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Urenco: The nuclear company and the problem with uranium waste

Germany Urenco transports of uranium hexafluoride (Urenco)

The Alano contract signed 50 years ago, gave birth to Urenco, a global nuclear power company. His growing nuclear waste problem is making him infiltrate laws – with the approval of the federal government.

The business of the uranium enricher Urenco is increasingly criticized. With locations in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and the USA, the global player is the world’s second-largest supplier of nuclear facilities. 70 percent of the enriched uranium used in the United States comes from Urenco. It also operates reactors that manufacture tritium to modernize the US nuclear weapons program.

About half of all nuclear power plants in Western Europe rely on Urenco uranium. Opponents of the nuclear power and politicians of the Left and Greens have been criticizing for years that the uranium enrichment plant in Gronau in Westphalia supplies the controversial Belgian reactors near the German border.

The Urenco subsidiary, which has an unlimited operating license despite the German phase-out of nuclear power, most recently hit the headlines in autumn 2019 when it became known that several tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) had reached Russia from Gronau since May 2019. Growing protests and blockades in NRW, the Netherlands and Russia accompanied two other means of transport along the route.

Germany |  Easter March -GronauFor years, people in North Rhine-Westphalia have been demonstrating against the Urenco uranium enrichment plant

The easiest way to get to the atomic bomb

The group was born with the signing of the Almelo contract 50 years ago, on March 4, 1970. Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain agreed to work closely together to develop a then-new technology for uranium enrichment for nuclear reactors until they were ready for use.

The new process was much more energy-efficient but had one major disadvantage: highly enriched, nuclear weapons-grade uranium can also be produced in the gas centrifuges. That is why the Almelo contract stipulated that the commercial company Urenco that was later to emerge could only produce for civilian purposes and was subject to strict control.

However, espionage was not prevented. As early as 1975, blueprints were stolen from the Dutch Almelo, used for the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and sold to North Korea, Libya and Iran in the 1980s.

The Atomic Energy Act prohibits disposal abroad

To date, the nuclear company, which is one-sixth of the energy giants RWE and Eon, is officially monitored by a German-English-Dutch committee. But state control leaves something to be desired, critics say. This is particularly evident in the handling of the weakly radioactive, depleted uranium, which is produced in large quantities as waste at all Urenco locations.

In Germany, it is prohibited to dispose of your own nuclear waste abroad. According to Heinz Smital, an expert at Greenpeace, this principle also applies in European law, but it is particularly clearly formulated in the German Atomic Energy Act. For this reason, it is completely unacceptable for him that the federal government approves uranium transports to Russia, which can only be legally described as legal by a trick: Urenco declares the depleted uranium not as “garbage” but as “valuable material” because it enriches Novouralsk again at its destination will.

Smith considers this reason to be advanced. Because of the far too low uranium content, re-enrichment is not economically worthwhile; it also produces nuclear waste again. Around 90 percent of uranium would remain in Russia as waste, he says: “These are masked nuclear waste exports, and for Urenco it is a cheap form of waste disposal.” According to Russian law, he adds, it is illegal.

Deadly fog

Udo Buchholz has outraged such nuclear waste shifts for a long time. The Gronauer lives only one and a half kilometers from the uranium enrichment plant. He fears the radioactive danger and even more the chemical one.

If, for example, a fire in the plant causes a leak in the large steel drums stored outdoors or even bursts, the escaping uranium hexafluoride could react with moisture and form a mist of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid; if you breathe it in, the poison will burn your lungs.

According to Urenco, there are no flammable materials near the containers. But the possibility of an airplane crash is not denied. In this case, the company admitted in 2002, there could be deaths in the immediate vicinity and permanent damage to the population within a radius of 4 km. The latest company brochure, on the other hand, trivializes that short-term damage to health threatens “only if the clearly visible hydrofluoric acid mist that occurs is not avoided”. For Buchholz, this is pure cynicism.

No cheese from France, but nuclear waste from Germany?

The fact that the amount of waste in Gronau decreases in the short term due to the transports to Russia does not reassure him.

“It cannot be a solution to simply export the dangers and put other people through them.” Especially not if you have to fear that the security standards at the destination are far lower than in Gronau.

That’s why he first fought against the construction, now for the closure of the German nuclear facility. And protests against the transports, as it did in 2008 after Russian activists revealed by satellite images that UF6 barrels stored in Novosibirsk were rusting away.

Uranium had been brought there from Gronau for years until Urenco’s contract partner Rosatom did not renew the contract in 2009 – also because of protests at the time. Rashid Alimov from Greenpeace Russia fears the carefree handling of nuclear waste even in the current destination of Novouralsk. However, information about this remains in the city in the Urals, where Rosatom operates a huge uranium enrichment plant.

It is all the more important for Alimov that people protested in Novouralsk for the first time during the last transport in late 2019. He was briefly arrested after a protest in St. Petersburg. He is not intimidated by this.

Protests against nuclear waste from Germany in front of the German consulate general in St.PetersburgProtests against nuclear waste from Germany in front of the German consulate general in St.Petersburg

“More and more people are realizing how absurd that is: that we cannot import cheese from France, for example, but apparently radioactive waste,” he says with regard to the EU-wide Russian sanctions.

Together with other environmental organizations, Greenpeace managed to collect 70,000 signatures against uranium imports within three months. Alimov reports that a representative of the Federal Ministry of the Environment told him when the petition was handed over that Minister Schulze (SPD) would not do anything until the end of the legislative period to stop the transports or even to close the plant in Gronau. The resistance within the coalition is simply too strong.

The third repository for Urenco waste?

A third repository, which had not previously been planned, would be necessary for German Urenco waste alone, explains atomic expert Smital. It is completely unclear who should pay the costs. Urenco Germany has to make provisions for the disposal of its waste. According to Smital, they are set too low, and yet they strain the balance sheets. Because the provisions increase with the growing nuclear waste mountain in Gronau.

But radioactive waste from Gronau was not only transported to Russia. In the past four years, 12700 tonnes of depleted uranium have been exported to Capenhurst in the UK and over 8000 tonnes to Almelo through re-enrichment contracts with the British and Dutch Urenco branches.

The garbage remains in these countries. According to research by the WDR, 12,000 tons of UF6 was also moved from the Urenco branch in Capenhurst to Russia in 2016. Another 6,000 tons will follow by 2022 – according to the contract from Gronau, Capenhurst or Almelo.

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