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The G-7 Summit on Nuclear Safety and Security: A Summit Primer

The Global Reporting Network, Issue Brief, No. 12

By Mark Hibbs

[Introduction]


On April 19-20, leaders of the G-7 countries, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus will meet in Moscow to review progress in nuclear power safety and the security of nuclear weapon materials in the former Soviet Union. This Summit Primer, prepared by Mark Hibbs, a nuclear investigative reporter with Nucleonics Week, provides an advance, issue-by-issue review of those items formally on the Summit agenda. Along with the G-7 agenda, meetings among the leaders in Moscow will include a number of broader discussions on nuclear-related issues.

Background and Agenda

Last fall, G-7 leaders and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to hold a nuclear summit conference in Moscow during the spring of 1996. The decision was made in anticipation of both the 10th anniversary of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl-4 nuclear reactor and the 1996 presidential elections in the Russian Federation, and amid growing concern about the security of nuclear inventories in the former Soviet Union (FSU). In addition, the G-7 group of advanced western industrial countries - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States - had previously made a number of assurances that they would intensify nuclear cooperation with Russia.

Prior to setting the conference agenda, the G-7 sought firm commitments from President Yeltsin that Russia would provide more information about its nuclear inventories to the G-7, would sign the international nuclear safety convention, and would assure G-7 members that they and their industries would not be subject to damage claims related to Western assistance to upgrade Soviet-design nuclear power plants. Russia agreed to take some of these steps, while also seeking both to reassure G-7 leaders it has not lost control of its nuclear weapons-related infrastructure. Russia also sought to create a platform to demonstrate that it had overcome safety deficiencies which led to the accident at Chernobyl.

According to preparatory documents obtained in early March by Nucleonics Week from diplomatic sources, the agenda for the G-7 summit, to be held in Moscow on April 19-20, and chaired by Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin and French President Jacques Chirac, will be divided into two halves. The first half will be subdivided into four topics, and the second half into three topics, as follows:

 

PART I: Safety of Civil Nuclear Installations

A. Nuclear Safety

B. Nuclear Liability

C. Energy Sector Reform

D. Nuclear Waste Management

 

PART II: Nuclear Security

E. Illicit Trafficking

F. Nuclear Materials Control and Accountancy

G. Conversion of Weapons Material

Each of the eight summit topics will be dealt with by a negotiating task force consisting of members of all delegations involved in the conference. The result of each negotiating group will be included in the final communique, which will serve as the formal record of the conference.

The agenda was agreed to in late February. Before then, at least one G-7 government had reconsidered whether it should even attend the event, because of lack of agenda focus, the hidden but transparent summit goal of aiding the Yeltsin election campaign, and Russian opposition to certain topics proposed by G-7. While the G-7 preferred to concentrate upon nuclear materials security issues and the threat of loose nukes," Russia sought instead to steer the summit toward less-controversial issues of nuclear safety - a nd only for civil installations, preferring to bracket out any discussion of Russia's nuclear defense materials or facilities.

In preparing the agenda, Russia blocked any discussion of its military nuclear facilities or programs, claiming that its national sovereignty would be at the disposition of the G-7 if these were discussed. G-7 "sherpas" - senior-level diplomats from each country who were responsible for the organization of the summit conference (the term denotes Himalayan cargo carries on mountaineering expeditions) - conceded early on that any inferences that Moscow could not control its nuclear inventories would be counterproductive to the "boost Yeltsin" aspect of the summit. Highlighting Russian nuclear material security problems would presumably play into the hands of Russian nationalists who will oppose Yeltsin during forthcoming elections.

Also at an early stage of the planning, G-7 members proposed that Belarus and Ukraine, the two countries most traumatized by Chernobyl fallout, attend the summit. (Chernobyl is in Ukraine, only a few kilometers from the Belarus border). While the nuclear security side of the agenda might have prompted including Kazakhstan in the summit (it, like Ukraine and Belarus, is committed to putting all its nuclear infrastructure under international inspections and removing all nuclear warheads to Russia), G-7 officials did not do so, in part because the Russian side indicated at the outset it would try to limit the scope of the fissile material agenda.

