Conflict of nuclear initiatives

Back to Beginnings

In June 2007 the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the International Organizations in Vienna Alexander Zmeevsky sent an official letter to the IAEA Secretariat. It contained a request to circulate the document named "On the International Uranium Enrichment Center (IUEC) Foundation, Structure and Functioning" among the members of the agency. The document states "the essence and progress of realization" of the known Russian initiative for creation of Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure (GNPI).

The GNPI initiative was announced in January 2006 in the speech of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin at the EurAsEC summit in St. Petersburg. The Russian President suggested creating the world infrastructure which could allow the equal access of all the interested states to nuclear power and at the same time would reliably guarantee the compliance with non-proliferation regime requirements.

Similar to the American GNEP, the Russian initiative consists of two parts: national and international. The tasks set by the Russian President for domestic needs are well-known. They include a growth of nuclear generation contribution up to 25% of the general balance, thus making nuclear power the key energy source of safe and sustainable development of the country. It will obviously require transition to new energy resources (making the nuclear fuel cycle (NFC) closed) as well as selection of the most effective way to manage spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

Putin's suggestion in the international part can be put in one sentence - the states that have gained a sufficient experience and are planning to continue the construction of NPPs in the future could render the assistance to the countries-newcomers in the nuclear arena along with solving their own infrastructure problems. It is interesting to note that the Soviet Union did that way.

The GNPI invites to give thought to how to make Russia and the whole world less dependent on fossil fuel, how to solve the postponed tasks of SNF management, to assist in improving wellbeing and ecologically clean development in the world, as well as to use new institutional approaches to decrease the global danger of nuclear proliferation.

Within the framework of GNPI partnership the states that possess advanced nuclear technologies, Russia included, intend to provide a reliable access to nuclear fuel for countries-newcomers in the nuclear power field, as well as to help them solve the problem of SNF accumulation.

Actually, what should small European states do with the SNF unloaded from their imported reactors? Where will the Third World countries take nuclear fuel, if development of their own generating capacities for the NFC "front end" can lead to billion dollars expenses and, as the practice shows, bring them into rigid confrontation with the USA and other influential states? There seems no escaping a simple conclusion that the infrastructure, i.e. everything that lies "before" and "after" an NPP, should become global and multinational. Otherwise, once again and all by themselves the countries will have to cover the same way already passed by the USSR, USA and other nuclear states, with all the expenditures required for that. Of course, it will be economically inexpedient for them.

Zmeevsky's letter states that the system of International Centers for providing the NFC services including enrichment under the aegis of the IAEA will be the key element of the global infrastructure. The main requirement to the system consists in the fact that each country which complies with non-proliferation obligations should be absolutely sure that whatever changes of the international market might be, they will be able to get the guaranteed service.

The pilot IUEC project on the basis of the Angarsk Electrochemical Integrated Plant has become the first step on the way to practical realization of the idea of such International Centers (following the terminology of academician Ponomarev-Stepnoy, we will call them INCC- International Nuclear Cycle Center). The main purpose of the IUEC is to provide a guaranteed access to uranium enrichment capacities for the Center member states, primarily for those who do not plan to enrich uranium by themselves. In this case the uranium isotope separation technologies will still be the Russian property and won't be handed over to foreigners.

Leaving politics behind, Russia states the project as commercial. So the IUEC will be established in the form of a joint-stock or public company, thus providing its financial independence on the member-state budgets. All the partners including Russia itself will be able to collect dividends from the Center activity, with the Center managed by the Joint Advisory Commission.

The second item of the Russian initiative, as Alexander Zmeevsky sees it, is a formation of the guaranteed stock of enriched uranium product at the IUEC, equal to 1-2 full loadings of the core. The details of the status of the suggested bank of uranium are under development, but it is easy to predict the initial source of its filling - at the expense of Russian contribution or quota.

Properly speaking, that is the end of the official document circulated in the IAEA on behalf of the Russian Federation. Now let's try to speculate what is left beyond the diplomat's letter and, to be more exact, how the IUEC might be transformed into the INCC with time.

