Russia ready to build nuclear plants without an ecological “good-to-go” stamp

Publish date: December 11, 2006

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

Russian atomic monopoly Rosenergoatom is confident new amendments to the country’s City Planning Code – passed by state legislators in the third reading in late November – will not impact the safety of Russian nuclear power plants (NPPs). But their argument that the state environmental evaluation procedure is still very much in place is a point of strong objection among ecologists.

The intention behind the suggested changes is only to unify the numerous existing types of environmental evaluation studies into one environmental evaluation procedure,” explained Ashot Nasibov, head spokesman of Russia’s Rosenergoatom, a commercial branch of the Russian top nuclear authority, responsible for the safety of the country’s nuclear power plants during their construction and operation.

Let me put a special emphasis on this: The mentioned consolidation does not annul environmental studies and assessments per se. [Environmental] studies and audits will be conducted in the future and to the same extent as before, only now concentrated in the framework of one state [environmental evaluation] procedure,” Nasibov wrote in his letter to Bellona web.

But environmentalists voice their adamant disagreement with this statement.

Unfortunately, this does not correspond to the real state of things,” Greenpeace expert Mikhail Kreindlin told Bellona web.

An analysis of the November draft legislation performed by Bellona-St.Petersburg legal counsel Olga Krivonos shows that “the place of the public and that of the specialised ecological bodies is now supposed to be taken by technical regulations.”

Krivonos compared the legal norms to be abolished with the ones suggested in the new legislation and concluded that “the bill, by barring some of the most important bodies involved in the state environmental evaluation studies, has thus taken away the right of citizens and public organisations to protect the welfare of their environment. (Bellona’s readers can find the Russian-language analysis of the amendments by clicking on the link in the grey box next to the top of this article, under ‘File’.)

The bill
“With this draft law, environmental evaluation study as a significant tool of providing ecological safety can be pronounced defunct,” said Alexander Karpov, head of the St. Petersburg-based centre for expert studies “Ekom.”

Among the goals set before experts performing a state environmental evaluation is to give a comprehensive and independent assessment of a project’s potential ecological risks. A conclusion is then made on the basis of this assessment about whether or not realisation of this project is at all acceptable.

Take, for instance, the oil pipeline [that is planned to be laid] along Lake Baikal – no one has ever put it in writing that one cannot build a pipeline 500 metres away from a lake. But many experts, when the state environmental evaluation study was under way, said such construction was inadmissible.”

In the bill, legislators have equated nuclear power plants and nuclear materials storage sites with all other construction projects, which means that an evaluation for possible ecological risks will be performed “in accordance with the Russian Federation’s legislation on city planning.”

The authors of the amendments have also, in effect, abolished the practice of public hearings meant to precede construction of sites related to atomic industry.

Furthermore, cast into oblivion by the new law, should it be enforced, will be the obligatory environmental and sanitary and public health assessments that used to accompany chemical weapons decommissioning projects – despite the obvious logical gap between chemical weapons and city planning. The same fate will fall upon the environmental evaluation studies required in the past by sites involved in domestic waste management.

The Leningrad NPP
It is now a known fact that Russian nuclear plants operator and energy supplier Rosenergoatom has been planning to start construction of new reactor blocks to replace the aged reactors of the Leningrad NPP operated near St. Petersburg. The declaration of intent to build the new NPP was forwarded to the Leningrad regional administration in April this year.

As was announced by the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy’s State Regional Public Centre in St. Petersburg, public hearings to examine risk analysis outlined in a study of the potential environmental impact this project may have will take place on February 7, 2007, in the city hall of Sosnovy Bor – a town near St. Petersburg that houses the existing Leningrad NPP.

However, organising such public hearings – if or when the bill takes effect – will make little sense: According to the amendments to the existing legislation, state environmental evaluation procedure will not involve taking into consideration any opinion voiced by the public and will be limited to balancing newly suggested construction projects against technical regulations that are as yet to be developed.

It is a total mess, the abolishment of state environmental studies. It is absolutely clear that simply following regulations cannot guarantee ecological safety of sites as complex as nuclear power plants,” said Andrei Ozharovsky, an expert with the environmental group Ecodefense!.

It is laughable that the issue of NPPs would be regulated by legislation on city planning, because NPPs must be built at a significant distance from populated areas,” he added.