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#3 - JRL 7021
Date: Thu, 16 Jan 2003
From: Geoff Rothwell <rothwell@stanford.edu>
Subject: Nuclear Waste

In response to the report in DJ#7018, "Russian nuclear plant allegedly closes after US pressure, January 14, 2003, AFP," the United States does not have 80 percent of the world's nuclear waste.

First, there are at least three types of nuclear waste: low-level radioactive waste (basically, anything that cannot be categorized in the other two categories), spent nuclear fuel (from commercial nuclear power plants), and transuranic radioactive waste (primarily from nuclear weapons production). These are not internationally recognized categories.

Second, there are many ways to characterize the size of each category: by volume, by weight of the heavy metal equivalent, or by radioactive energy.

Third, there are no reliable measures of world totals of nuclear waste. For example, it is unlikely that volumes, weights, or energy measures are known for the Mayak reprocessing plant, the subject of the article.

Where the confusion arises is that the United States with its monopoly on commercial uranium enrichment facilities until the early 1970s leased enriched uranium and nuclear fuel to commercial nuclear power plant operators in the US and other countries with the requirement that the Atomic Energy Commission and its descendants would retain ownership rights to determine the final disposition of the spent nuclear fuel. In the US this has meant the the Department of Energy (DOE) is ultimately responsible for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel in the US. The US DOE hopes to fulfill this obligation with the repository at Yucca Mountain.

The US maintains control of the spent nuclear fuel in places such as South Korea and Taiwan, which are unlikely to develop their own repositories. For the Russians to store this waste (for up to 40 years with the possibility of reprocessing or final disposal in Russia, likely in the Krasnoyarsk region), the US must give permission. Therefore, the US controls the disposition of thousands of tons spent nuclear fuel from countries most able to pay the $1 million per ton that Russia hopes to charge for interim storage. Whether these countries will be willing to pay such large sums (given that on-site storage is approximately one-quarter of this amount) and whether the Russians are willing to invest in the facilities required to manage this waste remains to be seen.

Geoffrey Rothwell
Department of Economics
Stanford University

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