown in Table 3. The introduction of the most dangerous radionuclides into mineral-like matrices is viewed as a promising technology. While for common radionuclides one can find existing analogs for chemically stable minerals, for plutonium and minor actinides this requires a great deal of research, as such materials do not occur naturally. Plans for modernizing the RT-1 plant calls for improving radiochemical technologies, sharply cutting radioactive waste volumes, and immobilizing medium- and low-level wastes.

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An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility: Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype - Proceedings of an International Workshop TABLE 3 Fractionation of Radionuclides at the Mayak Production Association Year of Operation Volume of High-Level Wastes Processed (m3) Specific Activity of High-Level Wastes (Ci/dm3) Cs-Sr Concentrate Extracted × 106 Ci Transplutonium and Rare Earth Elements Extracted α-activity × 103 Ci β-activity × 103 Ci 1996 210 32.4 7.5 — — 1998 95 20.0 4.8 — — 1999 62 20.3 1.5 1.9 37.3 2000 276 27.3 6.8 125.8 313.8 2001 586 27.0 16.112 290.2 970 Total 1229 — 36.712 417.9 1320.8 CONCLUSION In implementing even the temporary storage of wastes, we representatives of today’s nuclear power industry can by no means sit by peacefully with our hands folded. We must discuss this problem more widely, collaborate more closely, and seek alternative new technologies—and having reached a decision, we must act. Let us act together! I would like to note the need to expand scientific-technical and commercial cooperation among nuclear countries with regard to the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes. In this regard, the creation of major international complexes for storing and reprocessing spent fuel and possibly manufacturing new fuel and recycling radioactive wastes should be based on existing enterprises that have the necessary technologies and, most importantly, the experience—for example, such enterprises as the radiochemical plants in France and Great Britain and the industrial enterprises of Minatom.