Nuclear Official: ‘Everything Should be Transparent’

Publish date: October 24, 2005

Written by: Grigory Pasko

Translated by: Peter Morley

Grigory Pasko interviews Sergei Antipov, deputy head of Rosatom, Russia's federal nuclear-power agency, about the decommissioning of nuclear submarines and the role of civil society in the process.


At a recent international conference held in St. Petersburg entitled “Nuclear safety: the Economy of Safety and Working with Radiation Sources,” Rosatom Deputy Director Sergei Antipov said that his agency is gearing up to receive approximately 3.5 billion roubles ($116 million) from various international funding sources toward the decommissioning of nuclear submarines.

According to Antipov, the money will come from Germany, the U.K., Norway, Sweden, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, and the European Union. Talks are currently underway to involve South Korea in the programme.

Antipov also spoke about plans to allocate some 2 billion roubles from next year’s Russian budget for the decommissioning of nuclear subs. One hundred and ninety six nuclear submarines have been taken out of service with the Russian Navy since the 1980s, of which 115 have been decommissioned.

“The government has set a target of decommissioning all nuclear submarines by 2010. Eighteen nuclear subs will be decommissioned in 2005, and next year we plan to decommission a further 15 vessels,” Antipov said.

Antipov discussed problems involved in decommissioning nuclear submarines and dealing with radioactive waste, and about the role of civil society in this process with Bellona Web.

Grigory Pasko: Sergei Antipov, the Strategic Master Plan for decommissioning nuclear submarines and other nuclear-powered vessels in Northwest Russia was adopted in 2004. The SMP defined priority tasks formed a list of urgent measures, and the first concrete contracts have already been signed. What is the role of the first-phase works in the context of the overall programme? Has everything been done that was planned?

Sergei Antipov: Anyone who has been following events could point to a massive amount of information on this topic. The first stage, the first phase of implementing the Master Plan has been discussed on the Internet, at public hearings, and in reports of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Basically we can say that the first stage of the SMP was important because we achieved—and this is the main thing—an understanding with the whole community, including the international community, and all the bodies involved that such a Strategic Master Plan was necessary. No one had any objections to developing it. Transparency and clarity about the direction in which we should move are the most important items—we can’t go any further without them. We showed the problems that lie ahead of us. Solving these problems is the task of the second stage of the Strategic Master Plan.

There are concrete results as well. Now, we are at the end of negotiations with the EBRD on inking a contract to develop the second stage of the Master Plan. If during the first stage we defined the basic areas of focus, particular places and pressing projects, then in the second stage we will carry out more detailed developmental work on the problems, and flesh them out into concrete projects. It is possible that after this we will be left not with about 40 projects, as was the case during the first stage, but several hundred—we want to have a much more detailed picture and will try to define the links between them. We can say, conditionally, that we cannot take a reactor block and turn it into radioactive waste before we have a storage facility prepared for that waste. These links between projects are very important. Foreign donors need to see this in order precisely to define deadlines and the amount of financing needed to implement the project.

G.P.: Obviously, the Master Plan for the Northwest will not be the first and last plan of the overall process of decommissioning nuclear subs and radioactive waste across the country. Are other plans for the Far East also being developed?

S.A.: The existing Strategic Master Plan deals only with the Northwest—historically, the region has the most pressing problems. The Northern Fleet had much more technical equipment than does the Pacific Fleet. Secondly, we must take into account that donors and countries sponsoring this process have a definite interest in the Northwest. For them, this region is much more important.

Of course, we do need the same sort of master plan for the Far East. We have been drawing up the first outlines of it for some years now. We have a general idea about the problems we face there. But to develop the plan to the same level of detail as the SMP for the North-West, we need financing. It is quite expensive work. Many organisations are being engaged, and accounting work is being carried out. Funds from the Russian budget are very limited. We have to choose our priority areas. For example, if there is a leak of radioactive waste, then the money must go first of all toward dealing with the consequences of this leak.

We are hopeful of favourable conditions to speed up the development process for this master plan. And we’re not just waiting, but are making great efforts towards this. In the Far East, Japan is a genuine potential partner. And not just Japan. For example, there is Australia, which has said that it wants to allocate money, but only if Japan transfers it. Seven million is enough not only to develop the master plan: The first stage of the SMP for the North-West, for example, cost about half a million dollars.

G.P.: In your opinion, what are the reasons for Japan, shall we say, not being over-zealous in approving Russian suggestions in this area? Is it the lack of a peace treaty, or territorial problems?