As it turned out, Ukraine and Belarus participation proved problematic enough. Russia, seeking to bolster its status as the equal partner of G-7 states ("G-7 plus one"), initially refused to allow Ukraine and Belarus to attend the summit on an equal basis with Russia, and sought to limit their participation only to discussions of nuclear safety issues directly related to the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. On this issue, however, the G-7 states prevailed, and all three FSU countries are expected to be involved in the entire conference agenda.

It also became clear early in pre-summit discussions that, just as the status of Ukraine and Belarus at the meeting required definition, not all G-7 states would come to the summit as equals. Particularly on issues of nuclear materials security, the nuclear weapon state members-the U.S., Britain, and France-would enjoy greater access to Russian information than non-nuclear weapon states such as Germany, Japan, and Canada. Participation of non-nuclear weapons states would work to the diplomatic advantage of Russia (which could object that, for nonproliferation reasons, G-7 could not serve as a forum for discussion of sensitive nuclear defense activities), while making sure the text of the final communique would be of a general nature.

 

PART I: Safety of Civil Nuclear Installations

 

A. Nuclear Safety

According to G-7 sherpas preparing the summit meeting, the chief aim here is to make sure that both the Russian Federation and the G-7 states all clearly endorse the existing body of global safety regulations and guidelines. It is expected that Russia and the G-7 will formally endorse the new International Nuclear Safety Convention signed in Vienna in 1995. Russia will likely agree to sign the Convention in Moscow, and that will be approved by G-7 as a commitment to good conduct in nuclear safety affairs.

The most interesting and significant question which will arise on this broad subject in Moscow is whether the G-7 and the FSU states will agree to a softening of the 1993 communique from the G-7 Munich summit. That communique, spearheaded by Germany, called for a near-term effort to shut all Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors. The German initiative in 1993 aimed, on the one hand, to eliminate the threat of a nuclear accident on its doorstep which would have the effect of creating domestic political momentum to force Germany to shut down its 20 power reactors, and, on the other hand, to aggressively create a new market in Russia for its own nuclear power industry.

Three years later, the Munich communique is a paper resolution. Other key G-7 countries, particularly the U.S. and Japan, have backed off making any hard commitments to finance a replacement of Soviet-design reactors. Even more important, German Environment Minister Klaus Toepfer, who made a political career out of his advocacy of shutting Soviet reactors, was replaced in 1994 by Angela Merkel, who does not share that conviction. One year after taking over the reactor safety portfolio, Merkel began urging caution, and now calls for a "cooperative" relationship with Russia and Ukraine on this delicate matter. A non-confrontational approach is now supported by France and the U.S. as well.

The swing in key G-7 opinion, founded on the fact that during the last 10 years the West has not succeeded in shutting a single reactor in the FSU, may also render meaningless a communique signed by G-7 and Ukraine in Ottawa last December, calling for the shutting of the Chernobyl RBMK station itself by 2000. While G-7 governments publicly exhort Ukraine to fulfill the Ottawa accord and shut the plant, ministry-level experts in these countries privately voice deep skepticism. They expect instead that Chernobyl-as well as all other RBMK units-will be operated at least until 2015.

G-7 industry has been pressing their leaderships to back off political statements calling for shutting Soviet-design reactors, in the aftermath of a watershed event in Slovakia in 1995. Then, premier Vladimir Meciar issued an ultimatum to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD): Slovakia would not accept an offer of nearly $1-billion in financing to upgrade and finish recent-design pressurized-water reactors (PWR), similar to those in the West, at Mochovce, if the bank and its political backers insisted that older-vintage PWRs, at Jaslovske Bohunice, be shut down for good. Now, Slovakia will continue to operate the Bohunice units until 2015 at least, and has begun awarding contracts to local, Czech, and-significantly-Russian industry to upgrade the reactors' safety.

It is highly unlikely that Russia at the Moscow summit will agree to any statement which would depreciate the interests of the industrial organizations tied to its powerful Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom). It can be expected to object to any statement in the final communique which would challenge its rights to operate reactors on its territory.

