Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 76

Russian environmentalists and liberal lawmakers suffered a setback yesterday when, in a second reading, the State Duma approved a controversial package of bills which could ultimately open the way for Russia to become a major importer of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. The vote appeared to put the nuclear fuel legislation back on track following the Duma’s unexpected March 22 decision to postpone consideration of the bills. Yesterday’s vote nevertheless appeared to indicate some erosion in support for the three-part legislation. Lawmakers had voted overwhelmingly in favor last December when the bills were given a first reading, but the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) and other supporters of the legislation yesterday managed to muster only between 230 and 250 votes. Passage required 226 votes. To become law the bills must still survive a third Duma reading, followed by a Federation Council vote and then presidential approval.

Yesterday’s vote, and the leadup to it, suggest that the recent removal of Yevgeny Adamov as Russian Atomic Energy Minister, and his replacement by Aleksandr Rumyantsev, has in no way lessened the ministry’s determination to pass the nuclear import legislation. Indeed, Russian news sources said that Minatom launched a furious lobbying campaign in the runup to yesterday’s vote in order to ensure a successful result. The ministry’s actions included a personal appearance by Rumyantsev before leaders of the parliament’s various factions, and a subsequent appeal by the leaders of the pro-presidential parties for passage of the bills. In addition, Minatom was presumably behind both an appeal issued to lawmakers by a group of prominent Russian scientists in favor of the legislation, and the circulation of reports saying that Russian environmental groups had also lined up behind it. The latter claim was clearly false, involving as it did two minor eco groups against the dozens of Russian and international environmental organizations which have called for the legislation’s defeat.

Yesterday’s vote appears also to disprove rumors that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office had turned against the spent nuclear fuel import legislation. While Putin himself has remained conspicuously silent about the bills, most Russian commentaries had expressed a belief that he favored the legislation. The waters were muddied on the eve of the March 22 vote, however, when reports surfaced that an eleventh hour reversal of policy in the Kremlin had been behind the decision to postpone the second reading on the bills. The subsequent dismissal of Yevgeny Adamov, who had aggressively promoted the nuclear import legislation, added to speculation that the Kremlin may have been reconsidering its position. Recently appointed Rumyantsev’s strong support for the bills suggests that that is not the case.

What is less clear is why U.S. policy on the nuclear import question did not have the same impact on yesterday’s vote it appeared to have on March 22. At that time, Russian commentators attributed the lawmakers’ unexpected decision to postpone the vote both to the Kremlin’s hesitancy and to a letter reportedly written by a U.S. State Department official. This letter reportedly indicated that the United States would block the transfer to Russia of all power reactor spent fuel subject to U.S. consent rights. That decision, reportedly based on U.S. objections to Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation was important because Washington currently controls about 90 percent of the world’s spent nuclear fuel market and is therefore in a position to put a quick halt to Minatom’s plans (see the Monitor, March 29).

Those plans, as Minatom has made clear, involve the import into Russia from abroad of some 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. Minatom has portrayed the plan as a possible savior for Russia’s declining nuclear industry, claiming that it could earn Russia US$20 billion over the next ten years. That money, Minatom claims, could be used to help clean up Russia’s own nuclear waste problem as well as to revitalize the nation’s nuclear industry. Russian environmentalists, with the backing in the State Duma of much of the Yabloko and Union of Right Wing Forces factions, have contested these claims. They have also questioned both Minatom’s estimated revenues for the project and its claims that it would devote the revenues to cleaning up Russia’s nuclear problems. More generally, these groups have also charged that the spent nuclear waste import program would turn Russia, which already has massive nuclear-related environmental problems, into the world’s nuclear waste dump. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, meanwhile, has vowed to continue fighting the nuclear import legislation. But efforts by the party yesterday simply to amend the nuclear import bills so as to provide some additional safeguards and oversight of Minatom failed to win approval (Vremya Novostei, April 9; Bellona Foundation web site, April 16, 18; Reuters, AFP, Russian agencies, April 18; Izvestia, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 19).