The aim of this article is to explore the dynamics of spent nuclear fuel management in the Soviet Union, from the origins of nuclear engineering in the 1930s to the collapse of the country in 1991. Spent nuclear fuel is analyzed in relation to other components of what is referred to as the “nuclear fuel system,” such as nuclear weapons production, breeder reactor development, uranium enrichment, and the operation of nuclear power plants. The article shows that spent fuel management in the Soviet Union centered on military applications from the 1940s up to the 1960s, after which enormous efforts were devoted to exploiting military competencies for civil purposes. A “tandem” system was partly realized in this context, in which spent fuel from VVER nuclear power plants, submarine reactors, and research installations was reprocessed and used for the production of RBMK (Chernobyl-type) fuel. The plutonium gained did not find any use, however, due to failures in fast breeder developments. RBMK spent fuel was not reprocessed. The Soviets never officially discussed the option of direct disposal of RBMK fuel and strictly distinguished between “spent fuel” and “nuclear waste.” Facing stagnation in reprocessing and breeder technology, the development came to focus increasingly on expanding interim storage capacities. But far-reaching R&D efforts in the field of nuclear waste management and storage methods meant that the Soviet Union, at the time of its collapse, had accumulated a considerable competence that might turn out to be of great value, should a direct disposal strategy be officially considered in the future.
2010. Vol. 1, no 4