HEU return blocked

07 December 2010

Germany has cited a lack of safety information as the reason for calling off plans to return used high-enriched research reactor fuel to Russia, one month after protests hit other radioactive transports. 


Some 951 used EK-10 fuel assemblies from the Rossendorf research reactor in what was once East Germany were supposed to be shipped back to the Mayak complex in Russia, until environment minister Norbert Roettgen refused consent for the operation yesterday.


Soviet-sponsored nuclear research began at Rossendorf in 1955 and two years later came the start-up of a 10 MWt unit that was to operate until 1991. Since 2005 the highly-radioactive used fuel from the reactor have been stored in 18 CASTOR MTR2 casks within the Ahaus interim storage facility and the original plan was to keep them there until Germany had a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste.


However, security concerns of the current era have led to a major international program to return high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuels, usually from research sites less well equipped than Ahaus, and the USA and Russia have been cooperating with the help of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to do this. So far the USA reports it has moved around 2700 tonnes of material so far back to the country of origin.


This figure includes 326 kilograms of unused fuel from Rossendorf returned to Russia in late 2006 and it was planned that the 951 used assemblies would go in 2011, after the USA and IAEA lobbied Germany to include the used fuel in returns as well. The transport operation had already been approved by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, as being in-line with the Atomic Energy Act, as well as the Federal Office for Economics and Export Control, which considers that Russia can guarantee the safe disposal of the material.


However, environment minister Norbert Roettgen announced yesterday that he would not authorise the shipment. "The Federal Environment Ministry has come, after a thorough examination of the application, to the conclusion that consent for an export permit cannot be granted," said a ministry statement. "The requirements to give consent include proof that the fuel assemblies can be reprocessed harmlessly," said Roettgen, claiming that this information was not presently available.


The director of the Rossendorf Institute of Nuclear Engineering and Analytics, Udo Helwig, told World Nuclear News, "We cannot comprehend the published reasons for [Roettgen's] refusal. International and even German independent expert assessments verify the accordance of the Mayak plant with the international safety standards."


In common with most nuclear activities, transport of radioactive materials is a major public issue in Germany. Last month saw large protests at the annual return of radioactive wastes from France after the reprocessing and recycling of used nuclear fuel from power reactors. Feeling on the issue has been heightened by the admission by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government that nuclear power plants are needed, at least as a 'bridge technology' to a renewables-powered future. Merkel's coalition government recently granted nuclear power plants an average of 12 years extra operation beyond arbitrary 34-year lifespans imposed in 2001.


Because Germany's HEU supplies for research came from Russia and the USA, it does not have any specialist facilities to handle the material and government policy has usually been to return it to the country of origin whenever possible. The return of the Rossendorf material is mandated by a 2004 contract between Germany, Russia and the IAEA.


Should facilitating the return remain unacceptable to German politicians, the option for permanent disposal in Germany would still exist. Helwig said that the storage contract with Ahaus lasts until 2036, but "whether a final deposit for irradiated fuel will be available in Germany at that time is uncertain - especially when there is not even a basic approach of a concept for final disposition of highly enriched fuel."


Helwig concluded that his organisation would hold German leaders to the removal plan and work to get Roettgen's approval.


Researched and written
by World Nuclear News