By: Armita Haghi (Guest Writer)
Nuclear waste can be classified into three categories: low-, intermediate- and high-level waste. Items like tools or clothes, which have been lightly contaminated, are considered low-level waste, while intermediate-level waste is made up of items that have been inside the reactor, such as filters and steel components.
One of the most severe forms of high-level waste, spent nuclear fuel has been in the reactor for a number of years, generating heat and electricity. Due to its high temperature and radioactivity, it can only be managed when it is cooled and special radiation protection for on-site workers has been provided.
Strict safety regulations, technical accuracy and high costs make the handling of nuclear waste very challenging for developing countries. Because of this, they often enter into contracts with foreign companies who then facilitate their entry into the nuclear power business.
Being responsible for 18.7 percent of Russia’s electricity generation, Rosatom is the largest producer of energy in the country and third in worldwide nuclear power generation. As an organization which is currently investing in the construction of nuclear power plants in developing countries, Rosatom also plays a key role in the process of nuclear waste management.
According to the company’s website, the firm is involved in each step of the production and processing of nuclear material “from uranium mining to decommissioning of nuclear facilities and spent nuclear fuel management.”
At present, Rosatom has implemented six construction projects in Russia and 36 abroad, making Russia a pioneer in foreign nuclear development. Bangladesh, India and Turkey are some examples of countries in which the company has already invested. Egypt is also on their radar with the El Dabaa site for which an agreement has been signed in 2015.
According to the organization, nuclear fuel will be supplied throughout the entire time the plant is operating, labor force will be instructed and the site will be maintained during the first 10 years. Furthermore, Rosatom is planning on supporting the El Dabaa project by performing preliminary work in assembling public acceptance of nuclear power and by advancing the development of nuclear infrastructure in Egypt.
Contractual arrangements in the nuclear power field often follow a certain agenda. As exemplified above, Rosatom invests in the construction of a nuclear power plant, runs it for the first 10 to 15 years and thereby collects the revenue generated from the electricity production for themselves.
Furthermore, the organization provides the fuel elements which are later shipped back to Russia as spent fuel. After this time period, it hands over the business to the country in which the plant was built.
However, numerous obstacles emerge from these arrangements, such as the lack of skilled labor force, waste disposal questions and a potential situation of dependency. Dr. Kaluba Chitumbo, former Director of the IAEA Department of Safeguards and a founder of Rientec – a nuclear and renewable energy consulting company – sheds light on this issue. There are simply not enough nuclear engineers and experts in most of the countries in question.
According to Dr. Chitumbo, a solution would be to train engineers on site in the initial phases of the construction, commissioning and operation of the nuclear power plant. “In the best case, these workers and engineers have been on the site from the beginning and have been trained especially for the operation and maintenance of it.”
Lack of human resources would confront the host country with a number of technical issues. Overcoming this challenge is instrumental for the final success of the project, especially after the power plant has been handed over to the host country and has to be managed on its own.
The handling of the nuclear waste for which most of these countries do not have the capacities can be seen as another issue related to such investment agreements. As mentioned above, one option would be to ship the waste back to Russia where it ends up in a depository. However, public acceptance of longterm storage solutions remains an issue which is yet to be resolved.
Another option to be considered instead of long-term storage would be reprocessing of the used nuclear fuel. The separation of fissile materials from spent nuclear fuel would reduce the amount of high-level waste. Unfortunately, most developing countries still lack the capacity to conduct this process. Therefore, they will remain dependent on their partner companies regarding nuclear waste management in the immediate future.
Finally, as pointed out by Dr. Chitumbo, the question of dependency arises: “The danger is that a nuclear power plant is a project of 60 years and beyond. In these 60 years, certain things can change politically.” This implies that by signing such an agreement, the developing countries step into a situation of dependency.
A technical dependency implies that once the plant is built, the developing countries are obligated to buy technology to maintain the plant only from the company that has built the plant. The political situation within those countries also becomes a relevant factor in such situations. Changes of political climate between the two contractual nations could potentially put the operation and co-management of nuclear power sites at risk.
It is clear that such agreements can help developing countries facilitate the entry into the nuclear power sector. On the other hand, many of them are not yet prepared to build and maintain their own nuclear infrastructures on a sustainable basis and find themselves in a situation of dependency.
Bearing in mind the issue of scarce human, financial and technological resources, it is yet unclear if the time is right for developing countries to enter the nuclear power sector.