This study, requested by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), provides a scientific and technical analysis of the management of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste (HLW) in Russia and the United States and describes inventories, compares the approaches taken in the two countries, and assesses the end-point options for interim and long-term storage of materials and wastes and for permanent disposal of wastes. An end point for spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste is a stable, safe, and secure disposition of the material that can be sustained.
The activities of managing SNF and HLW in the two countries are now similar in many respects. In the United States, the majority of SNF is in storage and is likely to remain so for at least two decades. In Russia, while most of the commercial SNF at present also is being stored, a limited portion undergoes chemical processing. At the same time, both countries chemically process liquid HLW in order to immobilize it for safer storage and disposal.
The United States and Russia, however, have different approaches to and long-term strategies for realizing end points for SNF and HLW. The United States currently plans to transport SNF to a geologic repository for disposal without chemical processing. Russia plans to develop the capacity to chemically process all of its SNF (with the possible exception of SNF from RBMK reactors) to recover and reuse uranium and plutonium in reactors, while immobilizing the HLW from the processing, and disposing of the immobilized waste in geologic repositories at the processing sites. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
Selection of end points and approaches to end points can be informed by science and engineering, but the selection involves policy decisions that incorporate economics, political considerations, and, in some cases, international relations. Decisions
must address both interim short-term endpoints and final long-term end points. In doing so, safety, environmental impact, and proliferation concerns must be included.
ASSESSMENT OF END POINTS
Technologies exist for safe, secure, and sustainable storage of most SNF. These technologies are likely to be effective for several decades of storage and can be deployed in a range of locations and circumstances. Storage of liquid HLW over long periods of time is less reliable, and immobilization of liquid HLW into a form that can be safely, securely, and sustainably stored is preferable.
Geologic disposition has been considered the most promising option for disposal of high-level radioactive waste since at least 1957, when a report of the National Research Council concluded that “wastes may be disposed of safely at many sites,” suggested that “disposal in cavities mined in salt beds and salt domes” promises “the most practical immediate solution of the problem,” and noted that solidifying the waste into an insoluble form would simplify disposal (NRC 1957). A recent report by an international committee of the National Research Council concludes that geologic disposition is the only long-term end point that does not require continued management and resource expenditure (NRC 2001a). Worldwide, no engineered geologic repository for HLW has been designed and operated as yet, although the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the United States is an operating geologic repository for long-lived transuranic waste.
These interim and final end points are necessary parts of any nuclear fuel cycle. At the same time that these end points are being implemented, improved, and developed, other actions are needed to support their effective deployment as part of Russia and the United States’ preferred fuel cycles.
OVERALL ASSESSMENT OF PROBLEMS AND PROGRESS
Russia and the United States face many similar problems in managing SNF and HLW, but Russia is in a different stage of addressing its problems than is the United States. In both countries progress is being made in managing the radioactive waste problems, but the progress is slow and the hazard of radiation
events grows both in Russia (e.g., continuing accumulation of liquid HLW at SNF reprocessing plants, degraded SNF in disabled service ships and existing ground storage facilities) and in the United States (e.g., leaking and aging underground HLW tanks).
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) already has addressed its most pressing HLW problems that pose immediate risks to workers and the public, although some problems still require attention because the measures taken have been temporary solutions. The Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russia Federation (Minatom) has made efforts to address the most serious environmental and waste-management problems within its nuclear complex, and has made progress on some of them. But the resources available for these activities in Russia have been much smaller, and some of the problems, particularly the environmental contamination, are more difficult and urgent than their counterparts in the United States. As a result, the timeframe for dealing with the problems requiring near-term actions in Russia is more immediate than in the United States.
Over the next few decades, both countries also must address the development of interim and final end points, including any necessary research and development.
ASSESSMENT OF NEAR-TERM ACTIONS NEEDED IN RUSSIA
In Russia, progress is being made as HLW at the Production Association “Mayak” (PA “Mayak”) is immobilized in aluminophosphate glass logs and stored onsite; storage facilities are planned for SNF at several sites; and the rate of defueling of decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines has increased. It is the committee’s judgment that the following recommendations require action in timeframes of months or years.
Protect HEU and Plutonium and Immobilize HLW
Because of the potentially horrible consequences of theft of nuclear materials containing highly enriched uranium (HEU) and Plutonium, efforts to prevent such thefts should be strengthened. This can be accomplished by improving materials protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) at sites where HEU (including HEU SNF) and plutonium are stored and by consolidation of these materials in well-protected, centralized storage facilities. Accelerating
completion of the specialized plutonium storage facility at PA “Mayak” would facilitate these efforts.
