The relationship between Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom and environmental groups has never been stable: Opposition, mistrust, non-transparency and antagonism – the mutual accusations have rained down from both sides. But Rosatom’s transparency has led to schism – a crisis – within Russian environmental organizations themselves.
Over the past five or six years I don’t recall such an active discussion among environmental organizations about whether or not to participate in Rosatom’s Forum – an event aimed at bringing environmentalists and the nuclear industry together under one roof for a few days each year for the last 11 years – and what the problems with it are.
Posts to Russian environmental Internet forums discuss questions like is there dialogue or not, what forms of it are acceptable and not, who should stand up for the public, and what do ecologists want at the end of the day.
Before I talk about debates within the Russian environmental community, I’d like to share my opinions about the last of Rosatom’s Forum Dialogs, which took place last month, and which was entitled “Atomic Energy, Ecology and Safety.”
When you conduct the same event in the same format on the same theme for 11 years in a row, the event ceases to be pertinent or interesting, especially for those who take part in it year after year. And that’s the majority of people who come. I, for instance, experience no small amount of déjà vu and wonder for whom and why anyone bothers to organize all this.
Looking at the participants, you begin to understand that the gathering looks least of all like a dialogue between the atomic industry and those who have the most questions of the industry and its technologies. The conversation, or dialogue, at the forum was between atomic industry representatives and atomic industry representatives, between administrators of closed nuclear cities and specialists from the nuclear laboratories they house and with people from the Russian Federal Service for Environmental, Technical and Nuclear Oversight (Rostekhnadzor).
To be fair, all of these people represent Russian society just as much as the general public, and when they organize a public forum it’s their forum too. Foreigners seemed to have the best opinion of the forum because a lot of them were there for the first time, and because they didn’t expect such voluminous information in response to their questions. Mayors and other representatives of closed cities were also satisfied because they don’t often have opportunities to meet with other closed city folk. Lots of people from the industry were happy enough just to come to the capitol from their far-flung Siberian labs.
The Forum Dialog was literally overflowing with information on the topics Rosatom announced beforehand, so you can say that everyone got what they were looking for and they were able to take part in debates and ask questions. True, from the point of view of many activists, this looked more like brainwashing. Social media posts after the Forum Dialog featured photos of demonstrators from years past holding signs reading “Rosatom Brainwashing Here.”
Truly, if 10 years ago it was, as one poster noted, “amusing to watch the enmity bordering on hatred toward activists in each presentation by the nuclear industry,” then now we see the nuclear industry dumping a mass of information and patiently answering questions at the forum and conferences. And, as strange as it is, activists have fewer and fewer questions. If anyone is asking any questions, it’s representatives of the nuclear industry who are showing an interest in what their neighboring colleagues are doing.
In short, what exactly the “public Forum Dialog” is comes across in various ways, and this is the reason for divergent estimations of it. Nevertheless, the event needs some rethinking, reformatting and ideological reincarnation. What should be done and when is a different conversation. But it’s already clear that that part of those in attendance who position themselves as anti-nuclear or “real ecologists,” and “representatives of the people” consider the forum an “imitation of dialogue,” a “pretend dialogue,” and “hopeless.”
This is a firm and widespread opinion held by activists, which makes one stop and think about the sense of continuing such Forum Dialogs. Maybe it would make more sense to break it down into a few more effective and less global events.
Social media forums reflect the dissatisfaction: Some call for activists to organize a forum and invite the atomic industry themselves.§ Some propose open conversation halls. Others call for changing the format to discussions rather than presentations. Still others suggest sending only one participant from the “concerned public” to read statements. Other suggestions are to send suggestions to Rosatom’s public chamber – all in the interest of clearing the “logjam.”
Today the anti-nuclear movement has splintered into those who call themselves “real ecologists,” and those who call themselves “constructive activists.”
Constructive activists, who are part of all kinds of working groups that work with the nuclear industry, are blamed for all manner of sins including the fall of the anti-nuclear movement. The accusations are more emotional than logical.
Objectively, the environmental movement – the anti-nuclear movement specifically – has for various reasons lost its former activism and professionalism. This has happened because of various internal and external factors such as economic hardship, getting tarred with the foreign agent label, fake news and black PR. But I suspect the essential reason for this weakening is something else.
Representatives of the nuclear industry, as younger people with fewer ties to the Soviet atomic past have come to power, view activists differently than their predecessors. They’ve stopped seeing them as enemies they have to hate and stomp out. They don’t have the same contempt to activists that the old guard at Minatom did. And the few members of the old antinuclear – not many new folks have taken their place – are still on war footing. It hasn’t yet occurred to them that in order to change any big structure, you have to be in a process of cooperation with it, in this case with Rosatom. By cooperating you can know what it’s up to and you can influence it from within.
You can’t change this system only with demands, ultimatums, placards and dubious information peppered though the media and social networks. Without a deep knowledge of the internal processes of a given enterprise, and without seeing possibilities from the inside, it’s hard to change anything or achieve your goals. Tales about people stopping the building of a nuclear station armed only with protests are just cock and bull stories and pure self-aggrandizing PR.
As such, generalizing the discussion among environmental groups, participants and organizers of ecological conferences and Moscow’s Forum Dialog, one gets the impression that the environmental movement – including anti-nuclear groups – is in the midst of a creative and organizational crisis and engaged in a half-hearted search for answers to the question of who’s to blame and what to do.
There is no unified opinion even on strategic questions. There’s a constant diseased competition among ecological groups and other social leaders. For many reasons, public expert resources are at a very low level. Realistically, there isn’t a single ecological group that’s capable of performing to demanded levels of competency an independent environmental assessment of even an uncomplicated nuclear project, to say nothing of a floating nuclear plant or other projects.
Among the activists themselves there are only a few individuals that can more or less professionally lay out an expertly crafted opinion (but not an environmental evaluation) on any given nuclear question.
It’s already clear that events like the Forum Dialog don’t help solve the problems of cooperation and rapprochement between activists and the nuclear industry on needling questions – for this there aren’t enough three-hour round tables or two-day conferences. Therefore, this shouldn’t be the concrete task of the Forum Dialog. The forum can continue as an informational conference – you could even call it an informational forum if you like – for the concerned public in the spirit of a kind of AtomExpo for Russian activists, and another for international activists. The concerned public could get information and answers to its questions in such a setting.
To solve concrete problems and address suggestions from the public and the nuclear industry, it might be more reasonable to arrange another, more narrow arena. We had such a practice at one time and it would be easy to return to it and improve it.
The perspective of organizations in the large-scale environmental movement isn’t visible. Professional advocacy groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace are self-sufficient, have their own strategy, aims and resources. They are hardly interested in using their potential to create a large environmental movement in Russia.
What of the notion of creating a large umbrella organization uniting all smaller organizations that have few resources? Practice shows that doesn’t work, and is hardly needed anyway. It’s equally misguided to try to create an ecological movement from “above” as it were – this has been tried before. Such a movement could possibly survive through next year’s Russian Year of Ecology, but then would be heard of no more. There are simply not enough financial resources to create a movement from above. An ideology that sits in the mind of every person is needed, not something imposed from above and buttressed by the corresponding financing.
In any event, all interested sides – such as society, the government, business – have something to think on if they are really interested in a contemporary solution to such pressing problems as the environment and the health of the people.
Alexander Niktin is chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg.