You are here

Fischer allows export of German MOX plant to Russia

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#534
15/09/2000
Article

(September 15, 2000) On 1 September 2000 the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joschka Fischer, from the Greens, made a complete turn-around. The same man who caused the mothballing of a MOX fuel facility in Hanau back in 1995 now allows the same MOX plant to be exported to Russia.

(534.5201) WISE Amsterdam - His argument 5 years ago, as Minister of Environment in the state of Hessen, to halt the plant was mainly because he and his party were against a plutonium economy. His argument now for allowing export of the MOX plant: he has no legal grounds for blocking such an export.

US-Russia agreement
The export of the Hanau facility is part of a US-Russian agreement to dispose each of at least 34 metric tons of weapons plutonium. On 1 September, the US and Russia officially agreed, after many years of negotiations, to each dispose 34 tonnes of military plutonium, when vice-president Gore signed the agreement. The Russian Prime Minister Kasyanov had signed it earlier that week. The US-Russian agreement states that the Russian MOX plant must be operating at least in 2007 and that its initial throughput of 2 tons of plutonium a year should double as soon as possible.

The deal is said to solve the proliferation problems connected with the management and storage of surplus weapon plutonium, both in the US and Russia. The MOX program in Russia is to be financed partly from US Non-Proliferation Policy budgets, partly by the other G8 countries. The US Congress already allocated US$200 million for it. The G8 failed in its Okinawa, Japan, summit to finalize a decision on financing the costs for the new plutonium facilities, which is officially estimated at US$1.74 billion, but could cost more. A decision on financing by the G8 was postponed until next year.

There have been discussions on weapon-plutonium management for about a decade. Nuclear disarmament deals struck between the US and Russia caused a large surplus of weapon plutonium. In 1998 US President Clinton and his Russian counterpart Yeltsin pledged to dispose of 50 tons of military plutonium at each side. The 34 tons agreement is seen as a first step in fulfilling this pledge.

The US-Russian agreement is actually a compromise. The US has pressed Russia for years to agree with a weapon-plutonium agreement, but preferred a dual approach like their own program. This means that one part of the plutonium amount is converted into MOX fuel for nuclear power reactors and the other part is mixed with high-level waste and vitrified for storage. With vitrification, the plutonium is immobilized in glass. Russia however kept refusing to introduce the dual approach and preferred the 100% MOX approach. With this agreement the US has given in: Russia is now allowed to use all 34 tons of plutonium for MOX fuel. The US had to agree with the Russian wishes as the future of its domestic MOX program is conditional on progress of the Russian plutonium disposition program, which was mandated by the US Congress. Russia on her side had to give in for the reason that for any plutonium disposition program it would be dependent on foreign financing.

In the US 25.6 tons of the plutonium will be fabricated into MOX fuel and about 8.4 tons plutonium will be immobilized. The US plans to load MOX fuel into a small number of commercial reactors. The US government has given the order to design and construct MOX and immobilization plants at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. A consortium called "Duke COGEMA Stone & Webster" was given the contract to design, build and operate the MOX facility.

Russia has always preferred to use the plutonium for fuel for Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR's). The reason was that FBR's are able to consume more plutonium than normal Light Water Reactors would do. For them it is a compromise that most of the plutonium will not be loaded into FBR's, but in LWR's. The MOX fuel is to be used in Russia's seven VVER-1000 Pressurized Water Reactors and its two fast-breeders of Beloyarsk BN-600 and BOR-60 at Dimitrovgrad. The VVER-1000's have to be converted for the use of MOX as well as the BN-600, which was designed to use highly enriched uranium. Japan will assist in the BN-600 conversion.

Hanau
In Hanau two MOX plants were built by Siemens for operation by its subsidiary Alkem. Hanau 1, with a capacity of 25 tonnes a year, operated from 1972 to 1991 and fabricated a total of 158 tonnes of MOX fuel. The plant was plagued by a long series of accidents. Its average annual production was less than 8 tonnes of MOX, less than 25% of its capacity. It was Fischer, then minister of environment in Hessen, who succeeded in finally closing Hanau 1 in 1991 after a series of accidents.

Hanau 2 had a planned annual capacity of 120 tonnes and construction costed DM 1.4 billion (US$0.63 billion). It was 90% complete when it was mothballed in 1995, before it ever operated. This closure was also due to Fischer's opposition. Siemens has kept the plant on stand-by since five years, at a cost of over ten million DM. It sold some parts of the plant to the US and France and some equipment to BNFL, UK. In the past, Siemens had threatened to dismantle the plant if the German government would not allow the facility to be exported.

Already in 1992 Siemens and the German government had proposed to export German MOX technology to Russia, with the argument of lessening proliferation risks. But the proposal fell through.

The shipping and installing of the Hanau 2 equipment will cost Russia US$40 million. The German government, including Fischer, was put under pressure from the US to agree with the export of the Hanau MOX plant to Russia.

Fischer has stated that the government would refuse financial help for the MOX plant export through the government's Hermes export credits, but he had no legal grounds to refuse an export license itself. The German government however was prepared to make financial contributions for the option of immobilization and disposal.

Ironically, Alexander Mueller, a Green spokesman from Hessen, said about the Hanau MOX plant: "if we had not prevented the start of the facility in Hanau at that time, it would have been so radioactive now that Russia would not accept it anymore."

Critical reactions
The US Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) stated that the deal was "premature and dangerous" and that "it would be much easier to resolve safeguards and liability issues if the primary disposition method were to immobilize plutonium in waste rather than turn it into fuel", which would be faster, cheaper and safer.

With an annual production capacity of 2 tons the processing of 34 tons of plutonium into MOX fuel would take 17 years. According to Greenpeace Germany, a vitrification plant could be built as quickly as the MOX plant and the processing of the uranium itself could be done more quickly.

Contact: Nuclear Control Institute, 1000 Connecticut Ave.,NW Suite 804, Washington, DC 20036, USA. Tel. +1-202-822-8444. Fax +1-202-452-0892.
E-mail nci@nci.org.
Web site www.nci.org

Sources:

  • NuclearFuel, 11 May 1992
  • Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996, D. Albright et. al., 1997
  • NuclearFuel, 9 August 1999
  • Nucleonics Week, 16 September 1999; NuclearFuel, 10 January 2000
  • Press release Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, 24 July 2000
  • Tageszeitung (FRG), 28, 29 and 30 August 2000
  • Agreement between the governments of the US and Russia, 1 September 2000
  • Nuclear Control Institute press release, 1 September 2000
  • Frankfurter Rundschau (FRG), 1 September 2000
  • NuclearFuel, 7 September 2000.