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Nuclear waste shipment leaves Germany for Russia via BBC News

A shipment of 600 tonnes of depleted uranium has left a nuclear fuel plant in Germany bound for Russia, a Russian environmentalist group says. 

Twelve rail cars left the Urenco plant in the town of Gronau, close to the Dutch border, on Monday 22 June, according to the Ecodefense group.

The waste will reportedly be moved by sea and rail to a plant in the Urals.

Urenco told the BBC its uranium would be further enriched in Russia and the process met environmental standards.


Why is the waste being sent to Russia?
According to the report (in Russian) by Ecodefense, some of the waste will be shipped by sea to Russia via the port of Amsterdam. 

It will, the group says, eventually arrive at the Ural Electrochemical Combine in Novouralsk, 3,400km (2,500 miles) away in Russia’s Ural Mountains.

The group believes that nearly 3,000 tonnes of depleted uranium have already been shipped from Germany to Russia this year.


Urenco, which is a partnership between German, British and Dutch companies, said its representatives had inspected the facilities involved in the process and had found that they complied with “all internationally recognised logistics standards, which includes handling, storage, safeguarding and processing of nuclear material, as well as appropriate environmental standards”.

Why are environmentalists so concerned?
One of the big questions is how much of the waste is eventually returned to Germany, with activists arguing that most of it stays in Russia.

There are also fears of toxic pollution in the event of any spill.


On 15 June, a petition to stop the shipments was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was signed by environmental groups and activists from Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

The petition calls for an end to the “colonial policy of moving hazardous cargoes from Europe to Russia’s Siberian and Ural regions”.


What risks are associated with depleted uranium?
Depleted uranium (DU) contains a reduced proportion of Uranium-235, which is an isotope used as fuel in nuclear power stations.

Reprocessing can allow fresh fuel to be produced, and the nuclear industry in Germany prefers to describe DU in this context as “recyclable material” rather than “nuclear waste”.

Typically taking the form of powder, DU can be disposed of as low-level radioactive waste if converted to chemically stable compounds, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says.

It can be harmful if ingested or inhaled in sufficient amounts although “uranium is likely to become a chemical toxicology problem before it is a radiological problem”, according to the NRC.

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