Grassroots Rage Could Burn Radwaste Smelting Plant

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One morning last fall, a freight train pulled into Kalishche station in the town of Sosnovy Bor, home of the Leningrad Atomic Energy Station, or LAES. The train looked like any of a dozen freight haulers arriving in the closed town that day an station masters parked it on a track near commuter platforms.

Unbeknownst to station personnel, a car on that freight train was loaded with radioactive metal emitting 15,000 micro roentgens per hour — 1,000 times the acceptable norm for background radiation. Railway workers that morning in Sosnovy Bor — a town of 60,000 80 kilometres west of St Petersburg — had no idea the dangerous load was even coming. Nor were they aware of the dangers when it arrived. No special signs identified the car as carrying radioactive waste and only after prying open the car and consulting the cargo manifest did workers get the picture.

“It was another one of those secret shipments of radioactive scrap to Ekomet-S,” a railway worker from Sosnovy Bor, who asked not to be identified, told Bellona Web Tuesday by telephone. He said some five other unmarked shipments like this one had arrived last summer.

“They always arrive this way — secretly. There are no markings, nothing telling us to be careful — no opportunity to defend ourselves against poisoning,” the railway official said,

Ecologist Oleg Bodrov of Green World Sosnovy Bor was called and brought Geiger counters and established the astounding level of radioactivity emanating from the boxcar. It contained 10 metal containers filled with 20 tonnes of low-level radioactive metallic waste sent from the Chepetsky Mechanical Plant, located in the Udmurtiya region, run by the Ministry of Nuclear Energy (Minatom).

Ekomet-S
This load added 20 tonnes to 140 tonnes that were clandestinely delivered to Sosnovy Bor last summer, bound for a plant of allegedly dubious legal credentials called Ekomet-S, built near the grounds of the LAES in 2001. The firm — which is Russia’s first private enterprise to trade in radioactive materials — is a $3 million-a-year smelting operation that takes metals contaminated with low level radioactivity — such as pipes systems and pumps formerly located in nuclear reactors, melts them down and supposedly cleanses them of radioactive contaminants. Its backers include Russia’s natural gas giant, Gazprom which issued a $10 million credit toward its construction.

Company officials say Ekomet-S has the capacity to smelt 5,000 tonnes of radioactive metal a year.

Much of this metal is then sold to metal merchants, who produce from this formerly-glowing raw material items such as eating utensils, teapots, door-hinges, paper clips, coat hangers — in short any metal product one is likely to encounter in the course of a day.

Ekomet-S’ proponents — among them Minatom and Russia’s nuclear regulatory body Gosatomnadzor (GAN) — hail the enterprise as a profound contribution toward solving the 600,000 tonne radioactive scrap metal pile-up that has accrued at throughout the country’s 11 nuclear power plants.

There are only a couple of legal hitches: The plant is operating entirely without the sanction of a required expert governmental environmental impact study from the Ministry of Natural Resources — which means it never should have been built in the first place; and, secondly, since it is a private closed stock company, it is subject to no government oversight — facts that have raised not only the ire of environmentalists, but the administration of Sosnovy Bor, many LAES workers and Yabloko party Duma Deputy Alexander Shishlov.

Legal action
St Petersburg attorney Alexei Pavlov’s goal — widely conceived — is to return control of Russia’s nuclear industry “to the hands of the citizens who are most affected by if and have to live with it.”

He is starting with Ekomet-S.

On June 5th Pavlov, who works at Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, filed a petition to have the plant shut down for good. The petition was filed on behalf of former LAES whistleblower Sergei Karitonov — who worked at LAES for more than two decades — who has court standing as a resident of Sosnovy Bor.

According to Pavlov, the suit is simple: “We are suing because Minatom allowed Ekomet-S to begin work without the appropriate governmental expert ecological impact study,” he said in an interview this week.

“From a legal standpoint, we are on the same side as the government,” said Pavlov. “First Deputy Prosecutor Yury Biryukov to whom Shishlov sent an official request for review wrote back that a company like this should not be operating because it didn’t get an ecological impact study.”

Documents shown Bellona Web confirm this.

But the suit doesn’t stop there. Municipal authorities in Sosnovy Bor voted to file suit — with Pavlov’s help — against the plant, demanding that its operations be halted pending the expert study, and that all further shipments of radioactive metal to the town be stopped. Efforts to close the plant also received a vote of support from Leningrad Region Governor Valery Serdyukov.

Furthermore, Bodrov filed suit against Minatom Deputy Minister Valery Lebedev who, according to documents obtained by Bellona Web containing his signature, gave permission — in the absence of the expert impact study — on February 19th of this year for Ekomet-S to begin operations.

 

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Tatyana Klimova, spokeswoman for Deputy Shishlov said in a telephone Tuesday interview that “after getting piles of unsatisfactory answers from authorities” from Minatom, LAES, and the Ministry of Natural Resources, which conducts the expert impact studies, Shishlov got fed up.

A hearing for all the involved parties is set for June 26th in St Petersburg’s Arbitration court.

“It will be interesting to see what the representatives of this first deputy minister at Minatom have to say,” said Pavlov, “because environmentalists turned to the courts not only in concert but in concert with the local authorities and reps of the government with whose help we hope to get a real results — including shutting down that factory.”

“ We have real demands here, you could say,” Pavlov added.

Minatom’s big plan
So how did Ekomet-S get this far along circumventing federal ecological laws that dictate such enterprises must receive a clean bill of ecological health before employees even turn on the lights?

According to a former Minatom official, who asked not to be named, a push toward melting radioactive metals began in 1995 after scientists showed that melted wastes reduce in volume and also trap dangerous radio-nuclides inside. This, the official said, theoretically made storage of waste easier because it was more compact and less radioactive and less prone to leakage. Additionally, if certain fusing agents are were during smelting, radiation can be eradicated altogether, said the official, clean metals — such as chrome, aluminium, nickel and stainless steel — could be reclaimed.

“Minatom saw money was there to be made, so certain obstacles were moved” said the former official in an interview this week.

“But sufficient tests had not been done here and there was no discussion of an oversight body to make sure these metals came out clean. This process was begun as an experiment in waste management, not profit-making.”

Russia, though, is not alone in recycling radioactive metal. Britain’s BNFL smelts and resells decontaminated metals, spokesman David Cartwright said. But, according to British law, the resulting metal “must be less radioactive than a Brazil nut,” which is established by independent regulatory oversight.

By contrast, according to Ekomet-S’s Chief of Nuclear Safety, Alexander Troshev, the plat is responsible for establishing and adhering to its own norms. Not even Russia’s nuclear regulatory body, GAN, has a hand in the process, and had only a foggy notion of Ekomet-S’ criteria for marketable metals. However, a GAN spokesman fro St Petersburg’s office, who declined to be identified, said the smelted metals fall into three categories: metal that is suitable for consumer use; metal suitable for replacement parts for nuclear installations; and radioactive waste.

By 1998, the mayor of Sosnovy Bor had already given permission to Ekomet-S to break ground. In October 2000, according to the former official, Deputy Nuclear Minister Valentin Ivanov signed a resolution recommending that Minatom’s Russia-wide enterprises — including the Angara Electrochemical Plant in Siberia and the Chepetsky Mechanical Plant — load up their radioactive metal on trains and send it to Sosnovy Bor, where Ekomet-S was already in testing stages. Plant directors — all too happy to rid themselves of tonnes of dangerous waste — began to comply.

Thus, according to the former Minatom official, began a secret exodus of trains containing 160,000 tonnes of low level metallic waste began last summer inching towards Northwest Russia.

The big plan’s dangers
Local ecologists and even representatives of LAES itself — which had so hope to have a disposal plant for its 29,500 tonnes of metallic waste — the metal imported to Sosnovy Bor is bursting the seams of an already critical waste problem.

“We thought it was not right to command the city’s fate without previous coordination with the local authorities,” said Natalya Malevannaya, director of the Sosnovy Bor ecological and environmental protection department, said in a telephone interview.

