Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 144

In a move that could further complicate implementation of an already contentious plan by Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) to import thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad, Turkish authorities have vowed in recent weeks to ensure that shipments of the nuclear waste do not reach Russia via the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. “We have the intention of prohibiting the passage of vessels carrying nuclear waste,” Fevzi Aytekin, Turkey’s environment minister, told journalists. Turkey’s state minister for naval affairs, Ramazan Mirzaoglu, likewise warned of Ankara’s determination to block any possible future shipments. “I call this Russia’s dirty trade,” he was quoted as saying. “International public opinion should take a unified stand against this decision.” Turkish officials have also complained of Moscow’s failure to keep them informed of Russian plans in this area. They claimed that they had learned of the nuclear waste import plan only when they read about it in the newspapers.

Turkish officials claim that nuclear waste shipments to Russia via the Turkish waterways could create an environmental hazard for Istanbul, the city of 10 million that straddles the Bosporus. Ankara has complained with increasing frequency in recent years that the rapid buildup in traffic through the straits–which are the only link between Russia’s Black Sea region and the world’s oceans–poses a serious environmental risk. The issue has related especially to the heavy transit of oil tankers through the straits and the potentially heavy increases that could occur as Caspian Sea oil begins flowing to world markets.

The Russian nuclear waste import plan was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on July 11 after months of sometimes acrimonious debate. Advocates of the plan, whose efforts were spearheaded by Minatom, claim that Russia could earn US$20 billion over the next decade by transporting some 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. Opponents, including environmentalist groups and a minority of lawmakers led by the Yabloko faction, have sharply disputed the alleged profitability of the venture and have suggested that its real consequences will be to turn Russia into the world’s largest nuclear waste dump. Polling data, meanwhile, suggest that the measure is also highly unpopular with the Russian people (see the Monitor, July 12). Current plans call for the spent fuel to be stored at Russia’s two biggest nuclear sites–Mayak in the Urals and Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Environmentalists point out that Mayak is already considered one of the most contaminated sites on earth, however, and suggest that its condition reflects the country’s more general unreadiness to take on a project like the one being proposed by Minatom.

The Russian import plans face several other obvious obstacles as well. For one, the United States controls the disposition of some 90 percent of the spent nuclear fuel stocks currently being targeted by Moscow, and it has imposed conditions on their release that are likely to be unacceptable for Russia. For another, Russia is reportedly yet to sign a single nuclear waste import contract with any of the countries–including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Germany and Switzerland–with which it hopes to do business. And the German government has indicated directly that it will not send nuclear wastes to Russia. Germany’s environment minister, Juergen Trittin, last month described the Russian nuclear waste import plan as “an irresponsible gamble with the health and safety of the Russian people.” Britain and France are the only two countries in the world that currently process nuclear waste. Moscow hopes to draw business away from them and to establish itself as a major player in the international nuclear fuel market.

Ankara’s effort to block any future nuclear waste shipments to Russia via the Turkish Straits, meanwhile, are likely to run up against the Montreux Convention, the 1936 Treaty under which the straits are declared to be international waterways. Ankara has confronted a similar problem with respect to limiting the transport by ship of oil through the straits, but expects to have some time to deal with the nuclear waste issue. Spent nuclear fuel shipments under the new Russian legislation are not expected to begin arriving in Russia for about three years. Turkish officials are said to hope that this delay will give them time to win approval of new international laws prohibiting the transfer of nuclear waste by sea. Indeed, the Turkish environmental minister said he intended to raise the issue this fall at a meeting of environmental ministers from Mediterranean countries, and he has indicated that Ankara will pursue all possible legal measures “to prevent the passage of nuclear waste through Turkish territorial waters.” Aytekin had earlier urged national and international environmental groups to take action aimed at preventing the passage of nuclear wastes through the straits, warning that shipments of this sort would pollute not only the straits, but also the waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas (New York Times, July 26, Kathimerini, July 14-15; DPA, July 13; People’s Daily, June 9).