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Russia as nuclear garbageman?

On Feb. 22, Duma considers plan to allow import of radioactive waste for profit, as public objects.

By Fred Weir Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2001



MOSCOW

It's a dirty job, but the country could get rich doing it, say supporters of a draft law that could turn Russia into the world's biggest importer of nuclear waste.

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It's a catastrophe in the making, counter environmentalists and other critics, who say the idea of taking in other countries' radioactive garbage is just a scheme to turn a quick profit and could lead to nuclear accidents.

At issue is legislation, facing a second reading in the Duma on Feb. 22, that would legalize the import of spent fuel from foreign nuclear reactors to be treated and stored in Russian facilities. The proposal appears to be on the fast track to approval, after passing its first reading in December by 319 to 38 votes. Bills require three readings in the Duma, the lower house, before being taken up by the Federation Council.

The Ministry of Atomic Energy, known as MinAtom, claims the plan could reap $21 billion over the next decade, vault Russia into first place in the burgeoning global nuclear-services industry, and provide cash to clean up radioactive hot spots - ecological disaster zones from the Soviet era.

"Our aim is to make Russia competitive in one of the most lucrative high- tech industries," says Yury Bespalko, spokesman for MinAtom, a vast empire that controls Russia's 29 civilian atomic power reactors, most nuclear-related scientific work and also many aspects of military research and weapons production. "We have the technology and the necessary facilities, but we need fresh sources of income."

Mr. Bespalko says he expects the legislation to be passed and importation to begin before year's end.

MinAtom has recently sold Russian atomic power stations to Iran and India, and is eagerly eyeing the Chinese market, where plans call for building up to 20 nuclear power stations at a cost of $50 billion in coming decades. "Russia must be able to provide the full service to prospective customers in this highly competitive field, including storage and reprocessing of spent fuel," says Alexander Kosarikov, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin Unity party. "And why not? Russian nuclear products are reliable, safe, popular and comparatively cheap."

Grass-roots opposition

Environmental critics of the proposed law tell a very different story. They say the Kremlin has used political pressure and outright chicanery to bulldoze the law through, despite widespread popular opposition. Last year, in one of Russia's first-ever mass grass-roots advocacy campaigns, a coalition of ecological groups gathered 2.5 million signatures on a petition calling for a public referendum on the proposal.

Under Russian law, a vote must be held if 2 million citizens demand it. Ecologists cried foul when the Central Election Commission rejected the petition, claiming 700,000 of the signatures were invalid and allowing the groups no time to gather more.

The proposal, says Igor Farafontov, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace-Russia, "is being rammed through without political due process, and with no consideration of the environmental or even economic consequences that will follow in its wake. The only goal of this scheme is to make money to keep MinAtom alive. And that's bad, because MinAtom is a dangerous, ramshackle, and incompetent organization that should be closed down."

Russia already has vast amounts of its own radioactive waste, which critics say cannot be safely transported, processed, or stored. At present, Russia has just one plant for processing nuclear fuel, the 40-year-old Mayak station near Chelyabinsk in the Urals. MinAtom says profits from foreign deals would enable it to complete a modern new facility in Siberia that could handle up to 1,500 tons of spent fuel a year.

"Processing nuclear fuel generates huge quantities of new waste products, and there is no place to store them," says Vladimir Slivak, director of the antinuclear program at the Social-Ecological Council, a Russian environmental group. "All the infrastructure would have to be modernized and rebuilt to make this a secure project, but that would cost far more than it's worth."

Russia's dilapidated transport network is a key source of concern.

"Russia's rail lines are in terrible shape; its roads are worse," says Anatoly Greshnevikov, deputy head of the Duma's Ecology Committee. "We have no secure vehicles, containers, or systems for transporting this stuff. And we cannot afford to build them."

Another worry is that the draft law contains no provisions for financial compensation if there are accidents.

Hidden motives?

Some analysts warn that profits from MinAtom's civilian business may go into the development of a new range of ultra-modern Russian nuclear weapons. They point to the rise of former KGB hawks in the Kremlin and Moscow's determination to regain its superpower status in the face of US intentions to build an antimissile defense shield. "The gist of the (MinAtom) plan - to make the West pay for a new generation of nukes that may eventually be used against it - has clearly captured the imagination of the Russian elite," military expert Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the English-language Moscow Times newspaper last month.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society