“Indeed, problem of spent nuclear fuel at the Leningrad nuclear plant is really pressing enough. Over 30,000 spent fuel installations have piled up on the banks of the Gulf of Finland.”

And smelting these tonnes of waste creates more waste problems of its own. Those metals, he said, that are deemed by Ekomet-S to be too contaminated for resale end up as more containers of waste at LAES. Ekomet-S said, however, that metal brought from other locations that still comes out as waste is shipped back to the plants of origin.

Even those metals emerging from smelting as ostensibly clean and commercially viable are not subject to checks beyond those criteria developed by the Ekomet-S — a fact corroborated by both GAN and Ekomet-S representatives.

“Society has no control over what kind of metal makes it into consumers’ hands. It goes out and it becomes forks, tea cups washing machines, but the consumer has no way of knowing where it’s coming from.”

If they were such products as cleansed radioactive metal, then the consumer would have a choice. But there is currently no legislation that would dictate such warnings.

“This lack of consumer knowledge is the danger. And this becomes a financial advantage for Ekomet-S,” said Khartonov.

“The fact is, atomic energy causes problems, for example with fuel storage. “Now there are problems with the metal waste, and no nuclear power station has even begun to deal with these problems. And side activities like Ekomet-S only create colossal amounts of more radioactive metal. No atomic station knows how to deal with this — it is an unsolvable problem.”

Who gave Ekomet-S permission?
Since that time, Ekomet-S has been operating on a provisional certificate of permission issued by the Ministry of Natural Resources, and has smelted some 10,000 tonnes. But according to officials from that Ministry reached Thursday, the certificate does not envision the wide scale of work that Ekomet-S has been engaged in.

That’s, however, not how Ekomet-S Nuclear Safety Chief Troshev sees it.

“The Ministry of Natural resources said we could — in our case — substitute a government expert evaluation for another set of evaluations that have already been completed,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

“We have received, then, a conclusion from that ministry that the plant is ecologically sound. It has its licence to work. As far as we are concerned, matter is closed.”

But according to environmental laws, this certificate — which expires next year — is no substitute for the expert governmental ecological evaluation, which should have taken place before ground was even broken at the plant. This caused Ekomet-S no alarm.

“So, local authorities and the ‘greens’ don’t like the name of the permission document we have,” said Troshev. “It’s not called a ‘governmental expert ecological impact report’ but the substance of the document is the same and says the plant is ecologically safe. What we have just doesn’t correspond to the name of the usual document.”

At the Ministry of Natural Resources, no one would say how it was that Ekomet-S could have ended up with a document to operate without the all-important expert ecological evaluation. Ekomet-S’ permission document — a copy of which was obtained by Bellona Web — was signed by one A.K. Frolov, who was not available for comment all week.

Another official at the Ministry of Natural resources, who was familiar with the case, and who refused to be identified, told Bellona Web that “pressure from Nuclear Energy officials, and from the government,” led to the Ekomet-S permission slip. This official also said that “the mess” surrounding Ekomet-S’ apparently fast and loose play with government regulations “may lead to it never receiving an expert ecological impact report from these offices.”

But it is unclear why Deputy Nuclear Minister Lebedev granted permission for the plant to begin operations. Also unclear is why Deputy Nuclear Minister Ivanov, directed Minatom enterprises to send trainloads of radioactive metallic waste to Sosnovy Bor without notifying Sosnovy Bor authorities, or why it was that the loads would have been shipped in unmarked cars — a violation of Russian law.

The authorities were trying to solve two problems at once — how to get the plant working and how to get the expert ecological impact study — the problem is, that study has to be done before a facility is built.”

Both Lebedev and Ivanov were repeatedly unavailable for comment and Minatom press officers said they would need 45 day to respond to inquiries about Ekomet-S.

Back in Sosnovy Bor, Ekomet-S’ former director Andrei Nester was called on the carpet for starting plant operations — dating back to the experimental smelting runs of 2000 — without the expert evaluation. He was subject to an administrative fine. Eventually he was replaced, but Ekomet-S’ officials will not explain the circumstances. The new director is named Maksim Boronkov. He could not be reached for comment this week.