Representatives of the majority of the countries which made the decision to develop nuclear power mention constantly at the IAEA working meetings and seminars that enriched uranium is not of interest for nuclear power specialists; they need the finished product of fresh uranium fuel. It will be logical to assume that with time the IUEC will be supplemented with a fuel plant. Suffice it to remember that Russian know-how technologies for fabrication of fuel subassemblies have already been sold abroad (to China). It means that they can be easily used in the International Center as well. It is also known that the idea of the fuel plant was discussed in the negotiations (unsuccessful as yet!) about creation of a joint Russian- Iranian uranium enterprise.

The next step implies the import of SNF from light water reactors for its reprocessing. Here it is of principal importance not to go too far and not to aim at solving all global problems with the help of the only INCC on our territory. The Center located in Russia should not serve American and West European accumulation of SNF. However, reprocessing of the "own" burnt fuel, i.e. the one received after irradiation, and production of fresh fuel manufactured in the Center could become a weighty complement to INCC functions.

A special stress in the previous paragraph should be laid on the word "reprocessing". A mere transformation of Russia into a repository of SNF from alien NPPs will not make either our public or our nuclear specialists happy. Therefore, there should appear a consumer of uranium-plutonium fuel, in other words - a fast neutron reactor.

It is worth mentioning that at present it is too early to debate about the place of construction of future INCC facilities. The safety reasons dictate the requirement to minimize logistics and to place all the facilities at the same site, whereas the wish to use the existing infrastructure will lead to their dispersal. Currently it is difficult to guess what compromise decision will be finally made.

As described, the INCC system covers the entire complex of fuel infrastructure problems, from its front to its back stages. To some extent it is like coming back to the beginnings, the practice of the USSR times, when our country exported reactors and fuel to COMECON countries, brought SNF back and planned to use it for the needs of future fast reactors.

The obvious difference from the Soviet experience will consist in the fact that the INCC facilities will be a multinational property and will be controlled by the IAEA. New ideas, such as leasing of small NPPs or fuel for NPPs will give an additional impulse for developing the GNPI initiative. The cooperation in nuclear knowledge preservation and national staff training perfectly blends with it.

However, there are some opponents to the GNPI initiative abroad, who do not proceed from the interests of the Russian Federation at all.

The US competitive initiative

The United States have a sharp, although carefully hidden from the outside view, discontent with the appeared GNPI. What excites the most serious apprehensions of Washington? First of all, it is a dread to lose their geopolitical nuclear leadership through the loss of significance of the US GNEP initiative.

Similar to its Russian analogue, the GNEP has internal and external components. The first one is sufficiently well explained in publications in the AtomInfo.Ru. The George Bush administration is trying to bring the USA back to their leading positions in the area of nuclear power, to restart the program for construction of fast reactors under the slogan of burning transuranium elements and closing the NFC in the United States. At the initial stages - up to 2012 - big investments into nuclear industry are envisaged, as well as restoration of critical facilities and test rigs, modernization of calculation codes and (implicitly) accumulation in the USA the whole scope of experience gained in the world on fast reactors and closed NFC.

The GNEP international component is presented with an adequate pomp. The declaration of the partnership principles under the GNEP signed on September 16, 2007 in Vienna by 16 ambassadors, ministers and officials, including Sergey Kirienko (Russia) and Yury Boiko (Ukraine), in particular, states that "the GNEP is a cooperation of those states which share the general views of the necessity to expand the peaceful use of nuclear power on the global scale in a safe way. It is aimed at acceleration of development and use of advanced NFC technologies to promote ecologically clean evolution and prosperity of the whole world, to improve the environment and to decrease the risk of nuclear proliferation."

But that is the point where the first contradiction out of the numerous ones hidden inside the GNEP becomes apparent. The authors of the initiative, the American diplomats constantly emphasize the future division of the countries into sellers and buyers of the NFC services. At the same time the Vienna Principles state a different thing, they stipulate the necessity to create, demonstrate and commercially use the improved fast reactors that burn transuranium elements, as well as to promote new technologies of SNF reprocessing, without extraction of plutonium in its pure form.