Because liquid HLW and SNF present both potential targets for terrorist attacks and potential material for manufacturing radiological weapons (“dirty bombs”), all SNF should be provided immediately with proper physical protection. Likewise, there should be constant monitoring of storage sites for intense radiation sources, and programs to immobilize liquid HLW should be accelerated.
Stabilize Unretrievable Fuel Stored in Floating Technical Bases and Unload Retrievable Fuel from Decommissioned Nuclear Submarines
The state of the Russian nuclear fleet’s floating technical bases with stored SNF is generally poor, meaning that the ships are disabled and, therefore, it is sometimes acutely dangerous to continue to store SNF in them. The condition of the fuel in these ships should be stabilized, and plans should be made to remove it. Dozens of decommissioned nuclear submarines are moored in bays and await defueling. As soon as possible, their fuel should be unloaded and shipped to secure storage sites at PA “Mayak,” or properly stored in specialized facilities on shore, which would need to be constructed.
Discontinue Dumping of Liquid Radioactive Wastes at PA “Mayak”
Liquid radioactive wastes continue to be dumped into Lake Karachai and the Techa Ponds Cascade at the PA “Mayak.” This leads to serious risks of further environmental pollution, including underground and surface-water contamination. Moreover, there is a threat of dam failure, which could result in contamination of the Techa water basin with water bearing radioactive waste. In order to reduce on-going contamination and to prevent accidents, the practice of dumping liquid radioactive wastes into Lake Karachai should be discontinued in the future and appropriate actions should be taken to decrease the water level in the Techa Ponds Cascade.
ASSESSMENT OF LONGER-TERM ACTIONS NEEDED IN RUSSIA
In addition to the near-term actions listed above, the committee concluded that the following longer-term actions are needed in Russia.
Study Isolation of Waste Injected into Deep Horizons
Deep-well injection disposal is used for large amounts of low- and intermediate-level waste generated by the radiochemical facilities at Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk, and Dmitrovgrad. According to previous investigations, injection of such wastes into deep, hydraulically isolated aquifers is likely to be safe. Many in the United States and Europe, however, remain skeptical about the practice of deep injection and believe that it should not continue. Given such disagreements, international teams should continue to study the issue. Meanwhile, as it exhausts the capacity of the existing wells, Russia should continue and enhance environmental monitoring to support more comprehensive study of the problem.
Improve Operations and Pursue End Points for SNF in Northwest Russia
With its nuclear submarines, the northwestern region of Russia has the highest concentration of nuclear powered facilities in the world. A large quantity of SNF has accumulated in the region, both from nuclear powered submarines (NPSs) and from the Kola and Leningrad nuclear power stations. Defueled reactor compartments from decommissioned nuclear-powered ships also have been stored in the region for long periods, floating moored in bays along the Kola Peninsula. At the same time, storage facilities built mostly in the 1960s to store SNF and radioactive waste are in an unsatisfactory state. So, in addition to the urgent need to deal with problems with the poor condition existing floating technical bases, work is needed to improve and introduce safe techniques and facilities for SNF unloading from floating NPS; develop safe techniques for management and final disposal of reactor compartments from decommissioned nuclear-powered ships; and build a regional facility for radioactive waste storage and a centralized storage facility for long-term storage of unreprocessible SNF.
Develop Long-Term SNF Storage Capacity in Russia
The available capacity for reprocessing of SNF in Russia is insufficient to match the rate at which the SNF is generated, so the inventory of SNF is growing. This implies that long-term storage will be needed. Russia should increase its capacity for long-term storage of SNF. In particular, interim dry storage for RBMK SNF at the reactor sites and centralized dry storage for VVER-1000 and RBMK SNF at the Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) should be developed and deployed to prevent overcrowding of SNF pools.
Further Develop MOX-Fuel Fabrication Technology
Russia plans to use MOX fuel in its thermal and fast reactors. Russia’s VVER-1000 reactors are likely to be the first of Russia’s thermal reactors to be loaded with MOX fuel. For this to be realized, further development of MOX-fuel-production technology, including fabrication of press powder with highly homogeneous plutonium distribution, is needed. At the same time, MOX fuel based on both weapon-grade and regenerated from VVER-440 SNF plutonium types has been already tested successfully in fast breeder reactors (BN-600 and BOR-60).
