INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY
The Director General
The Honourable Victor Mikhailov
Minister for Atomic Energy
Ul. B. Ordynka. 26
Dear Minister Mikhailov,
I have the honour to refer to the international Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) programme, which originated in the United States and has become almost world-wide over the last several years with the full participation of your country. The objective of this programme is to limit the use and location of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel.
The RERTR programme assists research reactor operators to convert their reactor cores from burning HEU to low enriched uranium (LEU) that is less than or equal to 20% enrichment. When and where the possibility exists, the programme is facilitated and sustained by the ability of the reactor operators to return their spent fuel to the country where it was originally enriched.
The plan in the former USSR was to convert research reactors in two steps, firstly to 36% enrichment and secondly to less than or equal to 20% enrichment. It was implemented in parallel with the original RERTR programme in the United States and has gone a long way to reducing proliferation concerns about research reactor HEU of Russian origin. Nevertheless, to reach and sustain the objective of the RERTR programme, the possibility of your country accepting the return of foreign research reactor fuel of Russian origin should be seriously considered at this stage.
Many foreign research reactor operators with fuel of Russian origin are experiencing problems with the management of their spent fuel. Several spent fuel stores are filled to capacity and there is concern about the integrity of the ageing fuel. The research institutes in question face the prospect of building extra spent fuel storage capacity or permanently shutting down their research reactors. Countries with research reactors but with no nuclear power programme will eventually have to construct permanent spent fuel repositories for relatively small quantities of spent fuel, if the possibility of sending it back to Russia is not offered to them. The cost of such a facility is likely to be much greater than the cost of reprocessing the fuel in its country of origin, and therefore, if the cost of transportation and subsequent reprocessing is reasonable, paying for spent fuel to be reprocessed in its country of origin could be an attractive proposition for the research institute in question. Some of the research facilities concerned by this question are the only sources of radioisotope production for medical uses in these countries and their closure would limit the benefits of nuclear medicine and hinder the progress of fundamental science in many disciplines.
I am fully aware that certain legislative difficulties will be encountered when trying to address the issue of foreign research reactors returning their spent fuel to Russia. Nevertheless, the Agency hopes that your Ministry will manage to present convincing political, non-proliferation and economical arguments to overcome such difficulties and initiate appropriate changes in legislation. On 1 July 1993, I wrote a similar letter to the Secretary of Energy of the United States of America urging the Department of Energy to reinstate its Off-Site Fuels Policy for the return of foreign research reactor fuel of U.S. origin. There are also legal barriers in the U.S. that have to be overcome before the acceptance of foreign research reactor fuel can take place. To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act the U.S. Department of Energy is legally bound to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), leading to a Finding of No Significant Impact, before acceptance of foreign research reactor spent fuel can be reinstated. The preparation of such an EIS is well advanced.
If the RERTR programme goals could be achieved and both major supplier countries, the U.S. and Russia, take back spent research reactor fuel, international trade in HEU for research reactors will almost completely disappear and spent HEU fuel will be safely stored in only a few locations.
The Agency stands ready to help in this worthwhile international endeavour in any way it can, consistent with its mandate and budgetary constraints.
Accept, Sir, the expression of my highest consideration.
With best personal regards,
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