(March 19, 2007) Late January a report by the Dutch radio "discovered" the dumping of depleted uranium by (the British, German and Dutch consortium) Urenco in Russia. Although well known and publicized by the international anti-nuclear movement for about 10 years it became suddenly a public discussion in The Netherlands, with parliamentary questions being asked.
(653.5787) WISE Amsterdam - Urenco simply states it has a contract for re-enriching the uranium to natural levels, but fact is that over 80% stays behind at the enrichment plants in Russia. A smart way to get rid of the waste. According to the Dutch Environmental minister 20% of the material is transported back to Urenco, however, this figure is a high estimate. WISE uranium calculated already in 2004 that percentage only to be 16%, and since Urenco is underfeeding its plants, it means even less U-235 remains in the depleted uranium (see below).
In the last few years German, Dutch and Russian organizations raised awareness of the Urenco transports, sometimes by direct actions. One of the three plants in Siberia re-enriching the Urenco uranium is at Angarsk. (see story somewhere else in this NM)
Another 1,000 tons of depleted uranium has left the Urenco enrichment plant at Gronau (Germany) on February 1, heading for Russia. Anti-nuclear activists were able to find out the train's departure times, triggering spontaneous protests. The load of depleted uranium passed the border into neighbouring The Netherlands and is shipped from Rotterdam to St. Petersburg. Next transport will likely be at the end of March. Further protests are being organized.
Meanwhile, WISE uranium published a paper (called "Underfeeding at Urenco's Gronau uranium enrichment plant results in reasons for tails exports to Russia becoming obsolete") in which it argues that the justification for sending uranium to Russia has become obsolete. Urenco Deutschland GmbH has disclosed that it is underfeeding its Gronau uranium enrichment plant since 2004: while from 1991 to 2002, the natural uranium feed consumption of the plant virtually followed the continuous capacity increase of the plant, the feed consumption no longer followed the capacity increase from 2004 - it even began to decline. Urenco explains this with changes in product and/or tails assays, without giving any details.
Given the rapid increase of the price of fresh uranium, underfeeding may make sense, since it allows to reduce natural uranium consumption at the expense of increased separation work. A closer analysis shows that the observed decline in feed consumption must be mainly caused from a reduced tails assay.
As most of Urenco's depleted uranium tails are exported to Russia for re-enrichment, a reduced assay of the tails exported has serious consequences on the viability of any re-enrichment of these tails. It turns out that the assay of the tails delivered to Russia comes close to the assay that Urenco most likely has contracted with Russia for re-enrichment on Urenco's behalf. Therefore, unless the contractual arrangements have been changed, almost nothing remains to be re-enriched in Russia on these tails on Urenco's behalf, and the amount of recovered natural uranium sent back to Urenco tends towards zero.B This means that the official justification for sending the tails to Russia (recovery of usable uranium from the tails) has become obsolete. Since the transfer of tails to Russia rather continues, this can be seen as a further hint on the true reason for these exports: to provide a cheap tails disposition route to Urenco.
Sources: Dutch EO-Radio, 29 January 2007 / Indymedia (NL), 2 February 2007 / WISE-Uranium, 27 February 2007
Contact: WISE uranium