A major sideshow at the Moscow event will pit Russia against Belarus and Ukraine. The latter two countries hold Russia responsible for Chernobyl and, thus far without success, have demanded compensation. As noted above, until G-7 countries weighed in, Moscow sought to limit the participation of both Belarus and Ukraine at the meeting.

Finally, it is now expected that, in the wake of reports that Chernobyl management failed to disclose a case of excessive radiation exposure to a worker last fall-the incident was considered serious enough to have been classified by Ukraine as a "near accident" on the international nuclear event scale-the G-7 will raise questions about the reliability of plant management at the site to conform with international safety regulations and guidelines.

B. Nuclear Liability

Non-participation by Russia and Ukraine in international liability agreements is a key reason why so little technical assistance from Western countries has gotten through to Soviet-design reactors in these countries since the Chernobyl accident.

At issue are pledges by Russia and Ukraine that they will abide by either the Vienna or Paris Convention on Third-Party Nuclear Liability. These conventions establish the principle that the owner-operator of a nuclear facility in a member state is wholly responsible for safe operation. They also fix a ceiling of liability to be paid by industry and government organizations, and allow for the setting up of a national insurance pool to cover third party liability in the case of an accident.

In addition to the failure of Ukraine and Russia to conform with international liability standards, neither country has demonstrated to the G-7 that there is a financial and insurance infrastructure in place to assure that liability damages will be paid in the case of a severe accident.

Without such an international liability agreement, a company supplying equipment to a reactor in either country would face billions of U.S. dollars in potential damage claims made by facility operators in the case of a severe accident. The behavior of Ukraine, particularly, in post-1990 negotiations over the status of nuclear weapons on its territory, does not inspire confidence that Kiev or Moscow will act with restraint in this regard.

The EBRD has concluded an indemnity statement covering work on safety-related projects financed by the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Account, for the Kola, Novovoronezh, and Leningrad nuclear power stations only. Similarly, some Western countries, and their leading nuclear supply firms, have entered into separate, bilateral negotiations with Russia to settle liability questions in advance of scheduled deliveries of equipment to reactors. But the G-7 wants a more coordinated approach. In part because of national economic competition for the projects, the West is on the threshold of establishing the precedent that the West will assume liability in the case of an accident at a FSU facility.

Russia has been negotiating an agreement with G-7 countries on a nuclear liability agreement for over three years, without achieving a major breakthrough yet. While the EBRD-Russian agreement covers work provided by Western companies for EBRD-financed safety projects, it does not provide legal cover for any damage suits that might be brought against vendors or governments outside of the Russian Federation.

The insurance industry in the G-7 has been conducting independent surveys to determine whether sovereign Russian or Ukrainian liability pledges can be translated into reality in the case of an accident. The answer thus far is a qualified no.

There is also no optimism that Russia will join either the Vienna or Paris conventions anytime soon. One problem is an ongoing debate at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which is hosting an expert review of the extent of fixed liability coverage under the Vienna Convention. This is set presently at $500 million. But Belarus and Poland - geographically close to the sites of Soviet-designed reactors - are pushing for a radical increase in the liability coverage for operators, into the range of several billion dollars. This is certainly not encouraging Russia or Ukraine to join the conventions.

A statement on liability in the Summit's final communique will likely be a general one, since Ukraine and Russia will not be the only states at the summit which have not signed either of the two international conventions. The U.S. and Japan, likewise, are absent and instead have set up their own independent national liability coverage regimes. It is expected that the final communique will call for a global harmonization of nuclear liability law, a subject which thus far has resisted any expert consensus.

C. Energy Sector Reform

This item was included on the agenda primarily because it follows from lip service uttered at previous G-7 summits urging in general terms the spread of market economy behavior internationally. The agenda item is also particularly linked to the text of last December's Ottawa communique, since G-7 there has already agreed to improve hydropower and fossil-fueled generation equipment in Ukraine as a precondition to shutting Chernobyl.

No direct reference at the summit will be made to the situation on the energy markets in FSU countries. But in the background, G-7 has urged FSU to increase energy prices to eliminate waste of resources and permit capital investment in energy production infrastructure - itself a major contribution to nuclear safety.

