Protests as biggest ever nuclear waste load goes to Siberia

Several environmental organisations are protesting at what they call biggest ever delivery of radioactive waste to Russia. The load is being transported from Germany to Siberia for processing.

More than 1,200 tons of uranium hexafluoride – a compound left over from enrichment of nuclear power plant fuel – was delivered to St. Petersburg on March 19. According to Greenpeace, it is the biggest ever single delivery of radioactive waste to Russia.

The materials belong to Urenco Group, a European company, which operates several enrichment facilities in Germany, Netherlands and the UK, and holds about a quarter of the global nuclear fuel market. It has a standing contract with Russia for the utilization of toxic waste.

Several environmental organisations including Greenpeace and Ecozashchita! among others are staging a series of protests against the shipment. They believe Russia’s involvement in storing and burying European nuclear waste is dangerous for public health and the environment. The latest protest is scheduled for Monday.

“The contracts between Tekhsnabeksport [a branch of Russia’s nuclear regulator Rosatom, which trades uranium fuel and fuel processing services abroad] and Western companies expire in 2009. Greenpeace insists they must not be renewed,” said the organization’s energy programme head Vladimir Chuprov.

Uranium hexafluoride

Uranium hexafluoride (UF4) is a highly toxic and corrosive compound. It is widely used in uranium enrichment and has some applications in uranium reprocessing. It is usually stored and transported in large gas cylinders. If exposed to water, uranium hexafluoride reacts violently, producing soluble and toxic compounds, so any leakage poses great environmental danger.

They also plan to monitor the waste along its way from St. Petersburg to processing plants in Siberia.

Environmentalists say more than 80,000 tons of uranium enrichment waste were delivered to Russia from Europe since 1996. About 20,000 tons are yet to be shipped over 2009.

They say Russia’s services for processing uranium waste are extremely cheap, due to lower safety standards than in Europe. If European companies like Urenco or Eurodif utilized their waste locally, their fuel price would rise fivefold.

Meanwhile Rosatom Head Sergey Kirienko earlier said he was ‘firmly against’ importing radioactive waste.

He said: “Even though scientists say we should keep nuclear waste to reprocess it later into valuable materials, we believe we shouldn’t import foreign waste into Russia.”

Experts believe the contracts with fuel producers will not be renewed, so the companies try to do their best and increase waste deliveries in 2009.