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Speech of the Russian State Duma Deputy Sergey Mitrokhin

Russia’s International Nuclear Business and the Future of the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Power

RANSAC Congressional Seminar
July 19, 2002

Before speaking about the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Power (Minatom ) and its international initiatives, I would like to make a few introductory remarks about the department. The nuclear complex in Russia was developed during the Cold War years with the primary goal of ensuring nuclear parity with the US: all Minatom activities were subordinate to this task.

The USSR aimed to produce a larger number of nuclear warheads than the US: consequently a considerable volume of weapon-grade uranium and plutonium was required for that purpose. For a number of reasons plutonium was preferred. A special system of plutonium production at so-called “industrial reactors” was created in the USSR and still functions today. Their purpose was not industrial but military. At the moment one such reactor operates in Krasnoyarsk Territory, with two more reactors in Tomsk Region. Operational facilities produce weapon-grade plutonium in the same places.

During the past decade Minatom has persistently avoided termination of production. The US funds safety measures, physical protection and radioactive waste processing. It definitely encourages Minatom to continue plutonium production.

Plutonium production was in the focus of both military and civilian activities of the nuclear power sector in the USSR and now in Russia. The Chelyabinsk region houses a spent nuclear fuel facility processing spent fuel from nuclear plants and submarines. The plutonium generated is accumulated on special storage sites. Meanwhile the US funds the construction of a storage facility for weapon-grade plutonium just hundreds of metres away from its continuous production. This paradox is attributable to the traditional attempts of Russian nuclear specialists to increase the volume of plutonium, which is a definite sign of Cold War mentality.

Closed nuclear cities in the USSR were a favorable environment for educating Soviet specialists in the spirit of nuclear rivalry. Most of these specialists were not prepared for life in the new economic circumstances. Many specialists have ended up in business and left the secret laboratories. Today no more young specialists sign up for those enterprises and elderly staff keep holding on tight to the out-of-date myths of the Cold War.

It should be noted that Minatom is the only department in Russia that has not undergone reforms. In other words it remains a dual-purpose department, i.e. working for both civilian and military purposes. The official document entitled “Strategy for the development of the nuclear power sector in Russia in the first half of the 21st century” states that “nuclear technologies for the period will remain the basis for defense capacities in Russia”.

The dual purpose of Minatom enables its new managers to use the shield of secrecy to implement commercial projects. For example, in 2001 the Nuclear Power Minister Mr. Adamov was forced to resign, as the State Duma Commission found him guilty of corruption and dubious connections, including those with American businessmen and officials.

Given the complete confidentiality of Minatom, its international projects cannot be exempt from corruption either. According to a recent report from the Audit Chamber, Minatom reports fail to account for USD 270 million of foreign aid money allocated for the treatment of radioactive waste. In these kinds of situation nobody can guarantee that foreign aid was not partially retransferred to other projects, including military ones. Foreign resources can be spent on the most unexpected projects. Who would have thought ten years ago that part of the resources for the HEU-LEU deal would have been allocated for the construction of nuclear power plants in China and India?

Today the plutonium orientation of the nuclear sector in the USSR is replicated by a strategy of the so-called “plutonium energy” sector development. This term refers to replacement of the thermo-reactors with fast-neutron reactors. The intention to produce plutonium in large volumes remains unchanged.

This strategy requires the enormous financial resources that the Russian budget lacks. Consequently nuclear managers in Russia are so enthusiastic about obtaining resources from spent fuel import to Russia from other states. As a result last summer they managed to lobby amendments to Russian legislation permitting the import of spent fuel for processing and storage.

The goal is very simple: to build plutonium-fueled reactors for the money gained from the import of spent fuel and to build spent fuel processing plants whose real purpose will be plutonium generation.

Society will not hear about the spending of money from those deals, while future generations of Russians will sustain real expenditure for imported spent fuel processing.

These problems are acute today. The Audit Chamber regards the situation regarding the treatment of radioactive waste by Minatom as “critical”. I found out for myself that physical protection of nuclear storage facilities is at the lowest level, when I penetrated one of them without proper authorization.

The irresponsible attitude of nuclear power officials towards safety issues becomes apparent from their plans to build a surface storage in Krasnoyarsk Territory with the capacity to store about 30,000 tons of spent fuel in five years. As you know, similar plans exist in the United States, but the issue here concerns deep underground storage in Ukka Mountain. Even these plans caused a public protest that delayed their implementation by 20 years. Minatom plans to locate the storage in facilities with flooded basements, which freeze during cold winters, when the floors and ceilings almost collapse, and rusted welds.

The goal of Minatom is to build a plant to process spent fuel and extract plutonium. This processing will generate a huge amount of radioactive waste. Owing to the contamination caused by the activities at the plant “Mayak”, over 500,000 people have suffered in the Southern Urals Region. About 10,000 live in a territory, which should only be inhabited under specific restrictions. The population of Chelyabinsk Region drinks water from wells containing plutonium. Children swim in a river where a spent fuel processing plant dumps its liquid radioactive waste.

These facts have had a significant impact on public opinion, which strongly opposes the possibility of spent fuel imports into Russia. According to a public opinion poll, initiated by the independent research centre ROMIR, 91.3% of the population in Russia oppose such imports. Representatives from local business in the territories where it is planned to carry out nuclear activities oppose Minatom’s decision. Agricultural producers perceive the decision as a direct threat to their business.

Two years ago environmentalists managed to obtain about 2.5 million signatures in support of a referendum against the possible import of spent fuel. This year people from Krasnoyarsk Territory have gathered more than 100,000 signatures in support of a local referendum banning the construction of new nuclear facilities in the area. However, Russian officials banned the holding the referendums, as they could forecast the result of democratic will. Protest actions have been held all over the country. Russians strongly oppose Minatom’s plans, perceiving them as an attempt by highly industrialized countries, above all the US, to get rid of their dangerous nuclear waste at the expense of Russia. The decision to import spent fuel is considered evidence of cynicism among Russian officials who take decisions contradicting the will of people. Representatives from independent Russian mass media often disclose the corrupt and anti-democratic plans of Minatom. However, to deliver its messages Minatom uses the mass media that are state regulated and controlled by the Kremlin and never allow the opposition to speak out.

Today a campaign to take a decision allowing Russia to import spent fuel is gaining momentum in the US. To summarise the aforementioned, this decision will have the following negative consequences:

  1. Minatom will gain funds, which will mostly be either stolen, used to manufacture new plutonium including weapon-grade plutonium or in the best case scenario to build new nuclear facilities.
  2. The huge number of cases of radioactive contamination will be complemented by new ones connected with the storage, processing, and disposal of hundreds of thousands tons of imported radioactive waste.
  3. In supporting the decision to export spent fuel into Russia, the United States will undermine its authority as a democratic country.

See also: YABLOKO Against Nuclear Waste Imports

RANSAC Congressional Seminar
July 19, 2002

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