Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 239

The Russian State Duma this week presented President Vladimir Putin with a golden opportunity to demonstrate the environmentalist passions about which he spoke so reassuringly just prior to his recent visit to Canada. The issue involves a contentious bill which would permit Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) to earn billions of dollars in revenue by reprocessing and storing spent nuclear rods imported from other countries. Despite fierce opposition from environmentalists, Duma deputies voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve a package of laws which would make Minatom’s dream a reality. Yesterday’s vote came on the first reading of the bill. A second Duma reading is scheduled for January 22. The bill would then have to be passed on a third reading, after which it would be sent first to the Federation Council, and then to the president’s office, for approval. The Kremlin reportedly stands behind Minatom’s efforts to win approval for the bill.

Yesterday’s vote involved amendments to two Russian laws: one on environmental protection and another on the application of nuclear energy. Russian law currently forbids the importing of nuclear materials from countries other than former East Bloc nations which have existing contracts with Russia. That list now includes Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.

But Minatom, which has pushed aggressively for passage of the new legislation, clearly has bigger things in mind. Ministry spokesmen lobbied lawmakers with the claim that Russia could earn more than US$20 billion over the next ten years by importing some 21,000 tons of waste. Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov said that Russia’s own nuclear industry is in dire need of these revenues. “We’ll get financing now and won’t disgracefully beg the International Monetary Fund for money as we do now,” he was quoted as saying. Ministry spokesmen have also made the claim that about US$7 billion of the anticipated revenues would be used to deal with areas in Russia currently contaminated by radioactivity. Another US$3.5 billion, they say, would go to the state budget, while the remainder would be used to support the atomic energy industry in Russia. Minatom officials have also said that the spent fuel would remain in Russia for fifty years, and then be sent back to the countries from which it came. They have claimed that the plan poses no environmental dangers.

Environmental groups have accused Minatom of grossly misleading the public and charge that the legislation approved yesterday will ultimately turn Russia into the world’s nuclear waste dump. They point to the fact that Russia’s own current stock of spent nuclear fuel is estimated at 14,000 tons, and argue that the country would be better advised to focus its attentions simply on dealing with that material. They also point out that Russia now has only one nuclear facility capable of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel–the Mayak facility, which is located in the Ural Mountains some 2,000 miles east of Moscow. Mayak is the world’s largest nuclear complex and is said to be one of the most radioactively contaminated sites in the world.

Environmentalists claim, moreover, that Minatom has failed to answer key questions about exactly what it has in mind for the imported nuclear fuel rods. They also charge that the ministry is looking out only for itself, and that there is little likelihood it will use revenues from the plan to clean Russia’s contaminated areas. “The ministry has gone wild trying to get cash,” Aleksei Yablokov, a one-time environmental adviser to the Kremlin, has claimed. “Everything they offer is aimed at the construction of new reactors.” Environmental groups also accuse Minatom of failing to consult with Russian nuclear waste experts–including those who worked for the State Environmental Committee, which Putin abolished earlier this year. Gosatomnadzor, the government’s nuclear safety watchdog, they say, has also been ignored. The head of the agency, Yury Vishnevsky, is said to be an outspoken critic of Minatom’s plans. He has complained that no one from his agency was invited to attend Duma hearings on the nuclear legislation held this past Wednesday. In a telephone interview he said that Russia is technically unready to accept nuclear materials for reprocessing and for storage.

The government’s more general efforts to blunt public criticism of Minatom’s plans was on display late last month when the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Committee, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, announced that an effort to hold a national referendum on environmental questions had failed. Russian environmentalists were not surprised. They had surprised authorities earlier by collecting approximately 2.5 million signatures in support of a national referendum calling for both a restoration of state environmental agencies and a ban on the import of nuclear wastes and materials into the country. Russian law requires 2 million signatures from sixty regions to initiate a referendum vote, but the Central Election Committee apparently ruled more than 600,000 of the signatures invalid. Environmental groups intend to appeal the decision in court.

According to a report published by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, Minatom’s plans will ultimately face yet another key hurdle, even if Putin signs the Russian legislation into law. That hurdle: approval by the United States government. Minatom right now is apparently banking on receiving spent nuclear fuel from such countries as Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea and China. But some Asian countries–which Minatom is said to see as a particularly lucrative market–use fuel manufactured mainly in the United States. According to Bellona, these countries have no right to export the fuel to a third country without the permission of the United States. Given that spent nuclear fuel has to be maintained for thousands of years and presents serious nonproliferation concerns, it seems unlikely that U.S. approval will be easy to come by (Moscow Times, Segodnya, December 22, Reuters, AP, December 21; Bellona.no, November 29, December 21; Greenpeace.org, October 24, December 21).