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Duma approves nuclear fuel imports

The Moscow Times, June 7, 2001, p. 1

The State Duma gave final approval in 20 minutes Wednesday to legislation opening Russia to imports of spent nuclear fuel, a project environmentalists say will turn the country into a nuclear dump.

Lawmakers voted 243-125 in favor of the package of amendments, which advocates say could earn $20 billion over 10 years and help clean up the nation's existing stock of nuclear waste.

"I am voting for this bill because I don't want places in my country remaining dead zones, contaminated by radiation," said Deputy Yegor Ligachev, a Communist and a former member of the Soviet Union's ruling Politburo.

The bills now have to win the approval of the Federation Council upper chamber and then be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

The international environmental group Greenpeace reacted to the vote by calling on Washington to veto any shipments of spent fuel to Russia from U.S.-designed reactors, a move it said could foil the whole project.

Environmentalists and liberals have mounted fierce opposition to the bills on grounds that proceeds, rather than going into reprocessing the spent fuel, might be spent in other ways and the radioactive waste would remain buried indefinitely.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party and one of the main opponents of the bills, urged the Duma to reject the bill for the sake of future generations.

"The vote today can make history," Yavlinsky told deputies. "One hundred million Russian citizens are against it and only 500 people are for 300 members sitting here and 200 bureaucrats who will be getting the money."

Yavlinsky says opinion polls show Russians overwhelmingly reject the plan.

Before the debate got under way, Yabloko launched a last-ditch attempt to stall the bills by asking deputies to put off the vote and hold a referendum. The Duma rejected the move.

Deputies backing the bills said calls to postpone it or vote it down played in the hands of foreign competitors trying to keep Russia from entering the lucrative market of fuel reprocessing.

Under the project championed by the Nuclear Power Ministry, Russia would import about 1,000 tons of fuel a year, roughly the amount produced now by its own power plants and those in neighboring Ukraine, which sends spent fuel for reprocessing.

The imported fuel is due to be stored until 2021 while Russia upgrades its crumbling reprocessing facilities with the money earned from prospective exporters, such as Taiwan, Japan, China, Iran and Eastern Europe.

Russia is building a nuclear power plant in Iran despite strong opposition from the United States, which sees the development of nuclear technology in Tehran as a threat.

Greenpeace immediately called on U.S. President George W. Bush to ban all shipments of spent fuel to Russia from U.S.-made reactors around the world, which would drastically reduce Moscow's prospective customer base since plant designers have a say in how waste from reactors is treated.

"Without U.S. support the whole grandiose Nuclear Power Ministry program shrinks down to the simple old Soviet practice of taking back spent fuel from the socialist brother countries," Greenpeace International said in a statement.

Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev says France and Britain have already carved up the market for depleted nuclear fuel and Russia will have to fight to secure a share. Reprocessed fuel can be used again, leaving small quantities of unusable radioactive waste.

Rumyantsev lashed out at critics of the bills on the eve of Wednesday's vote. "An extremely negative public relations attack is under way. We are constantly being defamed," Rumyantsev said Tuesday night on ORT television.

Reprocessing is to begin in 2021 and take place over a 20-year period. Opponents say there are no guarantees that everything will go according to plan and free of accidents.

"Mass imports of spent nuclear fuel mean unavoidable catastrophic consequences for the ecology that will threaten the lives of Russians for centuries to come," said a letter by members of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The letter was handed out by demonstrators outside the Duma. A group of about 100 environmental activists and Yabloko members rallied outside the Duma before the vote.

Vladimir Slivyak, co-founder of the Ecodefense environmental group, expressed disappointment about the bill's approval.

"We have already started to form small environmental groups throughout Russia whose members will block railroads when the nuclear fuel is imported," Slivyak said.

"But we still hope that the Federation Council will block the legislation," he said. "We know that about half of the governors are against it, and the vote of only 50 percent of the council's members are needed to block the bills."

(Reuters, MT, AP)

See also:

Nuclear waste bill section of the web-site

The Moscow Times, June 7, 2001, p. 1

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