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Nuclear waste bill passes first reading in Russian parliament

World Information Service on Energy & Nuclear Information

On 20 December 2000, the Russian State Parliament (Duma) approved a first reading of an amendment to the Law on Environmental Protection which gives a green light to the importation of spent nuclear fuel by Minatom, the Russian ministry of atomic power.

(541.5232) WISE Kaliningrad - 320 Duma members voted for the amendments, 30 cast their votes against, while 8 abstained. The majority of those who voted against represented the Yabloko and SPS factions in the parliament. A second Duma reading is scheduled for 22 January. The bill would then have to pass a third hearing before being sent to the Federation Council and President Vladimir Putin for approval.

The reprocessing and storage program could earn Russia some US$20 billion over 10 years by importing up to 21,000 tons of waste, according to Minatom. The spent fuel would come from 14 European and Asian countries and would be sent back after 50 years. During the 1990s, Russia accepted spent fuel rods from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia for reprocessing under a program originally set up in Soviet times. However, at the beginning of 2001, none of the above countries indicated their intention to use Russian reprocessing services in the future. Earlier in 2000, officials confirmed that there are no international contracts which Mayak, the country's only reprocessing plant for civil reactors' spent fuel, has obtained for 2000 and ahead. Russia's own spent nuclear fuel stock is estimated at 14,000 tons but Minatom has no plans to reprocess it. The cash-starved Russian nuclear industry is no longer able to attract consumers for its reprocessing service, and there are no finances to reprocess its own nuclear waste.

Only three countries in the world are currently carrying out commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel: Great Britain, France and Russia. Russia's only nuclear facility for reprocessing nuclear waste is not equipped to take thousands of tons of spent fuel rods imported from foreign power stations as the government in Moscow plans, an official at the Mayak center in the Urals said on 21 December. As Western reactor types vary considerably from Russian ones, extensive restructuring of Mayak's equipment is needed to meet the plans, Mayak spokesman Yevgeny Ryzhkov told the Interfax news agency. The bill envisages that used reactor fuel rods from Western power stations will be imported for treatment but not permanent disposal.

Mayak was built more than 50 years ago and it can hardly operate in the future without hundreds of millions of dollars in credits for reconstruction and cleaning up. The area nearby the Mayak plant is believed to be the most radioactively contaminated place on earth as a result of waste storage and several accidents in the 1950's.

"The deputies were blinded by generous promises, or they hopelessly made a decision for which the next generation will have to pay," Yury Vishnevsky, Russian nuclear inspectorate (GAN) head, and outspoken critic of the ministry's plan, said in interview to Moscow Times on 20 December. Vishnevsky said he is concerned about the proposed law because Russia is technically unready to accept nuclear materials for reprocessing and for storage. "[The only storage Russia is able to use for such imports] can only take up to 3,000 tons of nuclear waste, and it is rapidly being filled up with spent fuel from Russian nuclear plants. Our [nuclear power] plants would have to be closed or new multibillion-dollar storage would need to be built in order to take [waste from abroad]. And after all, the money earned would be either eaten up or stolen".

Environmentalists are greatly opposed to what they say is a "plan to turn Russian into the world's dump site for nuclear waste". Opponents to the Minatom plan says the ministry was looking after its own interests and not trying to clean up contaminated areas. Moreover there is a great doubt that the government would ever send the spent fuel back. "It's the first time that authorities decided to ignore the will of nation in such an absolutely open, shameless manner," said ECODEFENSE!, one Russian anti-nuclear group in its statement on 21 December. The same day Greenpeace condemned Russian deputies for voting in favor of a project which "93,5% of Russians strongly oppose". The vote on 20 December took place less than a month after environmentalists tried to block it with a call for a national referendum on the proposal. The Central Election Commission turned down the petition, saying that 600,000 of the 2.5 million signatures submitted were invalid due to technical inaccuracies such as missing signatures and improper passport numbers. According to Bellona, prior to the voting day, the Yabloko faction in the Russian parliament decided unanimously not to support the fuel import amendments. The leader of the faction, Gregory Yavlinsky, said Minatom has provided huge funds to cheer up its lobbyists in the Duma. He also said that Minatom submitted neither the accounting for the project nor a detailed break down for how the funds will be used. "We are not greens, we are politicians. And politicians have one rule: if 99% of the population are against the waste import, we have no further arguments in favour of the project," Yavlinsky added.

Even if Minatom spends its money effectively enough for all the necessary approvals, it does not guarantee actual contracts. Most of the spent fuel accumulated across the world is of US origin, which generally means that it was manufactured in the United States. It also means that the US must authorize each deal involving this nuclear waste. Earlier in December more than 150 groups across the globe appealed to the US administration asking them to block the possible nuclear waste shipments to Russia. In a letter organized by anti-nuclear groups WISE/NIRS and ECODEFENSE! the groups said, "Minatom refuses to accept a basic cornerstone of US non-proliferation policy: that commercial spent nuclear fuel must never be reprocessed. There is no reason to believe that Minatom will behave any differently if granted US approval to store nuclear fuel upon its land."

So far, the new US administration is not happy about cooperation with Moscow in this field. One firm US condition is that none of its spent fuel must be reprocessed. But Minatom repeatedly stated it would not stop attempts to reanimate this business. Another issue is Iran. The United States has been trying for years to persuade Russia to pull out of an arrangement to assist the Islamic Republic with building a nuclear power station that the United States fears Tehran could use to help develop nuclear weapons. "Our position has been consistent: ... that we do not intend to proceed without answers on the Iran issue. This simply must be resolved for any collaboration to go forward," Ernest Moniz, the US undersecretary of Energy responsible for cooperation with Russia, said to the Los Angeles Times on 21 December. But both atomic minister Evgeny Adamov and Russian president Vladimir Putin have stated many times that cooperation with Iran will not be stopped because of American pressure.


Interfax News Agency, 18 December 2000
"Duma sells out next 200,000 years", Bellona, 21 December 2000
ECODEFENSE! statement, 21 December 2000
Greenpeace Russia statement, 21 December 2000
Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 22 December 2000
The Moscow Times, 22 December 2000
Interfax Russian News, 22 December 2000
Los Angeles Times, 22 December 2000

See the original at http://www.antenna.nl/wise/541/5232.html

See also:

Nuclear waste bill section of the web-site

World Information Service on Energy & Nuclear Information

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