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The Sorry Sight of Rosatom’s Uranium Tailings

Lyubov Glazunova on how Russia turned into an international disposal site for nuclear waste

In an attempt to conquer developing markets, the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation offers favourable conditions to foreign buyers: construction of nuclear power plants on credit; personnel training; supply of nuclear fuel and its subsequent utilisation. But where does the corporation get the resources to fulfil its promises? Considering the foreign projects Rosatom has taken on, the company will need a lot of uranium in the next few years, but its reserves are quite poor in Russia itself. Presumably, the company’s growing appetite seems to have been met with nuclear waste processing technology. Last year, the company resumed imports from other countries. However, the price of this strategy amounts to hundreds of thousands of tons of used radioactive material, which will remain in Russia forever.

Waste or valuable raw materials?

In June, German media reported that another shipment of depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF), the so-called “uranium tailings,” had left the uranium enrichment plant in Gronau on its way to Russia. Urenco, a company which owns the plant, shipped about seven thousand tons of this cargo to Russia annually until 2009. Then, it was forced to end the contract under pressure from protests. The decisive factor was the indignation of the German rather than Russian public. Local nature defenders were shocked by footage leaking into the Internet. It showed radioactive waste from Gronau stored in Russia in rusty containers in the open air. Ten years later, shipments have resumed. Details of the deal have not been officially disclosed. In some reports, Urenco was going to send 12,000 tons of DUF to Rosatom facilities between 2019 and 2022, of which 3,600 tons came last year.

There are two points of view on the events. According to Urenco and Rosatom, what is shipped from Germany to Russia is not nuclear waste but recycled materials. Otherwise the shipments could not have been made: German legislation prohibits the export of radioactive waste, while Russian legislation prohibits the import of radioactive waste for its storage, burying and even processing.

Uranium ore contains about 0.7% of uranium-235, which is used as fuel for nuclear reactors. Natural uranium is enriched to 5% for use at nuclear power plants. This process generates depleted uranium hexafluoride with U-235 content representing from 0.07% to 0.74% (most commonly 0.2% to 0.25%). Further on, DUH can be enriched and the output will be an artificial analogue of natural uranium with the same content of U-235 and even more depleted radioactive waste. But extra enrichment of DUH is expensive and does not always make business sense, especially with low prices of uranium on the world market. This is why most countries continue to choose the simplest way: formally temporary but in fact indefinite storage of waste at the sites of enrichment plants.

According to the opinion of environmental activists, Urenco shifts its DUH problem on Russia’s shoulders under the guise of providing raw materials for recycling. The choice fell on Russia for a simple reason: it was the only country in the world that agreed to accept “uranium tailings” from abroad. Under contracts that were in force until 2009 (and probably also under new contracts), DUH was enriched at Russian plants to 0.7% and sent back to Germany. The resulting byproduct (secondary tails), which is about 90% of the source material received, remained in Russia. That is why DUH from Gronau is actually exported for burial: extra enrichment of the “tails” is not the cheapest way to get nuclear fuel. As a multinational company, Urenco would not have become involved in this project had it not been for the tempting opportunity to get rid of some of its radioactive waste forever.

Here, Urenco kills two birds with one stone: it solves the problem of accumulated DUH (in the past, the Gronau plant used to send up to 100% of its annual “uranium tailings” to Russia) and gets an equivalent of natural uranium for use at its facilities and for resale. The benefits for Rosatom are not so obvious, but are nevertheless noticeable.

The danger of contamination

The “secondary tails” left over from the first enrichment can be additionally enriched to natural levels again. It will cost even more but can be profitable if uranium prices are high. This is Rosatom’s main argument: by allowing foreign “tails” to enter its territory, Russia is accumulating a strategic stock of uranium that will allow it to meet its contractual obligations in future.

However, reports published by Rosatom itself claim Russia already stores a half of all depleted uranium hexafluoride in the world: 1 million tons out of 2 million tons. Moreover, it is much more profitable to enrich the old reserves, persisting since Soviet times, than to enrich the “secondary tails” remaining under foreign contracts. Given the imperfection of the old enrichment technologies, Soviet radioactive waste contains 0.3% to 0.4% of U-235. After the first enrichment the amount of valuable material that remains in DUH is about 0.1%.

At the same time, there is a persisting problem of residual “tails” which are not subject to further processing. DUH is stored in the open air at facilities in the Sverdlovsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk Regions and, as seen on satellite images, sometimes in rusty barrels. The safety of such storage sites is a matter of controversy. In February 2019, this issue was mentioned at the field session of the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights in the Irkutsk Region. The Council pointed out that the storage of “uranium tailings” in open areas of the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Plant is “particularly hazardous” due to the toxicity and radioactivity of the material, as well as its large volumes. If containers become unsealed due to corrosion or, for example, an accidental airplane crash, this can lead to radioactive and chemical contamination of the area. At the meeting the Council also noted that when in contact with water vapours, DUH forms hydrofluoric acid — an extremely toxic substance.

Double gain for foreign companies

Depleted uranium hexafluoride can be converted to a less dangerous form of oxide. This technology was first introduced in France in the 1980s. In the Krasnoyarsk Krai, there has been one such plant with a capacity of 10,000 tons per year since 2009. In 2024, Rosatom plans to commission a second plant and gradually increase its number to five. The company expects to convert the DUH into a safe form by 2057. However, these calculations have been made for the “uranium tailings” already stored in Russia. They do not account the import of new material from abroad. Likewise, Rosatom report does not mention it actually purchases DUH processing plants from the French company Cogema. Like Urenco, Cogema previously shipped nuclear waste to Russia. An attempt by the Angarsk Chemical Plant to launch a similar domestically produced “Cedar” installation turned out to be unsuccessful.

Thus, Western companies do not only supply Russia with “uranium tailings.” They also sell technologies to reconvert DUH into an oxide form. According to Rosatom, the enrichment of DUH is beneficial only under certain conditions but the cost of uranium hexafluoride storage will have to be borne in any case. Moreover, the feasibility of plans for the full conversion of waste into a safe form is questionable: the company admits that the construction of plants will cost more than the storage of waste material in its current form. In other words, the elimination of the “tails,” which are handled for altruistic reasons, will become the first victim of possible cost optimisation.

What does Rosatom expect in this case? Apparently, it assumes a very longterm perspective. According to the estimates of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the OECD and of the IAEA, global natural uranium reserves worth up to USD 40 per kilogram may be exhausted by 2025–2030. Though Russia’s uranium reserve amounts to over 500 thousand tons, most of this ore is of poor quality: its uranium235 content fluctuates at 0.1% to 0.2%. Meanwhile, the global uranium consumption in 2018 already exceeded the volumes mined. Thus, Rosatom is simply waiting for the world to run out of cheap uranium. Then, tons of radioactive waste collected on Russia’s territory will finally be processed profitably.

These calculations overlook an important detail: it is uncertain the demand for uranium will rise in future. Some countries, like Germany and Belgium, have already embarked on a policy of gradual abandonment of nuclear power plants in favour of renewable energy sources. One cannot predict how many other countries will choose this path, especially in the face of declining stocks of uranium and, so, rising costs. The only thing that is guaranteed for Russia in the next few years is thousands of tons of “uranium tailings” lingering on its territory.

Photo: Scanpix