Design Chemical Processes for VVER-1000 SNF
Russia planned to reprocess VVER-1000 SNF at the future RT-2 plant at the Krasnoyarsk (MCC). Construction of the facility was started in the late 1980s but was never completed, although a storage pool with a capacity of 6,000 MTHM was constructed and put into operation. RT-2 was never officially canceled, and Russia still has plans to reprocess VVER-1000 SNF. If this is to be realized using new technologies, a special line for reprocessing of this SNF must be designed for RT-2 or, if the plan to complete construction of RT-2 as designed is canceled, then a reprocessing line for VVER-1000 SNF can be constructed at the operating RT-1 plant at PA “Mayak.”
ASSESSMENT OF NEAR-TERM ACTIONS NEEDED IN THE UNITED STATES
In the United States, DOE and other managers of SNF and HLW have made progress in achieving interim end points: nearly all SNF in the United States is in safe storage in cooling pools or in dry casks (the notable exception is corroding SNF at Hanford); HLW at West Valley has been vitrified and HLW at the Savannah River Site is in the process of being vitrified and stored; and calcined HLW at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory sits in stainless steel bins that are deemed to be safe for centuries. It is the committee’s judgment that there are, however, several problems that require prompt attention (over the next several years), as noted below.
Prevent Use of Nuclear Materials for Terrorist Acts
While Russia has been aware of terrorist threats, the events of September 11, 2001, forced the United States focus on preventing terrorist acts. This has led to many reviews of vulnerabilities at nuclear power stations and at all facilities where radioactive materials are stored and used. These reviews have not been completed but should be completed as quickly as feasible, and near-term actions should be taken to address the identified vulnerabilities.
Research and Develop Options for Managing HLW in Single-Shell Tanks at Hanford
Some forms of HLW in underground tanks are difficult to retrieve and, particularly in the case of single-shell tanks at Hanford, may pose substantial risks of further environmental contamination. It is not clear that existing technical solutions are adequate or acceptable for addressing this problem. Research into this problem should continue.
Accelerate Efforts to Stabilize and Package Corroding N-Reactor Fuel at Hanford
Some SNF from the N-Reactor at Hanford is in very poor condition and is stored in a cooling pool (one of the “K-basins”)
which is leaking. Progress is being made, but efforts to stabilize, dry, and package this fuel should be expedited, and a disposition path should be found for the corrosion products and sludge from this fuel.
Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium
Disposition of excess weapons plutonium is connected to this study because the options for disposition include processing that would lead to managing the material as SNF or HLW. Russia and the United States have been working on finding disposition paths that are technically sound and that satisfy demands driven by domestic policy and international relations. From the outset, Russia has expressed its desire to fabricate plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel with the excess material, and to irradiate that fuel in existing VVER-1000 reactors and its BN-600 reactor, although Russia would prefer to use the fuel in a future BN-800. The United States has been less consistent in its planning.
Current U.S. Department of Energy plans are to complete designs for the MOX fuel-fabrication facility in 2003, to complete construction in 2004, to complete the licensing in 2005, and to begin hot startup of the facility in 2007. The first MOX fuel would be loaded into a reactor in August 2008 and full-scale operations would run from 2009 through 2019. The U.S. Congress has indicated that progress through this schedule is contingent upon progress on similar efforts in the Russian Federation, because the programs are coupled by negotiated agreement. At the same time, from a technical perspective, this is an ambitious schedule, particularly since there is not yet a decision on how to manufacture the lead test assemblies so that they can be tested (and licensed) for use in a commercial reactor, and because one of the two utilities that had originally signed up for the MOX program has pulled out. While this will not be the first MOX fuel in U.S. light-water reactors, the United States does not have any recent operational experience with MOX fuel in power reactors. Further, the composition of the Pu is different. DOE should settle on a final plan for manufacturing the lead test assemblies, and establish a schedule that will lead to putting weapons plutonium, in MOX-fuel form, in a U.S. commercial nuclear power reactor no later than 2010.
ASSESSMENT OF LONGER-TERM ACTIONS NEEDED IN THE UNITED STATES
In addition to the near-term actions listed above, the committee concluded that the following longer-term action also deserves attention in the United States.
Develop a Disposition Path for “Dirty” Plutonium
At least 2 tons of excess weapons plutonium that DOE formerly planned to immobilize have been declared to be of low enough quality (“dirty”) that they cannot follow the new planned disposition path (described above) for surplus weapons-grade plutonium and no alternative disposition path has been identified. The actual quantity of this material should be clarified and a disposition path (a method for disposal) should be identified.
