Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 127

Controversial plans to import thousands of tons of nuclear waste into Russia took yet another big step forward last week when Russia’s Federation Council passed on to President Vladimir Putin a package of bills that could make the plan a reality. The June 29 decision by Russia’s upper house follows a vote earlier last month by Russia’s lower house–the State Duma–in which lawmakers narrowly approved on third reading the controversial nuclear waste import legislation (see the Monitor, June 11). Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom), which has been the driving force behind the bills, appears now to stand on the threshold of a monumental victory that could put billions of dollars in foreign revenue in its own coffers, and that could, ultimately, reshape the international nuclear energy market. Formal approval of the nuclear waste import plan awaits only the Russian president’s signature. Implementation of the Minatom program, however, still faces an array of practical hurdles formidable enough to raise serious questions about its viability. Russian environmental groups, meanwhile, together with other critics both inside and outside of Russia, continue to dispute not only the plan’s viability, but its desirability as well. They have denounced the Minatom program as a sham, and claim that its one most significant consequence will be to turn Russia into the world’s biggest nuclear waste dump.

The nuclear waste import legislation actually consists of three bills whose practical impact would be to amend existing laws that forbid the import and storage of foreign nuclear wastes in Russia. One of the three bills–presumably added as political cover for lawmakers–was actually approved by a vote on June 29. It deals with measures to begin cleaning up current areas of nuclear contamination in Russia, and was expected to win strong support in the Federation Council. The surprise, however, was the council’s decision to dispense with any discussion or vote on the two more controversial bills and simply to pass them on to the president. The move conformed to the Russian constitution, but appeared designed to ensure that a group of Russian governors opposed to the legislation did not get an opportunity to air its views. Opinion polls have suggested that the Russian public is strongly opposed to importing nuclear wastes into Russia, and there was some speculation that the June 29 decision simply to pass on the legislation was also intended to avoid adverse publicity. That may be important for Putin, who is believed to be firmly in favor of the legislation (the pro-presidential Unity faction in the State Duma earlier voted almost unanimously in favor of the bills), and who may wish to minimize the potential political costs of signing into law such an unpopular package of bills.

Since consideration of the nuclear waste import bills began in earnest late last year, proponents of the legislation have claimed that Russia stands to gain some US$20 billion in revenues through the import, storage and reprocessing of up to 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. Led by Minatom and its recently named head, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, supporters of the legislation have likewise claimed that these revenues would not only help to rebuild Russia’s own struggling nuclear energy sector, but would also provide desperately needed funding for the cleanup of areas in Russia already contaminated by nuclear wastes. In the leadup to the June 29 decision, moreover, supporters broadened these claims. A group of scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, for example, on June 28 addressed an appeal to Putin claiming that the import of nuclear wastes into Russia would “create some 100,000 jobs in the transport, construction, instrument-making and machine-building branches.” They also said that the plan would provide energy for Russia several decades down the road, when oil and gas resources would face depletion. An appeal by a group of twenty Russian regional leaders spoke in similar terms, saying that the nuclear waste import plan was crucial to the economic health of their regions and would help them resolve a host of social and environmental problems. Echoing past assurances from Minatom, they dismissed fears that the import into Russia of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel would pose serious health of environmental dangers.

Despite last week’s developments, however, Minatom may still face something less than clear sailing. Rumyantsev claimed to the press on June 28 that Putin would sign the nuclear waste import bills “at once” after they were approved by the Federation Council. And though that seems likely to be the case, some sources speculated that the controversial nature of the legislation could lead the Russian president to send the bills back to the Russian parliament for additional discussion. Opponents of the legislation, moreover, whose number includes Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleev and the Yabloko faction in the State Duma, would seek to initiate a nationwide referendum on the issue. Organizers of a similar effort last year managed to collect 2.5 million signatures in support of a national vote–the constitutional requirement is two million signatures from sixty different regions–but the Central Election Commission nixed the referendum by declaring 600,000 of the signatures invalid. Given what is believed to be broad-based opposition to the nuclear waste import legislation, supporters and the Kremlin alike are said to be fearful of a referendum and to be negotiating with Yabloko so as to avoid a vote. Should the two sides fail to find a compromise, it seems likely that the government-controlled media would move to discredit opponents of the nuclear waste import legislation. Already Rumyantsev and others have suggested that Yabloko and Russian environmental groups are serving the interests of foreign nuclear establishments seeking to keep Russia out of the international nuclear energy market.

Minatom’s plans also face another considerable hurdle, even if they are ultimately approved by the president: namely, the fact that the United States controls approximately 90 percent of the foreign spent nuclear fuel that Russia is seeking for import. Washington continues to place conditions on its support in this area, moreover, to which Moscow seems unlikely to agree. They include an insistence (one indicated indirectly) that Russia end its nuclear cooperation with Iran, and another that Moscow agree not to reprocess the spent nuclear fuels that it accepts from abroad. Without U.S. support, Russia would be limited largely to importing nuclear wastes from former Eastern bloc countries–something that it is already doing. But these countries pay approximately US$300 for each kilo shipped to Russia, and will likely object to meeting the approximately US$800-1,500 per kilo price that Moscow says it will demand. Japan could reportedly reach an agreement with Russia on exporting its nuclear wastes, but without U.S. approval Russia will not have access to spent nuclear fuel from several other key Asian countries. These circumstances led Rumyantsev himself to admit on June 28 that Russia can aspire to “only 10 percent of the world’s used nuclear fuel,” and perhaps only a third of that. But he has yet to explain how Minatom’s program can be made cost-effective given this radical narrowing of its prospective market. Moscow has run into another possible hurdle, moreover, with indications from Turkey that it might object to the transit of spent nuclear to Russia through the Black Sea (AFP, January 28, 29; Rossiya, June 28;, June 27, June 15; Kommersant, June 30; Vremya MN, June 29; Russian agencies, June 28-29).