Radioactive-less?

The Oracle from Moscow

Nuclear-Russia-DPA
Salzstock Gorleben: The underground storage of radio-active material has long been controversial.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A former Russian energy lobbyist is funding a research program that could substantially reduce the radioactivity of nuclear waste, radically changing energy production in the process.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Bykow is developing a process known as partitioning and transmutation, or P&T, but critics say P&T is still a long way from reality.
    • Mr. Bykow plans to present his concept at the United Nations climate conference in Paris in December.
    • He claims that the process could reduce the radioactive half-life of nuclear waste from 300,000 to between 100 and 300 years.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Andrej Bykow, a one-time energy lobbyist from Russia, is best known in Germany as the man who once picked an ill-fated quarrel with EnBW, one of the country’s four energy giants. Now Mr. Bykow has turned his attention to a completely different topic – one that could change his reputation in Germany and around the globe.

He has a very bold plan, and if it becomes a reality, it will turn him into a hero to the rest of the world. Mr Bykow will be known as the man who liberated the use of nuclear power from its biggest flaw.

Like others in the world, the Russian businessman, an economist trained in the former Soviet Union, is working on the problem of reducing the radioactivity of nuclear fuel rods. Hundreds of scientists and engineers are studying the technology, known as “partitioning and transmutation,” or P&T.

Mr. Bykow says that he and his team are ahead of everyone else. “We need another five years, and then our results will be commercially usable,” he told Handelsblatt. According to Mr. Bykow, he is on the verge of a “revolutionary development.”

Western scientists are stunned – and more reserved in their prognoses.

What explains Mr. Bykow’s optimism? How much of his story is reality and how much of it is propaganda?

“What Europe has in the way of potential – in terms of technology, hardware and what's in their heads – you can’t compare that to the potential in Russia.”

Andrej Bykow

He settles into the back seat of his VW Phaeton limousine and puts on a pair of slippers, which he always does during longer car trips, he says. A crucifix dangles from the rear-view mirror. He briefly gives the driver his instructions.

The trip will take about two hours, from Moscow to Dubna, one of the centers of Russian – and formerly Soviet – nuclear research. Luminaries in the field work in Dubna, a city 120 kilometers, about 75 miles, north of Moscow that features the model of an atom in its city coat of arms. Dubna is where Mr. Bykow is meeting the scientists who are implementing his bold plan.

Mr. Bykow says that he is working with many Russian nuclear scientists, not just the ones in Dubna. He pays them for their work and for producing concrete research results. And it will soon be time to release those results, says Mr. Bykow, who intends to present his concept to the global public at the United Nations climate conference in Paris in December.

“What Europe has in the way of potential – in terms of technology, hardware and what’s in their heads – you can’t compare that to the potential in Russia,” said Mr. Bykow.

He is now sitting in a conference room at the offices of Aspekt, a company in Dubna that produces instruments to measure radioactivity. The devices are installed in many Russian airports, where they are used to detect passengers attempting to pass through customs with radioactive material in their luggage. A supplier to the Russian nuclear industry has its offices next door. In Dubna, where everything revolves around nuclear technology, research and industry have been working hand-in-hand for decades.

Mr. Bykow has been harnessing the considerable competence of Russian nuclear scientists for 15 years, bringing the most capable ones together. “We use facilities from the Soviet era that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. According to Mr. Bykow, these centers of the former Soviet nuclear research sector are filled with vast expertise, which the West has ignored.

Mr. Bykow says that he has already taken full advantage of the situation: “We can bombard all 90 elements that emerge from a reactor after two years, as the result of using a fuel rod, in such a way that the radioactivity is reduced to a fraction of what it used to be.” To achieve these results, he explains, he has had scientists perform extensive computer simulations that are largely based on insights from Soviet days.

And he is convinced that he can turn his ideas into a profitable business. It’s a process that could be particularly popular well in Germany, where the storage of radioactive material has long been one of the most controversial political stumbling blocs facing the nation, which is in the process of decommissioning many of its nuclear power plants and transitioning to renewable energy sources.

“You have to think of it this way: We take the nuclear waste from Germany and return it in clean condition,” he says.

Or almost clean: After his treatment, the radioactive half-life would only be about 100 to 300 years, instead of 300,000 years, as Mr. Bykow promises. The volume of highly radioactive waste would also decline, he adds.

The issue of final disposal of nuclear waste would no longer necessarily be associated with time periods that go beyond human imagination. The use of nuclear energy would be more readily computable and would raise fewer concerns. In addition, Mr. Bykow promises, the results of his team’s research will make it possible build reactors in the future that do not require the use of highly radioactive uranium 235, and existing reactors could also be retrofitted.

 

AndrejBykow
Making some big promises, Andrej Bykow. Source: PR.