S.A.: Yes, of course, from the Japanese side we have unfortunately not seen any really significant steps towards solving the question of drawing up a Strategic Master Plan for the Far East. The reasons? It’s hard for technical specialists like us to make political assessments and conclusions. The peace treaty, territorial problems—we have not mentioned these problems.

For example, we have heard arguments like these from our partners: You know, the Japanese public is not entirely happy about helping Russia in this sphere. Russia’s economy is growing, while Japan’s is in a slump. Russia’s Stabilisation Fund is growing, while Japan doesn’t have enough resources for everything. Of course, these arguments are not uncontestable. It would be incorrect to compare budgets in absolute terms. The same goes for the scale of the problems facing the two countries. But we must recognise that the Japanese public and Japanese politicians are ambivalent about the necessity of helping us.

On the other hand, the Japanese do have concerns about the ecological state of their neighbours—that is, our country. They have radioactively-dangerous facilities right next door. They have to take this factor into account.

So attitudes to the problem vary. Either we upset the balance, or they do. Some politician speaks out of turn and the process grinds to a halt. Occasionally we see attempts by our eastern neighbours to prepare a noteworthy gift for a certain date. They are trying—I can feel this personally—to, for example, sign a joint agreement during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan in November of this year.

G.P.: There are probably other reasons for this mutual misunderstanding. I have had occasion to hear arguments from the Japanese side that their financial help could be used ineffectively or for the wrong purpose.

S.A.: Of course, this area of co-operation is limited. This is linked with the Navy. They are concerned that the money could be used to strengthen the military capability of our Navy. For example, people involved in this know about the problem of the section of a railway from the Zvezda factory to the mainline station. Because of the unsatisfactory state of this section we cannot safely transport spent nuclear fuel. We have to take it the long way round, by sea, a different route that is longer and more complicated. It would seem that, if Japan was interested in our getting the SNF out of the region more quickly, it would help us to restore this section of railroad track. The track totals 28 km in length, of which 7 km needs work. Rosatom cannot do this, even formally, as the track is on the balance sheet of Russian Railways. By law we cannot spend budgetary funds on the property of others.

But repairing the track is not viable for Russian Railways, which is looking to invest money and get a return. So there is a conflict. Potential partners are also wary of whether we will use that section of track to transport materials meant for the Navy. There are no separate routes for military cargoes and separate routes for civilian cargoes. We will be carrying both. And this gets in the way of solving the main problem, namely decommissioning nuclear subs and nuclear waste. We don’t want to get our priorities mixed up.

G.P.: What do you think about the idea of writing a special report on the condition of radioactivly-dangerous installations in the Pacific Fleet and the Far East?

S.A.: Everything depends on the level of detail and the degree to which the report is developed. We do make such reports. And at a summer seminar in Tokyo we produced a detailed report on the most pressing problems in the Far East. We can prepare a similar report for a conference that will possibly be held this year. Or we could just prepare one anyway. We’re doing this work. And variations on the master-plan for the Far East are also being developed, at our expense. When we have some results, we’ll publish them.

G.P.: In your speech in Tokyo you mentioned the lack of a regional monitoring system among the list of problems in the Far East. How fundamental is this problem?

S.A.: Monitoring is not only important for the Far East, but for any region. If any nuclear incident occurs, the relevant bodies will have to take quick and effective decisions. People’s lives, not to mention the environment, could depend on the accuracy and speed of the decision-making. Therefore, a monitoring system is necessary and important. But it isn’t cheap. We have a local system, both at factories and at DalRAO facilities. But we need something at a higher level: We need to unite everything into a single network, with a single set of parameters, with a structured apparatus, in a single place where the management can react in an emergency. Incidentally, Japan has reacted positively and with understanding to this problem.

G.P.: You also noted that participants in the Global Partnership have not given enough attention to the Far East. What are you and your agency doing to attract this attention?

S.A.: Last year, I spoke about the problems of the Far East at the IAEA, and then at the NDEP Steering Group, and this year at the seminar in Tokyo. Incidentally, the seminar itself was held with the aim of drawing attention to the current state of affairs in the region. And in every interview and in all my speeches I never tire of saying that if we safeguard the Northwest and don’t solve the problems of the Far East then the overall situation with regards to decommissioning of nuclear subs and nuclear waste will get no better.

