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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Nuclear energy deal not welcomed by all


Staff writer

OSAKA — The nuclear energy cooperation agreement signed Tuesday by Japan and Russia is expected to be a great boon to firms like Toshiba that are seeking new international markets for their atomic power technology, as well as ensuring Japan a steady supply of enriched uranium for its own electricity plants.

News photo
Eye to eye: Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, chat during a signing ceremony for a bilateral pact Tuesday night in Tokyo. KYODO PHOTO

But the deal also raises international concerns about environmental issues related to the mining of uranium, and worldwide questions about the further spread of nuclear technology and transport safety of re-enriched uranium to Japan.

Tuesday's agreement marked the end of a two-year negotiating process between Tokyo and Moscow to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The deal specifically means Russia will provide enriched uranium to Japan's nuclear plants at a lower cost than is currently possible with contracts in other European countries. Meanwhile, Japanese firms that are world leaders in advanced nuclear technologies will be able to expand their presence in Russia and help the country modernize its atomic facilities and nuclear energy market.

"Russia has great potential in terms of the development of energy resources and infrastructure-related projects, and we hope that Japan-Russia economic relations will progress, centered on this sector," Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), told reporters Monday.

As Prime Minister Taro Aso and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were meeting Tuesday, Toshiba Corp., which has pursued nuclear cooperation with Russia these past few years, announced it signed a memorandum of understanding with Technabexport, which is a part of Atemoenergoprom, the organization that supervises the Russian civilian nuclear power generation business.

"Cooperation between the two parties will be strictly limited to the peaceful use of nuclear power and will be undertaken within the current and future framework of cooperation between the two countries' governments, as well as the international framework for the peaceful use of nuclear power," Toshiba said.

The Japan-Russia nuclear agreement is expected to provide up to $100 million worth of Russian low enriched uranium for Japan's 53 reactors and is seen as an important step toward the government's eventual goal of having atomic power provide at least 40 percent of the nation's electricity by 2017, up from about 30 percent at present.

But the deal was immediately questioned by antinuclear groups in Japan and Russia that warned that despite the promises of both Tokyo and Moscow to carry out the deal under internationally approved nonproliferation safeguards, there are huge risks.

"Japan cannot be confident that Japanese nuclear material will not be diverted to Iran, or to other countries suspected of developing nuclear weapons. The inadequacy of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards in nuclear weapons states and Russia's supply of fuel for Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant are grounds for serious concerns," Philip White of the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center and Aileen Mioko Smith of Kyoto-based Green Action said in a joint statement.

Sergei Kirienko, head of Rosatom, Russia's nuclear regulatory body, told reporters Tuesday in Tokyo that the agreement would adhere to a variety of multilateral and bilateral nonproliferation principles. But he did not specifically say the IAEA would be allowed in to inspect current uranium re-enrichment facilities, only that Russia plans to eventually construct an international uranium center that would be certified by the IAEA.

"No Russian nuclear facility related to weapons production is under 100 percent IAEA control and all facilities dealing with uranium enrichment are classified as military facilities. This means that even if the IAEA does get access to such facilities, they will see only the parts of them that are declared for civil use," said Moscow-based antinuclear activist Vladimir Slivyak in an e-mail.

"When you cannot walk through the whole nuclear facility, what kind of control are we really talking about?"

The other issue is environmental. It's possible that under the new deal, spent uranium fuel from Japanese nuclear plants that is to be re-enriched will end up at the Angasrk uranium enrichment plant near Lake Baikal, which is a World Heritage Site nearly 10,000 km from St. Petersburg, the only Russian port that has facilities to import and export nuclear materials.

This means a long train trip from Angasrk across Siberia and the Ural Mountains before the material is put on a ship and sent to Japan, raising concerns about accidents, spills and terrorist attacks. There is some talk between Japan and Russia about building a route to Vladivostok, but who would pay for a rail and port system that could transport nuclear material is an open question.

Tenex, Russia's nuclear materials exporter, and Toshiba are expected to begin discussions soon on the possible creation of a uranium storage center in Japan that they claim would prevent accidents and the threat of terrorist attacks.

But the fact there are over 100,000 tons of radioactive waste stored in Angarsk, much of it sitting outdoors in old containers, may be influencing the discussions. It is also unclear where in Japan such a storage facility might be located, given the expected public opposition.


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