The most pressing area calling for market reform in the Russian nuclear sector is in the complex and opaque relationship between reactors, utility and power distributing organizations, Minatom, and electricity consumers. Last November, Minatom head Viktor Mikhailov warned premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, as well as economic reform czar Chubais, that the economic situation at nuclear power plants was growing worse by the day, and that funds had to be found to prevent workers at three reactors from going on strike. The fundamental problem is Russian law, which in 1994 was changed to virtually forbid power generators from shutting off electricity to individuals and organizations which were not paying their electric bills. That policy was further supported last year, after the decision by a local government to turn off power at a naval base nearly triggered a meltdown in a submarine reactor.

In the meantime, while power prices are not allowed to increase, costs of industrial inputs faced by operators of nuclear reactors - skilled labor, engineering services, machines and equipment, and fuel - have risen to Western levels. Officials at the stations admit that the deteriorating financial situation of the reactors is becoming a nuclear safety problem. It should be recalled that at Chernobyl-4 in 1986, safety systems had been switched off because it was felt they interfered with electricity production. Similar violations have been recorded by nuclear regulators at reactors in Russia and Ukraine as recently as 1993.

D. Nuclear Waste Management

This topic will be dealt with briefly at the summit at the request of Japan, which is now involved in a long dispute with Russia over Russia's persistent dumping of low-level liquid waste (LLW) from its Pacific Fleet into the Pacific Ocean. The matter is harming Russo-Japanese relations, already damaged by the feud over the ownership of the Kuril islands. According to Japanese officials, the Pacific nuclear waste issue is preventing Japan from entering into a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia.

Japan has agreed in principle to finance treatment of some Russian naval waste, but translating Tokyo's pledges into reality has encountered difficulties, and the issue continues to raise ill-will between Japan and Russia.

G-7 officials have said in advance that there will likely be a general decree in the final communique urging all parties, including Russia, to cease dumping of radioactive wastes. Environmental groups on hand at the margin of the G-7 summit would like to broaden the scope of the waste dumping subject to include both Britain and France, which discharge some nuclear wastewater from bulk spent fuel reprocessing plants into European coastal waters.

 

PART II: Nuclear Security

 

E. Illicit Trafficking

The final communique of the Summit will bear witness to the resolve of Russia and the G-7 to continue cooperation to stem the flow of nuclear contraband from FSU inventories to the West.

Under the USSR, the smuggling of nuclear goods was unheard of. Since 1990, however, over a thousand cases of stolen items have been reported by Western governments, primarily in Europe. Most of the cases are frauds, and all but a handful involve low-grade uranium (natural uranium in the form of "yellowcake" [U3O8]; low enriched uranium (up to about 3.5% U-235) in the form of uranium oxide [UO2]; ion sources such as cesium-137, strontium-90, or cobalt-60; standard samples of nuclear materials and rare earth elements (usually in milligram quantities); lightly radioactive scrap metals; and worthless ore samples and compound "cocktails."

In 1993, however, three cases involving sub-significant quantities of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide were revealed. These led to a German initiative to involve the IAEA in examining the finds of nuclear material smuggling. That initiative was paralleled by a European Union (EU) initiative to boost the profile of its Euratom nuclear agency in the combating of nuclear smuggling.

Also during 1993, German intelligence, supported by the office of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, tried to change German constitutional law to allow German spies to "sting" sample quantities of nuclear materials on the territory of the FSU. This initiative was boosted during the early days after a small quantity of plutonium oxide was seized in Munich Airport. At the time, the German government claimed it had scored a smashing success against a "nuclear mafia" in Russia. As a more critical appraisal of the Munich case has prevailed, however, in the wake of a German parliamentary investigation of the role of German agencies and their operators in the affair - cooler heads have prevailed and German intelligence has not been given greater freedom of action in Russia.

