Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 133

Less than two weeks after they were passed on to him by the Russian Federation Council without discussion or a vote, President Vladimir Putin yesterday signed into a law a pair of bills that, if the country’s powerful nuclear energy lobby gets its druthers, will open the way for Russia to import thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. The nuclear waste legislation has been the subject of an intense political struggle in Russia between environmentalists, who say that the primary effect will be to turn Russia into the world’s biggest nuclear waste dump, and the Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom), which claims that Russia can earn some US$20 billion over the next decade by importing approximately 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. After some at times rancorous debate, the Russian State Duma passed the controversial bills on a third reading earlier this year, and the Federation Council followed that up on June 29 by sending the bills on to Putin. The upper house’s failure even to debate or vote on the bills appeared, however, to reflect not only a desire to squelch possible criticism by some dissenting governors, but to move the bills along without further inflaming broader opposition in Russia (see the Monitor, July 3). Indeed, Putin’s decision to approve the legislation may carry some political risk. Surveys indicate that the Russian population is overwhelmingly opposed to the import of foreign nuclear wastes, and critics have suggested that the project is favored primarily by one narrow group: top nuclear energy officials and the government bureaucrats who stand to make millions in hard currency revenues from the import of spent nuclear fuels.

It is presumably against this background of popular opposition that Putin issued another, related decree yesterday. It calls for the creation of a new commission that, according to some reports at least, is to be given broad oversight responsibilities of all aspects of the nuclear waste import plan. The commission will be headed by Zhores Alferov, a Nobel-prize winning scientist and member of the Russian Academy of Science who supports the nuclear waste import plan. The commission is to have twenty members in all, and will include five people from Putin’s administration and the same number from the government and from Russia’s upper and lower houses of parliament. As the Russian daily Izvestia suggested, creation of the new commission appears to be in large part a public relations move by the Kremlin aimed at reassuring the public. Whether the new body will in fact be nothing but a rubber stamp for the government and the nuclear energy establishment, or whether it will actually exercise at least some small degree of real oversight of the financial, environmental and operational sides of the waste import plan, will be suggested by the membership that is named to the commission. In comments following his appointment yesterday Alferov suggested that he would not necessarily oppose the naming to the commission of environmentalists or specialists critical of importing nuclear wastes. The coming days should see whether that assertion is borne out.

Opponents of the nuclear import plan, meanwhile, are vowing to mount a national referendum in a last ditch effort to stop the project. Yabloko and its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, together with the Union of Right-Wing Forces indicated yesterday that they will launch an effort to gather the 2 million signatures from sixty different regions necessary to force a national vote on the matter. Organizers of a similar effort last year managed to collect 2.5 million signatures in favor of a referendum, but the petition was nixed by the Central Election Commission, which ruled 600,000 of the signatures invalid. The Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which is heavily involved in trying to clean up the nuclear wastes created by Russia’s Northern Fleet, yesterday quoted a report suggesting that the Kremlin hopes to avoid a referendum vote and is trying to negotiate a compromise with Yabloko with that goal in mind. Activists of the Russian section of Greenpeace vowed yesterday to lie on railroad tracks if necessary to block the movement of any nuclear wastes into Russia’s interior from abroad. They and other opponents of the waste import legislation claim that Minatom’s claims of future revenues from the project are greatly inflated and that the nuclear industry will be hard pressed even to cover the costs of the infrastructure improvements that will be necessary to implement the plan in Russia. They have also charged at various times that Minatom has no real intention of using revenues from the project to clean up areas in Russia already contaminated by radiation, as Minatom has claimed, and that money that does not go to line the pockets of industry bureaucrats could in fact wind up financing such projects as the expansion or modernization of Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

It seems quite clear, however, that antinuclear activists will not have to start lying down on train tracks any time soon. Despite yesterday’s signing into law of the nuclear waste import legislation, news sources assert–and Minatom officials appear to confirm–that the agency has of yet signed no new waste import contracts with foreign partners and that nothing significant in this area is on the immediate horizon. Indeed, as has been reported widely in the past, the United States actually controls the disposition of over ninety percent of the spent nuclear fuel stocks that are currently being targeted by Minatom and whose import would seem to be necessary if the waste import plan is to have any chance of commercial success. And the conditions that the United States has indicated it will tie to any possible agreement in this area are conditions unlikely to be acceptable to Moscow. They include a termination of Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran–something the Kremlin has steadfastly refused to do–and a commitment by Moscow not to reprocess the spent nuclear fuels that it receives from abroad.

Continuing domestic opposition to the nuclear waste import plan, meanwhile, seems likely to ensure that officials from the government and the nuclear lobby continue their own sometimes heavy-handed publicity campaign in support of the project. Yabloko and other critics of the plan have already been described as pawns of powerful foreign interests that Russia’s nuclear lobby says are trying to keep Moscow out of the international nuclear energy market. Waste import supporters have likewise extolled what they say is the nuclear industry’s past safety record in the transportation and storing of nuclear wastes within Russia, including those that continue to be imported from former Communist bloc countries. Somewhat incongruously, however, they have also indirectly used the industry’s past failures as an argument in favor of the nuclear waste import plan. That is, Minatom and others have claimed that, because of the government’s financial constraints, Russia’s only hope of dealing with its own enormous stocks of domestically produced nuclear wastes, and of cleaning up areas currently contaminated by radiation, is to earn hard currency revenue by bringing in spent nuclear fuel from abroad. But they appear thus far to have done little to convince the public that Russia’s current nuclear industry will act any more responsibly with regard to nuclear safety and environmental security issues than did its Soviet-era predecessor (AFP,, July 11; Izvestia,, RTR, ORT, The Russia Journal, July 12).