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By Sergei Blagov

Concern over nuclear waste rises in Russia

The Asia Times, April 23, 2002

MOSCOW - Russia's dangerous radioactive legacy of the Soviet-era nuclear sector has become a matter of domestic and international concern. While the Russian authorities, notably the Nuclear Power Ministry - or Minatom - argue that the country's nuclear facilities sector is safe, some international environmental organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and parliament deputies are far from convinced.

The issue of nuclear safety was placed under the spotlight when Sergei Mitrokhin, a State Duma deputy from the liberal Yabloko faction, along with two Greenpeace activists and three NTV cameramen, broke into the Krasnoyarsk-26 plant where the spent nuclear fuel from Bulgaria is being stored. The break-in, broadcast on NTV, was designed to show that the country's system of nuclear safety was "non-existent", Mitrokhin said.

Simultaneously, Greenpeace Russia has also filed suit in a Moscow district court saying that the import of some 40 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel in November from the Kozlodui nuclear plant in Bulgaria is illegal. The waste is now being stored at the Krasnoyarsk-26 in western Siberia, said Vladimir Chuprov, energy programs coordinator for Greenpeace Russia. NGOs argue that Russia's largest waste-storage facility, Krasnoyarsk-26, has just 3,000 tonnes of unused capacity, while Minatom wants to allow other nations to pay to send more than 10,000 tonnes of their radioactive waste for reprocessing and storage here.

Last month, the Russian Supreme Court handed a victory to environmentalists, striking down a government decision that allowed the import of nuclear waste from the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary for storage in Russia. Greenpeace and a group of other environmental NGOs filed a suit against the government last year when they learned of the decision to allow nuclear waste from the Paks plant to be sent to Chelyabinsk for storage, said Chuprov. Russia imports spent fuel rods from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary for reprocessing, but is required to return the waste to the countries for permanent storage.

Environmentalists contest the deals clinched before a law signed last summer that allows the import of spent nuclear fuel from other countries for reprocessing and storage. The recycling process extracts usable material from the spent rods while reducing their potential to be used in weapons, the Minatom has said. The new law, signed by President Vladimir Putin, allows the import of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and storage. When Putin signed the new law last July, he ordered a committee to be formed to make recommendations on nuclear safety procedures but this committee has yet to start working. According to Mitrokhin, the committee cannot start its work because the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, is late in appointing representatives to it.

Since late 2000, environmental groups opposed the law that allowed the long-term storage of nuclear waste on Russian soil. In an attempt to block the import of spent nuclear fuel, the environmentalist groups collected 2.5 million signatures to initiate a national referendum to ask whether voters opposed the importation of radioactive materials.

However, Russia's Central Elections Commission, citing minor technical inaccuracies, rejected more than a fifth of the signatures, leaving the environmentalists 200,000 short of the 2 million needed to force a referendum. Most of the signatures were rejected on the grounds of abbreviating the word "street" in a signer's address. Environmental activists moved to initiate a regional referendum in Krasnoyarsk region and gathered 100,000 signatures. However, the authorities agreed to look at only 40,000 and then rejected 36,000 as invalid - roughly on the same technical reasons.

No big wonder that some Russian environmental activists even argued that the twain of democracy and nuclear energy cannot meet. Nonetheless, the environmentalists continue to contest skipping both referendums in Russian and European courts, Chuprov said.

However, the governmental nuclear agency, Minatom, still plans a lucrative business turning Russia into the world's nuclear pay dump. Advocates of nuclear-waste imports argue that Russia could earn US$20 billion over the next decade by importing some 20,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. Yet critics, led by Greenpeace, have lashed out the plan, saying the environmental fallout could outweigh the benefits.

Moreover, even Moscow faces nuclear-waste problems, mainly due to Kurchatov Institute. Over the decades, however, the institute has accumulated a huge quantity of radioactive waste on its territory - located in a residential district just 15 kilometers northwest of the Kremlin. The waste depositories at the institute, which still runs six of its nine nuclear reactors, contain spent nuclear fuel, water used as a cooling agent and worn reactor parts.

Another matter of concern is the naval nuclear legacy. Notably, on Tuesday deputies of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, urged the government to approve a federal program on how to deal with decommissioned nuclear submarines and other ships with nuclear reactors. Russia now has 230 such vessels, half of which are near the end of nuclear reactors' lifespan. The deputies urged the government to increase funding so as to decommission these vessels safely.

In 2002, no less than 10 trailoads of hazardous waste from nuclear icebreakers and submarines will be transported from Kola Peninsula to "Mayak", says Stanislav Golovinsky, technical director of Murmansk Shipping Co. Apart from Krasniyarsk-26, Russia's Minatom manages Chelyabinsk-65 Reprocessing Plant, or NPO "Mayak", which had been a site of a series of dangerous accidents. Nevertheless, since 1994 a total of 29 trainloads of nuclear waste have been brought from Kola Peninsula to "Mayak" so far. Yet although the operation is getting faster, all the waste is due to be removed from Kola region no earlier than 2007.

Only afterward does the Murmansk Shipping Co plan to start removing waste from an emergency storage facility in Andreyev Guba, where waste from some 100 reactors is being temporarily stored. At least five more years will be needed to clear Andreyev Guba, Golovinsky said.

Russia's Far Eastern regions have waste problems of their own. The Pacific Fleet's 75 decommissioned nuclear submarines are stranded in harbors, and 45 are waiting for nuclear fuel to be unloaded from their reactors, argues State Duma Deputy Boris Reznik. He says theatest source of danger is from the vessels, used as provisional storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel from other submarines. Reznik claimed that in March 1999 some 160 cubic meters of highly radioactive liquid waste leaked from the rusting tanker vessel Pinega, which is being used for temporary storage.

Moreover, this month the Russian TV3 channel alleged that a decommissioned nuclear submarine recently sank in Krasheninnikov Bay, Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia's Far East. But Russian officials have repeatedly denied such allegations and claimed that the risk of a nuclear accident is extremely slight. "No decommissioned nuclear submarines were sinking recently," navy spokesman Igor Dygalo was quoted as saying by the Russian Information Agency (RIA). However, Dygalo conceded that such incidents had taken place back in 1997 and 1999, but he denied that there had been leaks of liquid nuclear waste.

Reznik points out that in 2001 Russia earned $66 billion from oil and gas exports, hence the government has enough money to deal with nuclear-waste problems. "The Russian military officials believe that preventing waste leaks just means avoiding press leaks," Reznik said.

It is widely accepted that Russia now faces a longer-term safety problem as its existing nuclear-waste storage facilities are getting closer to being filled to capacity.

Russia's scientists, officials, NGOs and environmental activists agree the country urgently needs to monitor and control its post-Soviet nuclear legacy - notably nuclear waste. Environmentalists, however, cast doubts on the effectiveness of the governmental programs to tackle the mess.

(Inter Press Service)

See also:

the original at

YABLOKO against Nulcear Waste Imports

The Asia Times, April 23, 2002

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