If the GNEP principles concern the technologies of fast reactors and closed fuel cycle, what does Joseph Adda, the Minister of Power Engineering of Ghana have to do with it being one of the GNEP signers? What is the purpose of persuading the delegations from Cameron, Tanzania and Tunis in the IAEA headquarters? How to explain the intention to involve Georgia into the GNEP if not by a desire to do Moscow an ill turn?

Will the situation be such that the respectable African states will demand their share of fast reactor technologies in the future? Washington doesn't think so. Thus, the discriminating principle of the GNEP is confirmed, the principle that states the old American dream: to create a certain superstructure that will duplicate and actually replace the IAEA and NPT, naturally on the basis suitable for the USA.

The most grievous fact is that from the non-proliferation point of view so much emphasized in the Vienna Principles the GNEP initiative may turn out to be counterproductive. According to the Washington conception the very fact of the country involvement, even with a status of a buyer, in the international partnership program will be considered as incentives. Thus, the states of concern, such as Iran will be beyond the GNEP area and will get new arguments for development of their own NFCs. By the way, there is absolutely no shortcoming like this in the Russian GNPI.

The Republic of South Africa is a good example of GNEP counter-productivity. The authorities and nuclear agency of this country which, as you remember, had nuclear weapons not long ago, refuse flatly to join the US initiative. The excuse has been repeatedly made public: Pretoria is afraid that the GNEP may divest them of their right to create their own NFC, especially uranium enrichment enterprises.

The South African delegates ignored the September meeting of the GNEP participants. There were no South Africa representatives at the GNEP Steering Committee meeting that was just over in December either. Tseliso Maqubela from the SA Department of Minerals and Power suggests establishing an enrichment center in SA with the use of foreign technologies instead of joining the GNEP. If no country agrees to sell the know-how of centrifuge manufacture, the SA nuclear specialists are ready to develop it by themselves, the more so SA has a certain experience left from the nuclear weapon program.

An evasive position of Brazil and Argentina also looks symbolic. The Latin-American giants spurred by the spirit of competitiveness, are ready to turn their own nuclear programs into the military ones. Both countries have a rather good potential of nuclear development including the initial knowledge of uranium enrichment. No wonder that Brasilia and Buenos Aires do not have any intention to decrease their status and to become ordinary buyers of reactor fuel. Staying beyond the GNEP, Brazil and Argentina, like SA, will definitely start to develop the NFC themselves, thus increasing the global proliferation risks.

Let us come back to the most strange as of today GNEP participants, Ghana and Jordan. They and some other counties are involved in the US program with quite obvious purposes. First, the USA assumes to increase the efficiency of constant monitoring of the needs in developing states. Second, the global American partnership will allow Washington to control the activity of its nuclear competitors including Russia, France and Japan more reliably.

The assessments of some IAEA experts can be considered as an indirect proof of such a point of view. The analysis of the documents appeared in Vienna during the last months on behalf of the USA shows that the USA tries to shift the emphasis initially laid in the GNEP from the back end to the front end of the NFC, thus overlapping the Russian GNPI. But today the majority of potential buyers are interested rather in fresh fuel than in solving the SNF problem which will become topical for them in about a century.

Under the GNEP the working groups are set up to develop the infrastructure and provide reliable supplies of nuclear fuel. If to call things by their proper names, the Americans settle down to the course of implicit confrontation with the GNPI.

There are many initiatives on multinational approaches in the world, but the Russian one can be justifiably considered the most developed. Paying lip-service to the importance of the GNPI, the American side is trying to create its competitor in the name of the GNEP, to decrease the significance of the International Center in Angarsk and to transform it into an ordinary undertaking. And again if to call things by their proper names, what the US is doing has a very clear definition - an attempt to intercept a diplomatic initiative in the nuclear area from Russia.

Conflict of interests and ways of rapprochement

Such unexpected and quick migration of priorities of the American Initiative proceeding in the mode of tracing the actions of Russian diplomats is reminiscent of the second set of contradictions in the GNEP. The thing is that initially this initiative was intended to be developed exclusively for national tasks - suffice it to remember one of the GNEP precursors - the AFCI program (Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative).

