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Canada holding up Russian enrichment of Urenco's tails

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#502
13/11/1998
Article

(November 13, 1998) Urenco and the Russian enricher Tenex want to enlarge their contract for the enrichment of depleted uranium (tails) from Urenco by Tenex up to the level of natural uranium. Urenco's clients like the re-enrichment since it can save them up to US$5 per enrichment work unit (swu); they have to pay less for storage since the waste is left in Russia. But the program has met problems: Urenco possesses huge stocks of Canadian-origin uranium tails and Canada does not allow tails of Canadian origin being re-enriched in Russia.

(502.4951) WISE Amsterdam - Commercial sources said the European Council, on behalf of Urenco, has been negotiating with Canada about the strict Canadian nonproliferation terms in the European Union-Canadian nuclear cooperation agreements. The agreement requires prior Canadian consent for any retransfer of natural uranium or tails from Canadian origin to a third country. Canadian rules require that IAEA safeguards are applied to all nuclear material of Canadian origin to be shipped to Russia for re- enrichment. Russia is an official nuclear weapon state and its uranium enrichment plants are outside of IAEA safeguards. Canada's policy towards Russia is based on the practice of "all-in and all- out", meaning that all tails shipped to Russia must be put under IAEA safeguards and then removed from Russian territory. It must be returned to Canada or to another state subject to a bilateral Canadian nuclear cooperation agreement. This policy complicates life for Urenco and Russia. Up to now the largest part of the tails, after re-enrichment, was not sent back to Urenco but remained in Russia. In this way Urenco saved a lot of money because it no longer had to send the tails to the Dutch nuclear waste company COVRA for storage which would cost them a lot of money. And because of that it is economically viable to enrich the tails in Russia, even with current low fresh-uranium prices.
Canada's uranium industry supports this Canadian nonproliferation policy because it feels challenged by cheaper uranium offered by Urenco and Tenex. Tenex has an estimated 9-million swu/year of enrichment production capacity in excess of Russia's needs. If Russia uses the 9-million swu to strip tails from Urenco and other Western enrichers with 0.30% uranium-235 to 0.20% U-235, it would produce 29 million lb of uranium oxide (U3O8) (11,180 tons U) per year. It is likely, according to George White, a consultant with Uranium Exchange Co., the Russians have contracted with Urenco to strip tails from 0.3% to 0.25% U-235. But then the Russians probably stripped the tails further, to 0.12 U-235, to produce uranium for their own account and selling it, White suggested. Stripping of uranium tails in this way would reduce the need for natural uranium by about 30%.

The IAEA might resolve the Urenco difficulties with safeguards on Canadian material in Russia by safeguarding a separate quantity of Russian-origin uranium-235 at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow or at the Institute for Physics & Power Engineering at Obninsk, equivalent to the uranium-235 in Canadian tails sent to Tenex.
Another possibility for the IAEA would be to monitor Canadian tails when they arrive in Russia until it is enriched and until the enriched part of the tails are exported. The stripped (or depleted) uranium tails, however, will stay in Russia and the IAEA would have to monitor these stripped tails into eternity: Canadian rules do not permit termination of safeguards.

Source: Nuclear Fuel, 19 October 1998
Contact: WISE Amsterdam