Perhaps ironically, the post-Munich German initiative to involve international organizations, including the G-7, in tracking of FSU-related nuclear smuggling is essentially limited by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Under the NPT, the nuclear weapons states - U.S., France, Britain, and China, as well as Russia - are not required to provide the IAEA or any other international organization any information about their nuclear materials production or inventories. This means that Russia, which the German government in 1993 accused of not being in control of its stockpiles, has been able to cite the NPT in refusing to provide the IAEA or any Western state detailed information necessary for G-7 members to solve the riddle of where smuggled nuclear materials found in Europe are being diverted from.

Russian resistance during the preparation of the Moscow summit to discussion of its military nuclear activities is simply a corollary of its firm position that the NPT requires no further disclosure by Russia in this area. Russia's position will continue to weaken any G-7 attempt to coordinate a multilateral approach to controlling smuggling in the future, since the gravest threat is seen as the future diversion of weapons stockpiles (well over 100 metric tons (MT) of plutonium and about 1,200 MT of weapons-grade uranium). It must be noted, however, despite alarmist non-official accounts to the contrary, that no evidence has yet been brought to light that any of these materials have been stolen and diverted to "rogue" states or parties outside the FSU.

F. Nuclear Material Control And Accountancy (MC&A)

In the meantime, G-7 countries, dominated by the U.S., have been spending money to improve nuclear materials security in the FSU. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its affiliated laboratories have programs in place targeting key installations with large amounts of weapons-grade uranium (HEU) and plutonium in Kazakhstan and Russia. A short list of Russian facilities - about a dozen locations, including a laboratory located in Obninsk, a city south of Moscow from which Russian intelligence has asserted the Munich plutonium was diverted - is now subject to cooperation agreements between Minatom and DOE. Other countries have provided less assistance in this area.

Improvements in MC&A in the FSU are essential to reduce the threat of future nuclear diversions of the huge Soviet inventory. According to officials at the Russian regulatory agency Gosatomnadzor (GAN), fissile materials are stockpiled on about 900 sites in the FSU. Russia passed a nuclear law in 1995 cementing GAN's primary role as the safeguards and control agency for nuclear materials. However, a decree by Yeltsin, passed on behalf of Minatom head Viktor Mikhailov, excluded GAN from any authority in the surveillance of defense-related materials - by far the most acute potential diversion threat. And GAN has no resources to seriously undertake an inventory of even civil nuclear materials, including a stockpile of about 30 MT of separated reactor plutonium at Chelyabinsk-65 (Ozersk). Thus far, GAN has been able to examine only bookkeeping records of Soviet and post-Soviet nuclear materials production and processing. It has not taken any physical inventory at any plutonium or uranium processing plant to determine for itself how much fissile material is on hand.

G-7 governments, led by the U.S., have pledged some assistance to GAN and laboratory facilities, such as the Kurchatov Energy Institute, to improve MC&A and nuclear safeguards. Under a Congressional project set up in 1992, the so-called Nunn-Lugar program, the U.S. has budgeted over $1-billion for MC&A-related assistance in the FSU. This future direction of Nunn-Lugar will be subject to bilateral side meetings at the summit, but will not be on the official G-7 agenda. Likewise, assistance from the European Union, its nuclear agency Euratom, and bilateral aid, will not be on the agenda of the meeting.

In advance of the summit, G-7 preparatory documents indicate, there will be no additional financial commitments made by the G-7 side to stem the flow of nuclear materials trickling into the West from Russia, in tune with the general declaratory nature of the expected final communique.

G. Conversion of Weapons Materials

With G-7 summit leader France and Russia in the foreground, the final communique will sanctify the use of plutonium fuels, in the form of mixed oxide (MOX), uranium/plutonium fuel, in civilian reactors to reduce the world's inventories of weapons plutonium.

The resolution will spell a defeat for environmentalist critics who argue that, instead, weapon plutonium should be vitrified and buried in the form of high-level waste (HLW).

At present, there are several proposals now being studied for the transformation of weapons plutonium into MOX and its burning in reactors. In particular, a French proposal calls for providing MOX fabrication technology to Russia, then allowing Russia to make the fuel and both use it in its own VVER-design power reactors and also sell the material on the global market. A Canadian-U.S. initiative, now under study by DOE and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), calls for a joint effort to process U.S. weapons plutonium into MOX for burning in Canadian power reactors, while simultaneously converting Russian weapon plutonium into to MOX in Russia, with Canadian assistance (and probably with U.S. aid) and burning in reactors in Russia and/or in Canada.

