Swiss-Russian nuclear waste talks slammed

Leaked document reveals plan to transport Swiss spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing

Swiss electricity utilities have been negotiating with the Russian government to send highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and nuclear wastes to Russia for storage or reprocessing, according to a document leaked to Greenpeace and made public last week. The NGO condemned the as yet uncompleted plan as "immoral" and "illegal" and pledged to campaign in Switzerland, Russia and the USA to halt the deal.

The document leaked to Greenpeace is a memorandum of understanding signed on 17 September last year by representatives of the Russian atomic energy ministry, Swiss electricity utilities plus Russian and German commercial agents.

In it, the Swiss utilities suggest a commercial arrangement under which 2,000 tonnes of Swiss spent nuclear fuel would be sent to Russia between 2000 and 2030. Either final disposal in Russia or reprocessing to produce plutonium that would be returned to Switzerland are envisaged.

The utilities further propose that some 550 cubic metres of high-level radioactive wastes due to be returned to Switzerland from the French and British nuclear reprocessing firms Cogema and BNFL might be re-routed instead to Russia for final disposal. The Russian party to the agreement suggests that part of the deal might also be for Russia to manufacture fresh nuclear fuel for Swiss reactors.

"The parties have come to an understanding that strict confidentiality must be ensured for the current and future negotiations," the document concludes.

A spokesperson for Nordostschweizerische Kraftwerke, one of the Swiss firms involved, told ENDS Daily yesterday that the document was genuine. In a statement, the company said: "Although final disposal of nuclear waste is each country's own matter in general, multinational solutions are on the table in the case of high-level wastes, because the amounts are small." "The agreement signed last September does mean that we have talked to Russia - no more, no less. It's not a binding contract," it continued.

According to Greenpeace, any deal along the lines discussed would be manifestly illegal. The Russian atomic energy ministry acknowledges in the document itself that Russian law would have to be amended before any spent fuel or wastes could be accepted. Greenpeace also stresses that Switzerland is bound under an agreement with the USA not to transfer nuclear materials of US origin to third parties without permission. "Given that the USA has sought to end plutonium processing in Russia in order to guarantee nuclear non-proliferation, this agreement would appear in direct conflict with US foreign policy and would not receive their permission," the group comments.

Follow Up:
Greenpeace, tel: +31 20 523 6222; Nordostschweizerische Kraftwerke, tel: +41 1 278 4111. References: Greenpeace has posted a briefing paper on its web site as well as a copy of the leaked document; (the second page is at swiss2.jpg).

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