MNEPR Headed for Duma Ratification

Publish date: October 10, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

The Russian government will soon submit the recently signed Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR, agreement to the Russian State Duma for ratification, a move that many Duma deputies and European governments are applauding as a step toward greater transparency and speed in internationally financed nuclear cleanup and dismantlement programmes in Russia.

According to a spokesman for the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration, who spoke to Bellona Web in a telephone interview on Thursday, the government will be sending the bill for MNEPR’s ratification to the deputies—who are now embroiled in December’s upcoming election—“in the very near future.”

He stressed that forwarding the legislation to the Duma at such a hectic time was “an indication of the presidential administration’s commitment to this legislation.”

“The MNEPR agreement, unlike agreements Russia uses with the United States, lifts much of the liability burden from Russia’s shoulders in nuclear dismantlement projects,” the spokesman said.

He would not comment, however, on whether or not the government push for the MNEPR ratification was a shot across the bow of US threat reduction programmes and the onerous—from Russia’s point of view—liability they place on Moscow.

“We need help from the US and the European community,” said the spokesman. “MNEPR should not exclude American programmes.”

Duma deputies interviewed by Bellona Web predicted a swift ratification of MNEPR. This contrasts sharply with the ratification of the US Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programme’s Umbrella Agreement, which was sent to the Duma for ratification in 1999 but has been collecting dust ever since.

“MNEPR makes the whole process of signing nuclear dismantlement projects with foreign countries much faster,” Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin told Bellona Web in a telephone interview from Moscow. “It is more effective than US agreements which put too much of a liability burden on Russia.”

The Norwegian government—which was instrumental in getting MNEPR signed— reacted positively to the new developments for the agreement.

“We are very pleased to see the developments in process and hope to see the Duma ratify MNEPR,” said Eirik Bergesen, information administrator for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a Friday telephone interview with Bellona Web.

The MNEPR Agreement
The MNEPR agreement was signed on May 21st in Stockholm by nine European countries, two pan-European organisations, and the United States. Its main goal is to provide an organisational and legal structure through which foreign nations can offer Moscow long-term assistance in submarine dismantlement and spent nuclear fuel cleanup in Northwest Russia.

MNEPR also codifies liability structures that are less stringent than the ones currently in place in CTR’s dismantlement programmes. Under CTR’s so-called Umbrella Agreement, Russia carries full responsibility for accidents, from radiation incidents to medical care for a broken leg suffered by a CTR contractor stumbling down his apartment stairs, to intentional sabotage of disarmament activities.

MNEPR’s liability structures, on the other hand, lift full liability in specific cases from Russia, and even allow for arbitration in the event of accidents occurring during bilateral nuclear dismantlement and cleanup projects—making it more popular with the Russian government. But because of MNEPR’s lighter liability structure, the United States in May signed only the MNEPR agreement and pointedly refused to sign the liability protocols, which were separated from the agreement at the US State Department’s insistence.

Whether the US will conduct any dismantlement activities in Russia under the aegis of MNEPR remains unclear. At present, it still requires Russia to accept the terms of the Umbrella Agreement on practically all US-sponsored nuclear dismantlement activities.

US State Department Tightens the Umbrella Agreement Screws
The US State Department has recently stated that each and every threat reduction programme conducted by the United States must conform to the Umbrella Agreement’s liability structures—even those programmes that do not deal with actual nuclear dismantlement.

This hard-line stance has already affected two such programmes. The first was the Nuclear Cities Initiative, or NCI, which provides former Russian weapons scientists with jobs in the civilian sector. The second was the Plutonium Science and Technology Agreement, which is a bilateral research and development programme devoted to studying surplus plutonium disposition.

Both of these programmes, which were signed in 1998, were expected to be renewed this year, but the State Department refused to do so because neither of the programmes had adopted the Umbrella Agreement’s liability structures.