ASSESSMENT OF LONGER-TERM ACTIONS NEEDED IN BOTH COUNTRIES
Finally, pursuing some end points for SNF and HLW requires research, development, and implementation beyond the near term. Work is needed on aspects of every stage of the nuclear fuel cycles that Russia and the United States have as their goals: fuel fabrication, irradiation in reactors, storage in at-reactor facilities, short-term and long-term storage away from reactors, transportation, reprocessing of SNF, processing of HLW, immobilization, and disposal. Both nations also need personnel to carry out this work. The committee concluded that the following areas require attention by both the Russia and the United States.
Maintain the Expertise and Personnel Base
A critical problem for both the Russian Federation and the United States is how to assure the availability of both the current and future supply of expert scientists, engineers, and technicians needed to work on the problems related to management of SNF and HLW. Research and development concerning processing and disposal of HLW and SNF are needed to design and then implement the new strategies that will be required if we are to improve our management and disposal of these materials. Significant ad-
vances are also needed in areas related to cleanup activities in both nations.
Develop an Integrated Strategy for Management of SNF and HLW
Both the United States and Russia have numerous programs to deal with SNF and radioactive waste. Development of an integrated strategy to incorporate, as noted above, all fuel cycle elements up to the final stages should be a high priority in both countries. Without such a strategy, resources can be wasted and both safety and proliferation hazards could be left unaddressed. A strategy should include identification, stabilization, development of necessary facilities, transportation, and implementation of both interim and final end points.
Improve Chemical Processing of HLW
Progress has been made in processing HLW from defense programs for immobilization in both countries, but problems remain. These wastes have highly varied physical properties and chemical composition, so several technologies may be needed to treat all of the wastes. Development of efficient technologies for processing of different types of liquid HLW is needed. This includes the need to continue development of sludge-removal techniques for underground tanks.
Improve Waste Forms for HLW
Work is needed to develop processes for solidification and incorporation of HLW, other than that planned as feed for the Defense Waste Processing Facility, into durable glass-like and crystalline waste forms. This research would seek, select, and develop fabrication technologies for highly durable glass-like, glass-crystalline, and crystalline matrices for immobilization of different types of HLW, radioisotopes with similar characteristics, and individual radionuclides. Also needed are studies of the properties of composite materials obtained with different technologies (e.g., cold pressing and sintering, cold crucible melting, self-propagating high-temperature synthesis) to select appropriate technologies and optimize the industrial-scale fabrication process.
Improve Chemical Processing for SNF
The PUREX process, which has been used for nearly all processing of SNF in both the defense and commercial nuclear programs, generates large amounts of waste that must be further processed before being immobilized for disposal. Alternatives and improvements to the PUREX process should be carefully considered. New processes based on work done to date should be researched and considered. It may be that different fuels with different isotopic compositions should be treated separately or with different processes, particularly if the objectives are different.
General Approach to Management and Disposition
Finally, the committee draws from previous studies by the National Academies in recommending a risk-based approach to management and disposition of HLW and SNF and cleanup of contaminated sites. By a “risk-based approach,” the committee means that DOE and Minatom should prioritize their efforts based first on objectively evaluated risk, which includes the specifics of the technologies, conditions, and location of their implementation. Risk analysis and characterization, and indeed the overall decision-making process, are societal processes that need participation of the public to function properly.
Once measures are taken to mitigate immediate risks, a more thorough understanding is needed for the next step, which is to assign priorities among the less immediate problems. Where effective solutions are not at hand, risks must be managed while a program of research and development (R&D) for effective solutions is pursued.
AREAS FOR COLLABORATION
Russia and the United States can collaborate on several important topics of mutual concern:
assuring the availability of both the current and future supply of expert scientists, engineers, and technicians needed to work on SNF and HLW management;
protecting materials useful in nuclear and radiological weapons;
consolidating nuclear materials in a few reliably protected sites;
counter-terrorism studies and methods;
developing and refining technologies for safe and efficient defueling, dismantling, and disposing of decommissioned nuclear powered submarines;
handling the legacy wastes from nuclear-weapons production;
transporting spent nuclear fuel;
developing standard, highly durable waste forms for immobilization of different types of HLW;
developing methods and techniques for extraction of HLW that has been stored in tanks for decades;
developing unified approaches to selection of geological media and sites for the HLW and SNF long-term storage and disposal; and
research and development on methods of processing SNF that produce much less radioactive waste than the PUREX process.
In light of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the last few years, it is worth reiterating one of the above areas for collaboration, for emphasis. Russia and the United States should prioritize working together to protect nuclear facilities from thefts of nuclear materials and from terrorist acts. The threats are present and the dangers are significant, so action should be taken without delay.