 

Mr. Bykow is making some grandiose promises. Do they have anything to do with reality?

Hamid Ait Abderrahim is a globally renowned scientist in the field of P&T. He is the director of the multi-purpose hybrid research reactor for high-tech applications, or MYRRHA, in Mol, Belgium, which deals with P&T.

“There is no question that transmutation and partitioning are possible,” he said. “This is not alchemy, as some critics claim. We have demonstrated on a laboratory scale that it works.”

According to Mr. Abderrahim, the next step is to take the technology to a semi-industrial scale, a process that would cost €3-5 billion ($3.37-5.62 billion). After that, he explains, it would take 10 to 15 years to show that P&T also works on an industrial scale. If that works, “Germany could get rid of its nuclear waste within a few decades.”

However, it is still not clear whether this could be turned into a business model, Mr. Abderrahim adds.

In response to Mr. Bykow’s plans, Mr. Abderrahim says: “I don’t know Mr. Bykow. But he’s right when he says that we can operate P&T on an industrial scale in a few years.”

What do other experts say? Alex C. Mueller, deputy head of the French National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Paris, stresses that when it comes to P&T, the scientific community is “well beyond the stage of laboratory experiments,” but he argues an industrial application is “still in the distant future.”

Anyone who claims otherwise, says Mr. Mueller, is trying to lead us up the garden path. He also notes that the Europeans are leaders when it comes to networks and collaborative projects like MYRRHA. Russia, in his view, trails behind.

A commission appointed by the German government to resolve the final disposal of nuclear waste arrives at a somewhat vague conclusion. In a working paper that it presented in early June, the commission states that an economic cost-benefit analysis for P&T is “unaffordable at this time.”

Ortwin Renn, director of the P&T project at the German Academy of Science and Engineeering (Acatech), hopes “that the amount of high-risk nuclear waste will be reduced, and that radioactivity in disposal sites will decline much faster than without the treatment.”

According to Acatech calculations, “with successful industrial implementation, P&T reduces the volume of heat-generating waste by a third,” says Mr. Renn. This alone eases the debate over the search for final disposal sites. Mr. Renn responds evasively to the question of how many years it will take before P&T is ready for commercial application: “That depends, of course, on how aggressively the issue is pursued. However, it is not an option that is available in the short term.”

While Mr. Bykow doesn’t dispute the skepticism coming from experts in the field, he says that he approaches the issue as a businessman. Who is this man with these lofty plans?

Andrej Bykow is not an unknown entity in Germany. While working in the Russian Embassy in Bonn from 1988 to 1992, he came to love Germany and hate communism. In the years after the fall of the Iron Curtain Mr. Bykow, who describes himself as a “servant of God, businessman and economist,” began working as a middleman and lobbyist who arranged business deals, helping German companies gain a foothold in the Russian market.

Mr. Bykow, who long worked for the Russian nuclear energy ministry, was especially interested in the German energy sector. There was a great deal to distribute in Russia, and Mr. Bykow knew where the best deals were to be found.

Energy giant EnBW also availed itself of Mr. Bykow’s services. He claims that he spent a large portion of the millions in fees he commanded from them on charitable causes.

In a 2012 conversation with Handelsblatt, Mr. Bykow said that he had used the EnBW millions to pay for “84 churches, 30 monuments, 60 chess schools, an opera and three orchestras, as well as dozens of kindergartens, schools and hospitals, a million books and magazines, 200 concerts, 20 large pilgrimages, and much more.”

EnBW and Mr. Bykow parted ways long before 2012, and they are still involved in litigation and arbitration today, a legal tug of war that is likely to continue for years to come. So far, however, Mr. Bykow seems to have scored the most points in the dispute.

Mr. Bykow doesn’t like to talk about his own fortune. He is likely to have earned nine-figure sums in recent years as a consultant, middleman and lobbyist. It is also undisputed that he contributed large sums of money to his St. Nicholas Foundation. The foundation’s activities are described in its 1,500-page ten-year report. He also claims that he invested “eight-figure sums” of his own money in P&T research.

In his involvement in scientific research and the St. Nicholas Foundation, Mr. Bykow is driven by a missionary zeal. St. Nicholas is his bulwark against communism, and he is pursuing P&T research to stop climate change.

According to Mr. Bykow, the use of nuclear energy without significant risks could save the world’s climate. CO2-free electricity generation with nuclear power plants, and without substantial radioactivity problems, would make the CO2-intensive combustion of coal and natural gas unnecessary.

People who support Mr. Bykow’s program advise him to put it to the test as soon as possible, using outside experts to analyze the accumulated results. Mr. Bykow doesn’t give the impression that he will shy away from this test – only time will tell if he’s right.

 

Klaus Stratmann is one of Handelsblatt’s chief political correspondents based in Berlin. To contact the author: stratmann@handelsblatt.com 

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