| The thicket of nettles is chest high as Vladimir Katzenbogen
Popov force their way through, searching with Geiger counters and a
gamma-ray detector for radioactive hotspots.|
The brush thickens, then opens up to the bank of a muddy stream beside
abandoned factory in northwest Moscow. The crackling of the detector leads
the two-man patrol to a hole where, at some point in Russia's
less-than-careful nuclear past, radioactive material was dumped.
"People are usually joyful when they see us, to know that this control
going on so they can live safely," says Mr. Katzenbogen, who works
Radon, the government's radiation-control arm.
Two weeks ago, a Radon patrol seized more than 50 pounds of contaminated
berries from a market - a common occurrence. In Moscow alone in the past
five years, Radon has disposed of some 450 tons of potentially dangerous
material - from soil at construction sites to market mushrooms - as limits
on acceptable levels of radioactive contamination have steadily
But while the patrols demonstrate a measure of success in Russia's efforts
to clean up its nuclear act, they are dwarfed by the magnitude of the
problem resulting from past failures to safely manage spent nuclear fuel
and radioactive waste. Which is why many people at home and abroad are
skeptical of a government plan - awaiting President Vladimir Putin's
signature - to import 20,000 tons of nuclear waste over 10 years, earning
projected $21 billion.
"I don't think you'll find any place
else in the world where spent nuclear
fuel is stored in such bad conditions," says Thomas Nilsen, who studies
Russia for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, in Oslo. "The
priority should be to secure spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste
already existing in Russia. You don't do that by importing more."
Moscow's nuclear track record includes the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and
year's sinking of the Kursk submarine, with two nuclear-powered engines
board. Decades of improper storage of nuclear waste have left environmental
devastation from Murmansk across Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula nine
time zones away.
Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, is pushing the waste-import
plan as a means of rescuing the industry. Proceeds also are meant to be
used for a cleanup of waste sites, and may avert a disaster for the "100
old nuclear submarines" that are "becoming rusty and that one
morning might just sink," says Minatom spokesman Vitaly Nasonov.
Current nuclear-waste storage facilities are virtually full, however, the
only working processing plant is nearly a quarter-century old, and after
decades of neglect, transport infrastructure - by which radioactive
material would be moved - is collapsing.
"It's a calculated
risk," says John Reppert, head of the Belfer Center for
Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School
Government in Cambridge, Mass. "It is something they are clearly
technically able to handle," he says. "But it is not something
traditionally handled well or they wouldn't have that mess to clean up."
And while Russia's vast unused spaces mean a wide margin for error, Mr.
Reppert adds: "If they are going to create the world's largest and
least-safe nuclear-waste dump, then it will be a long-term consequence
the rest of the world."
Critics, such as Bellona's Mr. Nilsen, also are concerned that the money
will be misspent. "We are suspicious that most of the income from
nuclear fuel will end up inside Moscow's ring road, and not in Siberia
where the money is needed for environmental clean-up," he says.
There is one encouraging example. Reppert says that Russian experts have
adhered strictly to tough fiscal and radiological standards when using
official American funds - some of which he helped account for - to deal
with weapons-grade nuclear material. The US is spending $874 million on
such nonproliferation projects this year, though not all are deemed so
successful. President Bush's 2002 budget slashes this spending by 10
The key to the large, new program is likely to be transparency, says
Reppert. But unlike the built-in oversight tied to US donations, there
be few checks on how new funds are used.
Already, the plans are taking an unusual political path. The measure was
due before the Federation Council, Russia's upper house, on Friday. But
days earlier, council chairman Yegor Stroyev quietly signed off on the
plan, sending it directly to the president.
The plan is far from popular. A poll commissioned by the environmental
group Greenpeace - echoed by other surveys - found that nearly 80 percent
of Russians want Mr. Putin to block nuclear imports.
an opposition lawmaker in the Duma, or lower house, says he has seen the
contents of one Berents Sea nuclear-waste facility washing out from a
cracked concrete housing. The spillover, he says, sent a Geiger counter
"off the scale."
"Russia is not
ready to handle this dangerous cargo," he says.
Russia's scientific community appears divided. "Mass imports of spent
nuclear fuel mean unavoidable catastrophic consequences for the ecology
that will threaten the lives of Russia for centuries to come," nine
of the Russian Academy of Sciences warned in an open letter last month.
Another letter - signed by three Nobel prize-winning Russian scientists
urged Putin to approve the bill, saying: "Nuclear fuel is not waste,"
create jobs, and prove a future energy boon.
The example of Moscow's radiation-control teams should be taken into
account, says Radon first deputy director Vladimir Safronov. Teams still
find vials of highly radioactive radium paint - once used for luminescent
clock faces, instrument dials, and even fishing lures. Rules first imposed
in the 1960s and '70s, have only grown tougher. In 1998, acceptable
contamination levels for food were slashed by a factor of 10. Eight tons
produce were destroyed that year. Mr. Safronov is "absolutely sure"
there are enough nuclear specialists to ensure the safety of the
waste-import plan, but he is concerned that few young scientists are
training for the future.
Radiation specialist Katzenbogen is not convinced. "Our generation
bring this material into the country, the next will process it, and the
third will pay for all the mistakes," he says. "Everyone was
Chernobyl could never happen, and it did."
YABLOKO for Nuclear