Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 36

Russian environmental groups went into action this week in yet another effort to slow passage of a draft piece of legislation which would open Russia to imports of nuclear waste from foreign countries. The bill is backed by Russia’s powerful Atomic Energy Ministry, which thus far has used extensive lobbying and promises of huge profits to steamroll groups which oppose the legislation. About 100 environmentalists, said to be from twenty different Russian regions, protested outside the State Duma building on Monday to urge defeat of the legislation. Their actions come on the eve of a scheduled vote on the measure tomorrow. Following a first reading in December, Duma deputies voted overwhelmingly in favor of the legislation (see the Monitor, December 22, 2000). Many observers expect them to do the same tomorrow on its second reading. If approved, the legislation will face a third reading in the Duma, and then a review by both the Federation Council and President Vladimir Putin. Putin–though he styled himself late last year, on the eve of a visit to Canada, as a closet environmentalist–is believed to support the bill.

That groups opposing the nuclear waste bill have made little headway since the December vote was suggested on Monday, when the perhaps inappropriately named Duma Ecology Committee recommended approval of the legislation and rejected almost all of a package of amendments representatives of the Yabloko faction had offered. The recommendation, which followed Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov’s appearance before the committee, reportedly generated almost no debate. A pair of Yabloko deputies had tried in vain to win approval of amendments which would at least have provided the government with greater oversight of nuclear waste shipments from abroad.

Many Russian and Western news reports have depicted the steady advance of the nuclear waste legislation as a travesty of democracy and a defeat for popular opinion in Russia. They have pointed, for example, to a survey taken by the ROMIR polling agency which indicates that more than 90 percent of Russians oppose the import of nuclear wastes into Russia. They have also noted that the bill is opposed by the Russian nuclear regulatory agency (and, according to one account, by former Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov). Some reports have observed ironically that Russian lawmakers chose to approve the nuclear waste bill by roughly the same percentage in the vote they took this past December.

New reports have attributed the overwhelming support for the bill among lawmakers to claims Adamov and Minatom have made: namely, that Russia stands to earn more than US$21 billion over the next decade by promoting the import, storage and possible reprocessing of some 20,000 tons of spent fuel from foreign nuclear reactors. Adamov has argued that these revenues would free Russia from having to beg for money from the International Monetary Fund, while ministry representatives have presented the revenues as a potential panacea for all the many ills currently afflicting Russia’s nuclear establishment. They claim that a large chunk of the US$21 billion would be used to clean up areas in Russia currently contaminated by radioactivity and that other portions of it would go to the state budget and to support the country’s atomic energy industry more generally. They have also claimed that their nuclear wastes import plan poses no environmental dangers to Russia.

But those opposed to the plan have disputed Minatom’s conclusions on all these points–and particularly the last one. They suggest that a program to bring the world’s nuclear wastes into Russia could turn an already heavily polluted country into a sort of radioactive hell. They point out that Russia currently lacks sufficient storage and reprocessing facilities even for its own nuclear wastes. They also argue that Russia’s now outdated and deteriorating rail system would make efforts to transport the nuclear wastes to the reprocessing centers in Russia’s interior a risky and potentially catastrophic exercise. And they charge that Minatom has in any event prepared no detailed plans as to how these dangerous materials are to be transported or stored in Russia.

But most of all, Russian environmentalists and others opposed to the plan dispute the likelihood that Minatom will use revenues from nuclear waste imports to finance cleanup efforts and an upgrading of Russian nuclear plants. Instead, they argue, Minatom officials are likely either to take the money and run, or to use it in an attempt to restore the ministry to the position of immense power that it enjoyed during the Soviet period. Indeed, Minatom has already announced plans to construct ten new nuclear reactors over the next decade, but has not specified where the funding for so ambitious an endeavor will come from (The Russia Journal, February 2; Washington Post, February 11;, February 1, 14; Moscow Times, February 19; Segodnya, AP, February 20; Izvestia, February 21).