Slovakia Suspends Plan to Ship Spent Nuclear Fuel to Russia

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, January 25, 2000 (ENS) - Shipment of roughly 300 metric tons of Slovakian spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing has been abruptly halted by the Slovakian Ministry of Economy. Ivan Miklos, the deputy head of the ministry, said the deal was damaging for the country's economy and suspended it for an indefinite time.

Slovakian spent fuel was to come from the Soviet designed reactors at Bohunice nuclear power plant in western Slovakia. Ten trainloads of spent nuclear fuel was to be sent to the Mayak nuclear facility near Chelyabinsk, located in the most radioactively contaminated region in the world.

The Slovakian decision is a blow for the Russian nuclear reprocessing industry which has been actively working towards expansion for the past year.

On January 11, Miklos stated that the plan of shipping nuclear waste to Russia was harmful. It is only because of this announcement that the existence of a nuclear waste reprocessing contract between Russia and Slovakia came to light. As yet, information about its signing and further details have not been made public.

Bohunice

Slovakia's Bohunice nuclear power plant (Photo courtesy Latvian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development)
Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) and Slovakia signed a contract worth the equivalent of US$200 million to reprocess the nuclear fuel. Minatom's representative in the deal is the Joint Stock Company Techsnabexport (Tenex); the Slovakian side is represented by Slovak Electricity Utilities (SE).

At the end of 1999, the Slovakian company announced it cannot pay Minatom or its representative for the deal. SE indirectly demonstrated its inability to pay by announcing that payment for the contract would be made by writing off a portion of Russia's debt to Slovakia, which is about US$1 billion. Since SE is a government company, this indicates that Slovakia does not have money for the nuclear shipment and reprocessing contract in its budget.

In the first week of January, a new energy sector development strategy was approved in Slovakia. It is designed to function in concert with a new industrial policy that has as its goals streamlining and modernization of Slovakia's industries to reduce the current unemployment rate of 19 percent and raise living standards.

Slovakia operates five VVER-type nuclear reactors: Four at Bohunice nuclear power plant and one at Mochovce nuclear power plant.

Slovakia now has two alternatives for management of its spent nuclear fuel. The first alternative that assumes shipment of spent fuel to Russia would roughly cost $6 billion. The price tag for the second option - construction of a dry storage - is around $1.7 billion.

The difference in cost drew the attention of the Slovakian Ministry of Economy which pushed through the indefinite suspension of the reprocessing deal with Russia.

Russian NGOs applauded the decision made by the Slovakian government and expressed their hopes the deal would never be resumed.

"The plan to import nuclear waste into Russia is economically and environmentally dangerous. In Slovakia they understand this, but not yet in Russia," said Vladimir Slivyak, coordinator of the Anti-Nuclear Campaign of the Socio-Ecological Union. The largest environmental organization in Eurasia, the Union brings together about 300 community-based groups. "The government should stop Minatom, which has reached a state of insanity, turning itself into the world's nuclear dustbin."

Waste transport will not benefit either Russia or Slovakia said Slivyak. At the same time, it creates the risk of new accidents during transport. According to Minatom's own statistics, he said, 43 percent of all accidents in the nuclear cycle occur during transport.

In addition, nuclear fuel reprocessing is one of the most dangerous parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, Slivyak warned. "The most serious accident in the history of the Soviet nuclear industry occurred at Mayak's reprocessing plant, to which the Slovakian spent fuel would be sent. In 1957, an explosion at Mayak caused radioactive releases to the environment that were, by various estimates, 2.5 to 10 times those of Chernobyl." The 1986 fire and and explosion at Chernobyl sent radioactive dust flying over not only the immediate area but across much of Europe.

Slovakia is among the four countries that keep shipments of spent fuel for reprocessing at the Mayak plant in South-Ural. The others are the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Ukraine. All four are evaluating the viability of such a policy.

Another important Slovak goal is harmonisation and coordination with the European Union under the EU accession process. Slovakia is an eager candidate for membership in the European Union but must meet EU standards before being admitted to the Union. One serious EU concern was about the safety of the Bohunice nuclear plant.

On a pre-accession trip to Slovakia last week, president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, welcomed Slovakia's decision to close down two controversial nuclear reactors at the Bohunice power plant.

"We highly appreciate the decision to shut down units one and two of the nuclear power plant in Bohunice 2006 and 2008 respectively," Prodi told the Slovak parliament.

The European Commission's commissioner for enlargement, Gunter Verheugen, told reporters that the accession negotiations with Slovakia will start in March.