The State Department would not comment on the Russian government’s intentions to send the MNEPR agreement to the Duma for ratification—which apparently suggests that the Duma is likely to delay, or pass over entirely, ratification of the Umbrella Agreement.

Raphael Della Ratta, of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, or RANSAC—an NGO that advises the governments of Russia and the US—said he was perplexed by the State Department’s stance, especially regarding the Plutonium Science and Technology Agreement and the NCI initiative.

“Those programmes don’t require the Umbrella Agreement-level liability protection,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington earlier this week. Della Ratta, who coordinates RANSAC’s nuclear complex conversion programme, also said it was hard to assess how the possible Duma ratification of the MNEPR agreement would affect CTR programmes.
He did say that requiring the Umbrella Agreement-level liability agreements for all US threat reduction programmes, including those run not only by CTR, but also by the Department of Energy—which controls the plutonium disposition and NCI programmes—and by the State Department, was creating an “impasse” in American threat reduction efforts in the areas he mentioned.

Alternatively, he noted that the ratification of MNEPR would “certainly facilitate European nuclear threat reduction and nuclear cleanup efforts.”

MNEPR Projects Already Underway
A number of Russian submarine dismantlement projects—most notably one launched for EUR10m last summer by Norway—are already underway as a result of the MNEPR agreement. Norway is currently dismantling two derelict Victor II class submarines, which, as non-strategic submarines that never posed a nuclear threat to the United States, are not covered in CTR’s submarine dismantlement guidelines.

The United Kingdom has also committed to dismantling the Northern Fleet’s two remaining retired Oscar I class cruise missile submarines. Germany, too, has just signed on to help dismantle submarines in the Northern Fleet, though it is not yet known how many Berlin will dispose of.

In July, MNEPR signatories France, the United Kingdom and Canada pledged more than $60m combined to the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership, or NDEP, a fund held by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, or EBRD. The activation of the NDEP fund was contingent on the signing of MNEPR. This funding is in addition to the EUR62m earmarked for NDEP’s “Nuclear Window” funding that had been sitting in the account prior to MNEPR’s signing.

The goal of the NDEP fund is environmental issues in Northwest Europe, including nuclear cleanup on the territory of the Russian Kola Peninsula—home to Russia’s Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarine fleet. After MNEPR’s signing, some EUR142m—including the contributions from France, the United Kingdom and Canada—has poured into NDEP’s coffers, all of it earmarked for NDEP “Nuclear Window” projects in Northwest Russia.


Why Does MNEPR Need Formal Ratification?
All of this begs the question: Why is Duma ratification necessary for the MNEPR agreement, especially when projects under MNEPR guidelines are already underway, and the CTR Umbrella Agreement is still the liability foundation for all US-Russian nuclear dismantlement projects?

“Ratifying MNEPR would be a formal procedure under which the agreement acquires authority—it would be made of brick,” said Mitrokhin. “Law would crawl out from under the heel of Minatom,” he said, using the Russian acronym for Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy.

Mitrokhin said that MNEPR’s structure dictates more transparency in transfers of money to Russia from European countries. Unlike many CTR programmes, which simply write a check to Russia’s Minatom to undertake a nuclear dismantlement problem, MNEPR allows for direct contracting with Russian firms and requires higher degrees of accountability than the CTR process does.

Mitrokhin pointed out as an example an alleged swindle by Minatom of $270m in US and European aid meant for security upgrades at Minatom’s dilapidated radioactive waste storage facilities. As the Duma’s budgetary watchdog, the Audit Chamber, reported, the money had been funnelled into obscure research projects with no accounting of how it had been spent.

Under some CTR arrangements, said Mitrokhin, “Minatom dictates what gets spent where, and all the while they are stealing.”

Minatom Thursday refused to comment on Mitrokhin’s allegations.

Besides Norway, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and France, the other nations that signed the MNEPR accord are Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Finland. The European Commission and the European Atomic Energy Community also signed the accord.