Russia’s powerful Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) suffered an important and unexpected defeat last week when the Russian State Duma postponed discussion and a vote on a controversial package of legislation which would permit the ministry to import into Russia some 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly approved the nuclear import legislation during a first reading of the bills in December, and expectations were that the legislation would receive the same sort of support in a second–and possibly an immediate third–reading scheduled for March 22. Had those votes gone as anticipated, the nuclear waste import legislation would have needed only the approval of the Federation Council and President Vladimir Putin. As it is, Minatom and its supporters, which have argued that the importation of spent nuclear fuels could earn Russia more than US$20 billion, will likely gear up for passage of the legislation in early April, when the rescheduled hearings on the bills are to take place.
Russian commentators struggled in the aftermath of the March 22 vote to explain how and why Duma deputies, who gave such overwhelming support to the nuclear waste import legislation last December, had suddenly and at the eleventh hour reversed course and voted in just as overwhelming numbers for a postponement of the hearings. They pointed to several factors, including the strong fight which Russian environmental groups and some deputies from the Yabloko and the Union of Right Wing Forces had waged against the bills. These groups argued that Minatom’s plans would wreak enormous environmental damage on Russia and threatened to turn the country into the world’s nuclear waste dump. They also sharply disputed the economics of the project, arguing that nuclear waste import would not generate the enormous profits Minatom projected. Perhaps more important, critics of the plan also charged that the nuclear waste import legislation failed to provide for proper oversight of the revenues which would be flowing to Minatom. They warned that Minatom would likely use money made from the project not, as it has claimed, to clean up existing Russian nuclear facilities, but instead–at least in part–on projects aimed at upgrading nuclear weapons or building new ones. The critics’ case was probably aided by the emergence of evidence earlier this month indicating that Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, an aggressive proponent of the nuclear waste import project, may have engaged in improper business dealings (Moscow Times, March 21-22; Strana.ru, March 21; AFP, March 22; AFP, March 5). Adamov exited unexpectedly from the scene yesterday, a victim of Putin’s government reshuffle. It is unclear what his departure will mean for the future of the nuclear waste import bills.
But the evidence accumulated by the nuclear waste import project’s critics may not, in any event, have been decisive in the March 22 vote. Some Russian sources pointed to two other critical developments. One was a March 14 letter from Richard Stratford, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy Affairs, to the Russian Nuclear Information and Resource Service. In the letter, which was released to the public by the Ecodefense environmental group, Stratford indicated that the United States would block “any transfer to Russia of power reactor spent fuel subject to U.S. consent rights.” The decision, reportedly a result of Washington’s objections to Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran, is crucial because the United States currently controls about 90 percent of the world’s spent nuclear fuel market. Washington could therefore effectively doom Minatom’s nuclear waste import project by blocking potential client states from sending their fuel to Russia (Moscow Times, Bellona.no, March 23).
The nuclear waste import legislation appeared to encounter still another barrier on March 22, and this one was particularly unexpected. According to several Russian sources, word began filtering down to Russian lawmakers just before that vote that the Kremlin may have reversed–at least temporarily–its earlier support for the project. That reversal may have been a result of the Stratford letter, but the newspaper Segodnya suggested that it might also have been the result of concerns within the presidential administration that approval of the nuclear waste import legislation could hurt Putin’s image in the West. If that is true, the Kremlin’s response was confused: The presidential representative to the State Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, joined with ultranationalists after the March vote to suggest that critics of the nuclear waste import project were working on behalf of Russia’s international rivals abroad. Nevertheless, a switch in the Kremlin’s position may be the best way of explaining why so many Duma deputies, including those affiliating with the pro-presidential Unity party, voted to postpone consideration of the nuclear waste import bills (Segodnya, Izvestia, March 23).
Equally unclear is whether the Kremlin’s reported reversal is but a temporary one, and whether the leviathan of political support which had been building behind the nuclear waste import legislation will reemerge come early April to steamroll those opposing the project. That it may be difficult to turn “people power” into an effective tool against the nuclear import bills was suggested last week when the Russian Supreme Court rebuffed environmental groups. In a ruling handed down on March 22, the court upheld a decision by the Central Election Commission last year to throw out approximately 600,000 of some 2.5 million signatures gathered in favor of conducing a nationwide referendum on the nuclear waste import project. Russian law requires the gathering of 2 million signatures across sixty regions to initiate a referendum vote. Environmentalists have said that they will appeal the decision to both the Chairman of the Russian Supreme Court and to the European Court on Human Rights (Moscow Times, Bellona.no, March 23).
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