Nuclear officialdom
Even if Minatom deputies maintained silence, Nuclear Energy Minister Aleksander Rumyantsev recently had words of censure for Ekomet-S. In an April gathering with environmentalists, Rumyantsev said he was been “dissatisfied” with how Ekomet-S has brushed aside its legal obligations, according Green World Sosnovy Bor’s Bodrov, who attended the meeting.

Bodrov, added, however, that Rumyantsev was not opposed to the plant opening and said during the meeting that he hoped the botched legal issues would be ironed out.

The official with Russia’s nuclear regulator GAN — who one might suspect of being nonplussed by the alleged violations surrounding Ekomet-S’ operations — gushed support for the project.

“Ekomet-S is a unique and leading enterprise for the reworking of radioactive metals,” the official said. He was unconcerned that Ekomet-S was responsible for setting its own safety standards for the purified metals it would sell, saying “in our country, the responsibility for radiation safety is carried by the producer.”

The GAN official also seemed willingly unaware of environmentalists’ complaints about train shipments of waste to Sosnovy Bor. First, he asserted that no trains had been sent to Sosnovy Bor because Minatom had not yet recommended it. He abruptly changed tack, though, when informed that Deputy Nuclear Minister Ivanov had in fact recommended it in October, 2000, and even went on to cite documentation on the shipments.

Regarding Bodrov’s discovery of a highly radioactive train car loaded with waste metal at the Sosnovy Bor train station in October, the official said: “That’s nonsense.”

“Some ‘green’ with some kind of device measured a train in October and found it to be emanating 15,000 micro roentgens an hour. What he measured I don’t know, because, according to all the documents, the train was within limits. I tell you this as a specialist,” the official said.

He added, though, that “as a professional” who occasionally suffered high doses of radiation as an occupational hazard, “15,000 micro roentgens an hour is not dangerous.”

“This plant is completely safe,” he said. “I invite you to come have a look.”

Grassroots action
Many residents of Sosnovy Bor though have decided they’ve seen enough. Public outcry following Bodrov’s October revelations about the waste-packed train have halted — or shoved deeper into the shadows — radioactive shipments to the city. However, that Ekomet-S is still quietly smelting waste from LAES.

But many who were originally for the plan have reconsidered. The recent municipal meeting that led to the arbitration court date saw such converts as Sosnovy Bor Mayor Viktor Nekrasov — who had originally touted the 130 jobs Ekomet-S would create. The municipal council, who thought those jobs might be good for the economy, now oppose it too.

Even LAES director Valery Lebedev (no relation to the Minatom minister of the same name), who embraced Ekomet-S so openly that he offered the facility free utilities from his plant, now found himself rethinking the issue with the municipal council, of which he is a member.

“I don’t think anyone would defend what’s going on legally at Ekomet-S said LAES spokesman Sergei Averyanov, who quickly added that Lebedev has no affiliation with Ekomet-S.

“Lebedev had to oppose Ekomet-S at the meeting in some small measure until all the safety features were worked out and all the demands satisfied,” said Averyanov. Nonetheless, it represented something of a coup for Lebedev, whose plant depends on Minatom’s largesse, to raise his hand in protest of one of the Nuclear Ministry’s pet projects.

The worst precedent behind the building of Ekomet-S is how it sets the stage for other environmentally dangerous facilities to be built while entirely forgoing the process of an expert governmental ecological impact study. As the lawsuits against such prospective facilities back up in litigation for years, the facilities are allowed to continue operation.

“Ekomet-S is the first stone thrown in a process that will allow these facilities to be built without government ecological approval.

“At the same time, the legislative base is so weak that it allows for these things to be built. The only reason they are trying to decide what to do now is because ecological organizations, good public relations and legal and legislative people became involved — otherwise nothing would have been done.”

“It’s all related to the same problem of the ‘peaceful atom’ which turns out not to be peaceful at all. “It actively fights society and throws out hug amounts of waste and we have to fight the waste. This is not peace.

Charles Digges