Return to the Russian Federation of Irradiated Fuel Assemblies from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Republic of Uzbekistan
Aleksey E. Lebedev
FOREIGN SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL FROM RESEARCH REACTORS BUILT UNDER TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE OF THE FORMER SOVIET UNION
In the 1960s and 1970s the former Soviet Union carried out an intensive construction program of research reactors abroad. In contrast to commercial reactors, decisions on the feasibility of research reactor construction were mainly based on political grounds. As a result developing countries with unstable political and economic systems built a large number of research reactors, which did not contribute to nonproliferation goals.
The reactors were supplied with fresh fuel assemblies, containing highly enriched uranium (HEU—36–90 percent enrichment for U-235). At the beginning of the 1970s the Soviet government made the decision to begin converting foreign research reactors to lower enrichment levels; however with the disintegration of the Soviet Union this effort was discontinued.
Normally spent fuel from foreign research reactors was not returned to the country in which it had been manufactured. (Notable exceptions include both spent nuclear fuel [SNF] from the former Soviet republics and the return operation of spent fuel assemblies from the Iraq Nuclear Research Center in Baghdad, accomplished by air in 1993, in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution.) As a result large quantities of highly enriched SNF assemblies have been accumulated at the research reactors’ onsite SNF storage facilities.
In May 1997 the United States announced the start of a large-scale program of SNF return from foreign research reactors. The program involves permanent
disposal of research SNF from 41 states in facilities of U.S. design in the United States.
The program’s major goal is the reduction of HEU quantities contained in SNF assemblies at research reactor sites, as well as advocating that the reactors be converted to use low-enriched fuel. From the U.S. perspective the issue of nuclear proliferation risk reduction in the area of research reactor fuel cannot be resolved completely without the involvement of Russia, the second largest world supplier of corresponding facilities, technologies, and fuel.
In 1999 Techsnabexport (a company authorized by the government of the Russian Federation to conduct foreign deals related to the management of spent nuclear fuel from foreign nuclear reactors) began several rounds of negotiations with the operators of foreign research reactors. Preliminary consultations have revealed a keen interest by a number of foreign states to begin regular shipments of their spent research nuclear fuel to Russia. However, in view of the limited budgets (or in some cases, the complete lack of funds) of the research reactor operators to finance SNF operations, large-scale fuel shipments hardly seem possible without the assistance of sponsors, such as the IAEA, the United States, EUROATOM, and private funders.
The United States has expressed its readiness to provide financial assistance to countries returning their fuel to Russia, on the condition that the HEU gradually be converted to that with enrichment of less than 20 percent U-235. At the same time, during trilateral meetings among the IAEA, Russia, and the United State, possibilities were discussed for the return of the spent nuclear research fuel to the Russian Federation.
In 2001, as a result of IAEA-Russia-U.S. technical missions to research reactor sites in Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia, Uzbekistan was selected to be the first state from which the return of the spent fuel assemblies would be executed. The complex political situation in Central Asia and the maximum technical and organizational preparedness for the Uzbekistan export operation were factors in this decision.
SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL FROM THE RESEARCH REACTOR AT THE INSTITUTE OF NUCLEAR PHYSICS OF THE UZBEKISTAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
The Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences, Institute of Nuclear Physics was founded in 1956. It is one of the largest scientific institutes in Asia, currently carrying out fundamental and applied research in nuclear and elementary particle physics, solid body physics, radiochemistry, biology, element analysis, and many other areas.
Initially the power of the VVR-SM reactor, which was put into operation in September 1959, was 2 Mwt. In the Soviet era the reactor was used for both
military and civil purposes; in 1971–1979 it was upgraded and its power increased to 10 Mwt.
From 1959 to 1971 the reactor was loaded with fuel assemblies with enrichment up to 10 percent U-235. After modernizations from 1979 to August 1998, the reactor was powered by fuel assemblies with enrichment up to 90 percent U-235. In September 1998 specialists from the Kurtchatov Institute converted the reactor operation from fuel with 90 percent enrichment to fuel with 36 percent enrichment. Since October 2000, further work has been done on enrichment reduction to bring down the level to 19.7 percent U-235. Future activities on conversion to low-enriched fuel will depend on terms and volumes of financial assistance allocated by foreign sponsors.
Return of spent fuel from Uzbekistan was carried out during 1974–1991. In total, 449 fuel assemblies were transported to the Soviet Union during that period. The government of Uzbekistan is pursuing the policy of turning Central Asia into a nuclear-weapons-free zone but is perplexed by the presence of sizable quantities of highly enriched nuclear material within its borders. A particular danger is the location of the research reactor close to the combat zone in Afghanistan (the reactor is located only 137 km from the Uzbek-Afghan border).
In accordance with the agreement an IAEA mission for U.S. and Russian experts was organized at the research reactor site in July 2001. A complete check of the transport-technological scheme was performed, including loading spent fuel assemblies into the TUK-19 transportation casks, transportation of the casks to the railway station by motor vehicle (7 km), and the loading of the TUK-19 casks into special train cars. The transport-technological scheme has proven viable. Personnel who participated in past return operations are still available at the reactor, as is the equipment used during previous transports.
The overall quantity of spent nuclear fuel assemblies (mainly with high levels of enrichment) stored currently at the onsite storage facility is 259 pieces. Two hundred fifty-six assemblies are planned to be transported to the Mayak production complex in Russia (the reprocessing plant for the research and commercial spent nuclear fuel) in four trips. No difficulties of a technical nature should arise in reprocessing the given types of fuel assemblies at the Mayak plant.
LEGAL ASPECTS FOR THE RETURN OF SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL ASSEMBLIES
As has been mentioned, return of spent fuel from foreign research reactors to Russia was not possible in the 1990s, due not only to financial difficulties of reactor operators but also for legal reasons.
The order for the import of spent nuclear fuel from foreign reactors into Russia, enacted by the Russian government in 1995, is not valid for research
reactor fuel. Only in the framework of new Russian federal legislation in the field of management of spent nuclear fuel from foreign reactors, adopted in 2001, has an opportunity emerged for the implementation of the research reactor spent fuel export program. Currently work is underway to elaborate and harmonize legislative acts of the Russian government that would regulate in detail the importation of spent nuclear fuel from foreign reactors into Russia, in close connection with various special environmental programs for the cleanup of radioactively contaminated areas. So far only two out of five government acts have been approved.
Taking into account the request of the government of Uzbekistan to provide assistance for the return of spent nuclear fuel assemblies from the Institute of Nuclear Physics, and in view of the present absence of the full package of legislative acts, the Russian government has issued a special directive dated April 25, 2003, No. 521-R. This dictates preparations, according to the requirements of the Russian legislation project, for the export of spent nuclear fuel assemblies from the Institute of Nuclear Physics.
After preparations for the project are completed and approval from the state ecological experts is received, Minatom will introduce corresponding proposals about the order and terms of import for given spent nuclear fuel assemblies to Russia.
Practical implementation of the given project will facilitate
strict commitment of Russia, as a nuclear weapons state, to safeguard mechanisms for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons
support of political stability in Central Asia
implementation of ecological cleanup measures for rehabilitation of regions that have been radiologically contaminated as the result of the nuclear arms race in the 1950s and 1960s