Uranium, on which the world depends

December 18, 2017

Mr. Gleb Efremov, the General Director of the International Uranium Enrichment Center answered the questions of the «Rhythm of Eurasia”.
- Mr. Efremov, if we look at the evolution of uranium ore management by the man, the technological line has long had a dual purpose - peaceful and military ones. What is the philosophy of establishment of the International Uranium Enrichment Center (IUEC) in the Division of Rosatom?
- Indeed, the nuclear industry with its materials, products, technologies, equipment is a dual-use area. Initially, nuclear projects had exclusively military purpose, and only with the creation of the first nuclear power plant in Obninsk in 1954 the atom did obtain its second, the peaceful purpose. Since then, many countries have selected the energy production based on the nuclear decay of the uranium atom as a way of electricity generation.
- Mr. Gleb Efremov, the General Director of the International Uranium Enrichment Center (IUEC)
- The desire to raise the level of its own energy security and self-sufficiency is the legitimate right of any State, it is enshrined in the provisions of Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968, which is joined insofar by 190 countries. Article IV recognizes the right of any State for the benefit of nuclear energy and the development of technologies in this field, while preserving the obligation of its use in exclusively peaceful purposes.
- And this is the very point, where the issue of so-called sensitivity of nuclear fuel cycle technologies arises - the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel with separation of plutonium. As the cornerstone of the problem, it does not give an unambiguous answer: where is the line, beyond which the development of peaceful sensitive technology in a non-nuclear state grows into a threat to the creation of nuclear weapons and its components.
- The IUEC project was implemented to avoid such risks of development the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons along with the simultaneous expansion of the peaceful use of atomic energy. The essence of the project is to provide a guaranteed supply of services on uranium enrichment or enriched uranium products in the event of an outbreak in the commercial market. The IUEC is a kind of insurance mechanism, which eliminates the necessity for States that develop or make the decisions on the beginning of development of atomic energy to start the elaboration of own sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technologies in connection with uncertainty in reliability of supplies from the commercial market.
- Is there a geographical or political framework for the activities of the Uranium Center?
- Our project has no geographical boundaries. Today any state can become a member of the IUEC, provided such state does not develop sensitive uranium enrichment technology on its territory and shares the main goals and objectives of the IUEC: improvement of the level of guarantees for the supply of the nuclear fuel cycle products and services along with the preservation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The political conditions for entering the IUEC club include mandatory membership of the country in the NPT and the IAEA.
- Are issues of diversification of uranium ore imports to Russia pending due to the backdrop of anti-Russian sanctions because of the conflict in the Ukraine?
-First of all, I would like to note that today Russia is the second country in the world in terms of uranium reserves, which should be enough for about one hundred years of operation to cover all the needs of the domestic and overseas projects of State Corporation Rosatom. This is primarily ensured by the acquisition by Rosatom in 2013 of a 100% stake in uranium mining company Uranium 1, which owns mines in Canada, Kazakhstan, Tanzania and the USA. As far as I know, no sanction mechanisms against Rosatom has not been introduced, the embargo on deliveries of uranium to Russia has not been announced.
- What country is the leader in uranium ore reprocessing from the technological point of view?
- If the issue is about conversion of uranium ore, then I believe today everyone that implements this kind of reprocessing have effective technologies. If it is a question of extraction of natural raw materials, in my opinion, the most effective method is underground leaching, which provides an opportunity to obtain the necessary uranium raw materials from the bowels at the lowest costs. However, this extraction method is not available everywhere, only if the appropriate geology and soils are available on the site. Here, Kazakhstan was the most fortunate.
- The agreement signed by the IAEA and the President of Kazakhstan Mr. N. Nazarbayev, the opening of the Low-enriched uranium storage (LEU) bank in Kazakhstan caused a resonance in social networks. The event received sharp criticism: “Kazakhstan is turned into a world nuclear waste dump." Is the situation concerns the nuclear legacy of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk? Could you comment on the probability of emergency situations in the Bank of LEU in Kazakhstan?
- I am very familiar with such public messages, because we heard something like this in 2010, creating the first bank of low-enriched uranium in Angarsk. The biggest mistake of ordinary people is to misunderstand that radioactive waste is different from nuclear materials. Today, nuclear materials serve us in our daily lives: burning in the cores of power reactors, they give us light and heat. During operation in research reactors - ensure the conduct of the most important scientific research, provide the development of radiopharmaceuticals for oncological patients and diagnostic tools for a wide range of diseases. The performance of nuclear materials consists in its decay inside the reactor vessel, which is accompanied by the release of heat and emission of a flow of particles.