You can’t through the rubbish out of your own yard and ignore the rubbish in your neighbour’s. Terrorists, cross-border transfers. Anything could happen. This has to be recognised. Today, by the way, there are no resounding noes when we talk about the problems of the Far East, as was the case a couple of years ago. Today they say maybe. The Canadians say it, the Americans—who are working in the Far East on strategic nuclear subs … To get a result, we have to apply ourselves and move further.

G.P.: Could you mention a donor country, a partner, who is always reliable?

S.A.: That’s hard to do. If you forget someone, they’ll be offended. There’s a mutual jealousy. Last week at a conference on nuclear technologies in St. Petersburg I praised our neighbours in the Northwest region, and a representative of one of the countries I didn’t mention asked, ‘Why didn’t you name us?’ We can talk about different levels of participation. Traditionally, Germany, the U.K., and Norway have been good partners; France can now be added to that list; Italy is close to some real works; Canada is active. Some partners pick one area and focus heavily on it. Others do a little, but for the good of the cause, which is useful.

Relations with the European Union are difficult, but we are signing several contracts with them. The conference in October will look at the productivity of the joint Rosatom-TACIS programme. A lot has already been done on nuclear power-station safety. But now we have to get the project on radiation safety going. With international help we have developed a grant to draft a Law on Working With Radioactive Waste. A contract is being concluded on combined engineering and ecological research at Gremikha, and to deliver personal-safety equipment. This is a living process. Like a large ship, it can’t be stopped and change direction easily.

G.P.: How do you assess the participation of social organisations in these processes?

S.A.: Several social bodies and organisations are trying to take an active part. Over time we have felt the popularisation of opinions on several problems, and in this connection we divide social organisations into good ones and wild ones.

In fact, any social movement has the word “social” in its name. Therefore, they should act in the interests of society. For their part, state bodies should take into account public opinion. We can disagree on some positions, but we should exchange opinions and knowledge. Then you can see that our opponents change their point of view, as do we. Therefore this is necessary.

A good example: In May of this year the latest conference of the IAEA working group on decommissioning of nuclear submarines was held in Murmansk. The group is a formal body, with its own participants.

The Norwegian ecological organisation Bellona requested to make a report, set out its position, and open it up for discussion. We granted them this opportunity. And the report was very constructive. We clarified that we have no radical conflicts or reasons to oppose each other.

The meeting was about the problem of the Lepse technical support vessel. And it helped to move forward the solution of the long-suffering Lepse project: Contracts are being signed with our project organisations. This social organisation’s Bellona’s help made it possible to get money out of the bodies financing the project.

I think it is necessary to work with social organisations. But we shouldn’t be afraid of differences of opinion. Of course, there are differences in our positions. Not long ago I received a document from an organisation in the Northwest proposing that it take part “in decision making”.

This is not the correct way of putting it. In working out decisions—yes, of course. But not in taking them. Because whoever takes a decision has to bear responsibility for it. And what responsibility can a social organisation take?

G.P.: But, you know, decisions are often taken without accounting for public opinion, of different opinions generally, such is departmental voluntarism.

S.A.: If I know your opinion and it is worth considering, I will take it into account. But that doesn’t mean that I have to act as you think I should. For example, as a Naval officer, you know how decisions are taken there: The commander listens to everyone’s opinion, and then says: ‘Thank you all; now I will take a decision.’ And from the moment the decision is taken the commander bears full responsibility for it. And everyone has to act in accordance with the decision taken.

A state body does not have to follow the opinions of social organisations, but it does have to listen to them.

G.P.: At the start of our conversation you spoke about the necessity to make the international co-operation process regarding decommissioning of nuclear submarines and nuclear waste transparent. How successful have you been with this transparency?

S.A.: You probably understand that we are working on the boundary between the admissible and the inadmissible. State secrets should also be taken into account. I understand what you will say that often state secrets are invoked to cover up incompetence, failures.

G.P.: Of course I’d say that.

S.A.: … and to cover up ecological information. Well, that does happen.

G.P.: Is the weight of the past preventing Russia from moving towards solving problems of decommissioning nuclear submarines and nuclear waste?

S.A.: The legacy of the past is both a help and a hindrance in problem-solving. It depends on the legacy. We have to understand and correct things where things are being done wrong. But one flourish of the pen, one order, will not do anything. We need time, long and patient attrition, to understand everything and live in harmony with each other.

G.P.: Thank you. I hope that we can continue our discussion about the problems of the Far East when another occasion arises.

S.A.: Thank you.