The non-proliferation problems are the least of concerns for private companies that are NPP operators in the USA. Physical protection of NPPs is sustained at the adequate level and constant attention of regulatory bodies and security officials, numerous independent public and ecological structures doesn't allow nuclear specialists to relax.

Overseas owners of NPPs are interested, first of all, in choosing the optimal way of SNF management as soon as possible. The companies pay the SNF target tax to the specialized Federal Fund and at the same time they have to keep spent subassemblies themselves in the storages near NPPs, having full responsibility.

Of course, private business cannot be happy with this situation. Failure of the project for construction of a long-term geological repository in Yucca Mountain makes the situation worse. The authorities and population of Nevada State, where the repository construction is planned, struggle against the project by all possible means - legal proceedings, petitions, PR-campaigns in mass media, parliament hearings. Such influential politicians in the USA as the Senate majority leader Harry Reid has taken Nevada's side. Moreover, the repository which has not been constructed yet causes some doubts in its capacity to house all the SNF accumulated in country.

It is easy to understand the logic of NPP owners' reasoning. If it is impossible to storage SNF, it should be reprocessed and recycled. The successful experience of France that managed to temporally do even without fast reactors when making the fuel cycle closed speaks well for this approach. This fact reveals the roots of the American Initiative, which later was called the GNEP.

However, the politics in the name of the US Department of State intervened into the relationship between industry and science at a certain stage. And the word Global appeared in the nuclear initiative due to addition of the non-proliferation aspect and inclusion of such magic terms as worldwide, safety and security in its principles. The "born child" turned out to be viable thanks to strong support from the White House, but at the same time was fully unbalanced and extremely aggressive to its competitors and just to neighbors.

The most interesting thing for us is the conflict of interests between the GNEP and the Russian GNPI. First, let us try to summarize exactly the differences and common points in these two initiatives.

Thus, both the GNEP and the GNPI state the following:

At the same time the GNEP and GNPI differ in the following items:

The last bullet requires a special attention. Russia could deploy the INCC system, with an adequate desire and political decision in place. We have the full set of means and technologies for that: uranium mines, plants for uranium enrichment and fabrication, fast rectors and even rudiments of SNF reprocessing. At the same time it will take the USA decades to start the GNEP. It is quite possible that it is a trivial jealousy and fear to lose the leadership that determine the American negativism to the GNPI and its first stages (the INCC and a bank of enriched uranium)

Nevertheless, in reality America needs the assistance of Russia. A complete cancellation of the programs for fast reactors and SNF reprocessing that followed the notorious presidential directive PD-8 of the US President Jimmy Carter threw the USA back to the times of Enrico Fermi. It is not by accident that in the plan of technological development under the GNEP Russia, as well as France and Japan are mentioned now and then. It is vitally important for Washington to cooperate with Moscow because without our technological experience the schedule of the GNEP realization, deferred as it, is can be wrecked and it may follow the Yucca Mountain's fate.

Another thesis is true as well - Russia also needs the US assistance. The sad experience of confrontation of the INPRO and Generation IV initiatives proves that the separate activity in the sphere of global peaceful atom is destined to fail. The leading superpowers will only waste time in their senseless attempts to impose obstacles to each other, and smaller countries will try to guess which of the giants it is more beneficial for them to support in this particular historical moment, proceeding from their instantaneous interests.

The conflict of nuclear initiatives provoked by the American side can make diplomatic soap bubbles out of them, though of a global scale. But if Washington gives up the incorrect practice of confrontation with Russia and attempts to win over, the GNEP and GNPI together can make nuclear power an important component for civilization in the beginning of the third millennium.

Russia chooses the way of cooperation and proves it practically. Our country signed the GNEP initiative in September 2007. Now the ball is in the US court.

SOURCE: Vladimir Rychin, AtomInfo.Ru

DATE: January 11, 2008

Topics: Russia, USA, GNEP, NFC, Spent Fuel

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