- The only possible condition for the onset of a critical situation in the storage of nuclear materials is the emergence of a self-sustaining chain reaction of the decomposition of the material with the release of thermal energy outside the reactor vessel. The development of such situations in the places of storage of nuclear materials, and in particular at the sites of LEU Banks, is impossible. This is achieved by placing a strictly defined amount of nuclear material in one cask and geometrical arrangement of the casks themselves. The strict requirements of the IAEA standards in the area of nuclear materials management, under which patronage the establishment of the LEU Bank in Kazakhstan is today, the 24-hour radiation and visual monitoring of the site by the Agency, the availability of modern safety and physical protection systems in the places of nuclear materials storage, allow to judge the high degree of reliability and safety of such facilities.
- It should also be noted that for our site in Angarsk and for the site in Ust-Kamenogorsk, where the nuclear material of the Kazakhstani bank will be located, low-enriched uranium is not a kind of a new nuclear material. Throughout the life of our facilities, we have accumulated extensive experience in its management and, most importantly, there has been no single accident.
- As for radioactive waste, which has a negative impact to the environment and people, these are the products of the final stage of the nuclear fuel cycle arising from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) after its discharge from the reactor. These materials are present at specialized SNF reprocessing sites, require the presence of a special infrastructure for the facility for the use of nuclear energy, and are subject to isolation at specialized landfills. Unequivocally, there is simply no such material at the sites of LEU Banks! Therefore, to say that the low-enriched uranium storage is a garbage dump with nuclear waste is at least technically illiterate.
- From your point of view, what is wrong with the Eurasian energy market today? In what way is the solution - political or technological?
- The crisis in the nuclear industry, caused by the events at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant in 2011, has resulted in a large number of negative situations in the region. First of all, it is the continuing lack of clear certainty in energy development programs in a number of countries. In my memory, there have been several cases when plans within the framework of national energy programs have undergone changes, and of a cardinal nature. The global market of nuclear suppliers reacts sharply to such things, which leads to its imbalance and lower prices. As a result, we have already witnessed the onset of, to put it mildly, the complexities of some of the world's largest players in the nuclear pool. The continuing aggravation in general world politics, the decline in the level of industrial production in a number of countries, I am sure, also do not add these processes stabilization and straightening. I'm not talking about the growth of the market.
As for the technological component of the market, then, in my opinion, not everything is so bad. The pace of construction of new NPP units in the Eurasian region, the continued successful work of Russian nuclear scientists to create a closed fuel cycle - all this gives confidence in the availability of a sustainable potential for the development of the energy market and its emergence in the near future to the level of growth.
The solution of existing problems must begin with the political plane, it is necessary to do this through collective efforts, through the exchange of information and best practices. This is the only way to achieve a positive result.
- How do you consider the integration tasks of the Eurasian Economic Union for the development of a unified energy market, which countries of the EAEC and the CIS are on the cooperation map of the IUEC? Is a fuel-energy consolidation possible within the framework of the EAEC?
- Fuel and energy consolidation is an important and necessary process for building up the integration processes within the framework of the EAEC. Because there is no or ever be equal opportunities and conditions amongst the contracting parties for the development of energy market due to the lack of equal access to natural and raw material resources, it is important to make any integration processes for actors of integration a non-discriminatory and cost-efficient.
As for the countries on the IUEC cooperation map we are open to any country that shares our goals and objectives.
- The federal program «Nuclear Energy Technologies of the New Generation for the Period to 2020» aims to study new ways of using the energy of the atomic nucleus. In what state are the designated vectors of development?
- The performance of studies on the program for creation of new nuclear energy technologies is the correct and most important way of scientific development of the industry. The main objective is the development of fast reactors with a closed nuclear fuel cycle. The achievement in this area is the commissioning on December 10, 2015 of the world's first commercial BN-800 unit at Beloyarsk NPP. Thus, in practice, the reality of resolution of this task has been proven. The transition of energy sector to this type of reactor will make a revolutionary breakthrough, this ensures the fuel supplies for the mankind for many centuries. It does not need to be mined: it lies in dumps and warehouses. There are some technical issues, but these issues are sure to be resolved.


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