Fri., Feb. 19, 1999

Nuclear Waste Row Erupts
By Lyuba Pronina

Russian environmentalists blasted the Atomic Energy Ministry last Monday for trying to secure an amendment to a federal law that will give the green light for other countries to dump their nuclear waste on Russian territory.

The cash-strapped ministry, in search of money to "upgrade" the nuclear industry, is pushing through an amendment to the law on protection of the environment that would eliminate the unwelcome hurdle currently prohibiting the storage of foreign nuclear waste.

The amendment proposed by deputy Sergei Shashurin of the People's Power group has been discussed and approved by the leaders of the Communist Party (KPRF), Our Home Is Russia (NDR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky's liberal democrats (LDPR), Agrarian and Russian Regions parliamentary factions, as well as by head of the Duma security committee Viktor Ilyukhin and head of the Duma budget committee Aleksander Zhukov. The Chairman of the State Duma Gennady Seleznyov has filed a letter with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to examine the expediency of the amendment.

On Monday environmentalists, together with the Yabloko Duma faction, followed with the intent to stall the amendment at the governmental level.

"We are against this amendment because the country does not have the capacity to process this waste," Aleksei Yablokov, co-chairman of the Social Environmental Union, said at a press conference on Monday. Three reprocessing plants in Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk and Chelyabinsk built in the Soviet times are all in terrible shape, desperately struggling to deal with Russia's own waste. To build new plants and renovate the existing ones, for which the ministry is trying to raise funds, will cost a "colossal" $15-20 billion said environmentalists. Even the amount of money received through nuclear waste storage would be only a small portion of what is necessary for the construction.

Greenpeace previously made public the negotiations between the atomic energy ministry and the Swiss government to dispose of its 2,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel and 500 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste for $10 million. This was grudgingly confirmed by ministry officials, but only at the level of intentions.

Among other interested parties Greenpeace named are Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and possibly Japan.

On Monday, the Social Environmental Union unveiled yet another document. In a recent letter to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, William Richardson, head of the ministry Yevgeny Adamov was courting the American side over the possibility of permanently housing U.S. nuclear waste.

"... given the search for ways to develop mutual relations between the United States and Russia, including in the field of nuclear power, it seems to us that it would be advisable to examine the question of the possible transfer, on a commercial basis, of spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants to Russia for its long-term storage and subsequent reprocessing at the Russian Federation Minatom (Ministry of Atomic Energy) enterprises," the letter read.

"We could examine different versions for implementing that approach, both with and without the return of highly active reprocessing products to the United States."

The offer in itself, though seemingly "highly lucrative," is also against the federal law on the protection of the environment.

"Russia is virtually turning into a commercial dump for Eastern and Western nuclear waste," says Vladimir Slivyak, coordinator for the anti-nuclear campaign of the Social Environmental Union, who provided the copy of the letter.

The ministry and the deputies in favor of the amendment also seem to be concerned about the ever-growing pile of home-produced nuclear waste. Shashurin could not be reached on Monday. But his aide, who also took part in the drafting of the amendment, supported the fact that Russia's nuclear waste must to be dealt with urgently.

"It (nuclear waste) is scattered throughout the entire country," said the aide, who demanded anonymity. "We have no funds to reprocess this waste, so the idea proposed by deputy Shashurin will help to raise this money. Russia has unique technologies to reprocess nuclear waste. Countries such as Taiwan and Japan offer us money in return for accommodating 10 percent of their waste."

The entire program, deputies say, should fetch no less than $200 billion. "For 10 percent of their waste, we would get rid of 90 percent of ours. This is the only way out," the aide said. Authors of the amendment also hope the money received for the waste will help resolve a host of social problems.

However, environmentalists argue that the fund raising program is nothing but a ploy. "It looks like the ministry is trying to deceive us. They are not going to reprocess the waste. [Not having sufficient capacity] they want to use the territory of Russia as a nuclear dump, get the money and have it at their disposal," said Yablokov.

"This money is aimed to fill state coffers but it will not be given to pensioners, doctors or teachers, but will be wasted as before," said Lidiya Popova, director of the Center of Nuclear Ecology and Energy Policy. Environmentalists cited the example of how $1 billion provided by the European Council was wasted over the past ten years.