A German proposal, to transfer Russian weapon plutonium to Germany for processing in a German MOX plant, followed by burning the MOX in German and other reactors, was abandoned after it got no support from Kohl in late 1995, and encountered opposition by Mikhailov - who incidentally signaled that Minatom would not provide its weapon plutonium free of charge (as had been advanced by the Germans). The history of the German gambit illuminated clearly that Russia has two goals in agreeing to international programs to convert its plutonium inventory: 1) to obtain MOX technology from G-7 states, and 2) to earn hard currency by sales of fabricated MOX to G-7 and other advanced nuclear countries.

The same goes for Russian sales of weapon-grade uranium. Four years ago, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a deal whereby Minatom would sell 500 MT HEU to the U.S. in exchange for cash. The deal has gone forward, but very slowly. While originally promoted in the U.S. as an arms control initiative - meant to soak up Russia's immense excess weapons uranium inventory - the DOE-Minatom deal is now mired in problems of a commercial nature. The U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC), a DOE enterprise which faces privatization, is resisting import into the U.S. uranium fuel market of Russian uranium blended down and converted from its defense stockpile.

On the margin of the summit, there may be discussion of a related issue: ongoing negotiations between Russia and EU parties for supply of weapon-grade uranium from Russia to European research reactors for fuel. This transaction is opposed by the U.S., under a policy of opposing all commerce in weapons-grade uranium fuel - the U.S. has refused to supply its own weapon-grade uranium to the EU. Washington believes a pending Russian-EU deal to sell weapons uranium for fuel would negate the U.S. deal with Russia to convert 500 MT of weapons material to low-enriched (not weapons-usable) fuel for power reactors. The American logic is that while Russia agreed to an arms control deal to water down about half their weapons grade uranium stock, a deal with the EU for weapons-grade research reactor fuel would signal that there was an inventory of about 700 MT which Russia is willing to sell into the open market as weapons-grade material.

Expected Results

To most G-7 officials interviewed by Nucleonics Week, the results of the Moscow summit have been heavily discounted in advance. Preparation has taken place in an atmosphere of reservation and realism - compared to the heady results of the Munich summit in 1993, when some G-7 states lobbied to pledge billions of dollars to make Russia safe for nuclear power.

The 1993 effort quickly became unfocused, in large measure because individual G-7 members did not agree on the priority of the issues. Germany and France - partly with an eye on potential business contracts to keep "national champion" nuclear vendor companies at full employment - pushed for a great G-7 financial commitment. Other countries, such as the U.S., but later also Japan (now the world's most dedicated nuclear power state) backed off. Nuclear safety assistance was "kicked upstairs" to the G-24. A steady but modest stream of assistance has flowed, hindered by the absence of liability infrastructure and still-looming questions in the West about Russian transparency on safety issues.

A fundamental problem remains: the G-7 want Russia to make a much stronger commitment to international rules of behavior in nuclear materials control and safety, while still recognizing that key Western states depart from international liability regimes and, for the nuclear weapons states, are also unwilling to assure transparency about all their own nuclear activities.

Finally, the G-7 organizers made clear to Yeltsin before the meeting that the Moscow summit is a one-off event. There are no advance commitments by the G-7 to a follow-up conference. The G-7 will also make no additional financial commitments (a major departure from Munich) in the areas of nuclear safety or MC&A.


Mark Hibbs is currently the European Editor of Nucleonics Week and has reported on nuclear affairs since 1986. Among many other nuclear issues he has investigated cases of smuggling of Russian fissile materials. He has won a number of journalism awards.
Mark Hibbs can be reached at :
McGraw Hill, Pressehaus 1, D-5300, Bonn, Germany
Phone: 49-228-215-051/Fax: 49-228-218-849 - Email: mhibb@mh.com

Source: Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, Mark Hibbs - New York University, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. Published originally by the Service de Documentation de l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lyon (I.E.P). Copyright ©, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lyon. 1996. Reproduction is authorized for non-commercial purp


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