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Russia quits uranium tailings imports over safety concerns-1

Russia will not reprocess any foreign uranium tailings - waste from the enrichment process - until safer methods are found, the head of nuclear watchdog said Friday.
(Recasts, adds Kiriyenko quotes, background, deals with Japan and Kazakhstan)

IRKUTSK, June 22 (RIA Novosti) - Russia will not reprocess any foreign uranium tailings - waste from the enrichment process - until safer methods are found, the head of nuclear watchdog said Friday.

Western nuclear power companies have been sending waste from the uranium enrichment process to Russia, including 'unusable' uranium hexafluoride and uranium tailings, since the 1990s.

Speaking to journalists at a uranium enrichment center, the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex in Siberia, Sergei Kiriyenko said: "France and Germany have less advanced technology for enriching uranium, and we 'squeeze out' [additional uranium] from their uranium hexafluoride. However, we have now ceased to sign such contracts, and will not prolong the existing ones."

Refined, powdered uranium, known as 'yellowcake', is purified before uranium enrichment, becoming uranium hexafluoride. The compound is then heated to become a gas, and spun in a centrifuge to separate the heavier U-238 isotopes from the lighter U-235 isotopes.

Russian companies have until now been re-processing a portion of leftover uranium hexafluoride (UF6) from abroad. Thousands of tons of hazardous waste UF6 remains in Russia, most of it at the chemicals complex in Angarsk.

Last year, Kiriyenko pledged to stop tailings imports in response to local environmental protests.

All existing contracts involving the Angarsk complex, the regional economic mainstay and the main asset of the newly established international uranium enrichment center, will expire by 2010, he said.

"We are now looking for technology to defluorinate uranium tailings. And if we fail to find a solution, I will ban tailings imports into Russia," the nuclear chief said.

He said this would not mean the loss of a profitable business, because enrichment contracts under the Russian-Kazakh uranium enrichment center agreement would quadruple the complex's output by 2015.

He said the project is the second Russian-Kazakh joint venture in the nuclear sector, following a uranium-producing asset based in Kazakhstan. "We want to build a facility with 5-mega-SWU enrichment capacity, which means we will need to invest $2.5 billion in centrifuges alone," Kiriyenko said.

He said Russia has enough uranium deposits to ensure steady supply of raw materials for its enrichment plants for 30-50 years ahead.

"I am sure that we have enough natural uranium for decades ahead," he said.

Addressing Japanese concerns on the openness of the Russian uranium mining industry, Kiriyenko said a key agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear power, clearing most roadblocks, could be signed later this year.

"The main challenge for our relations with Japan is a pending intergovernmental agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear power. We are ready to prepare all the documents for signing later this year," he said.

Last fall, Russia's nuclear equipment exporter Techsnabexport (Tenex) signed a deal with Japanese Mitsui & Co to mine uranium in Eastern Siberia. This was the first deal in which a foreign company was given up to 25% in a future uranium mining project, showcased as a sign of Russia's openness in the sector.

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