Transport of nuclear materials requires more public awareness and legislation

Vera Ponomareva/Bellona

Publish date: October 25, 2006

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Deputy Natalya Yevdokimova said earlier this week that it is essential to adopt a federal law that will end confusion over the transportation of nuclear materials, some 50,000 tonnes of which roll through this city of 4.5 million inhabitants each year.

“It is impossible to work in a legislative field where one act follows another, and either abolishes it, or leaves it in place. This is even more dangerous in a field where the health and life of tens of thousands of people depend on these changes,” Yevdokimova told a round table discussion organised by Bellona and the environmental group Ecozashchita!.

Alexander Shishkin, the general director of Izotop, a state enterprise that handles the transport of nuclear materials, confirmed in a statement to Bellona Web that his organisation handled some 50,000 tonnes of nuclear cargo through St. Petersburg, but he pointed to Izotop’s safety record in an effort to calm residents.

“We have been involved in transportation of nuclear materials for 50 years, and our work has been quite successful – in all this time we have not had a single accident,” Shishkin’s statement read.

But environmentalists did not share his optimism.

The round table brought together officials from the nuclear sector – Izotop and Tekhsnabeksport – the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, the Inter-Regional Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, and the environmental organisations Greenpeace, Russia, Germany’s SOFA and Aktionsbuendnis Muensterland gegen Atomanlagen, and Norway’s Nature and Youth. Unfortunately, Russian Railways, port authorities, and Rostekhnadzor – all of which are directly involved with transportation of nuclear cargoes – declined to take part in the discussion.

The environmentalists’ main concern were the absence of clearly defined safety norms and rules, insufficient control over observance of the law, and also a regime of secrecy that prevents residents of the regions from gaining access to information about radioactive cargoes that pass through their respective areas.

“More and more nuclear materials are being transported across Russia, and specifically through railway junctions and the port of St. Petersburg,” said Alexander Nikitin, director of St. Petersburg’s Bellona office.

“We would like to be certain that we have sufficient legislation to ensure that these transports are safe; secondly, that these norms are strictly followed; and third, that the controlling bodies also guarantee to observe these norms. Civil society organisations do not currently have this confidence.”

Guarding the trains
“If we believe the documents from oversight bodies, then it is crystal clear that trains carrying radioactive substances often travel without any security,” said Ecozashchita! Co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak. “There are also cases when a guard is mounted, but these are first-year conscripts, who are not even told what they are guarding. In our opinion, companies involved in the nuclear business, and firstly Rosatom, should pay more attention to securing radioactive cargoes.”

According to Shishkin, under current legal norms, only uranium oxides are required to have an armed guard during transportation. Other nuclear materials – such as strontium, caesium or reactor-grade plutonium – can be transported across Russia accompanied only by officials from the companies sending and receiving the cargo.

“This rule should undoubtedly be re-examined. Such cargoes … particularly at railway stations, must be guarded, because the threat of terrorism is quite high,” Shishkin said.

In July 2006, activists from Greenpeace’s St. Petersburg office discovered several unguarded trains containing uranium hexafluoride at the station at Kapitolovo in the Leningrad Region, where Izotop is based. The train cars were parked directly next to passenger platforms. Moreover, Greenpeace measured the radiation dose on the platforms where passengers were standing at 800 microrontgens per hour, or more than 40 times the normal background radiation level.

“Nuclear and radiation safety is at a level such that transportation of nuclear materials presents no danger to the public,” Shishkin said. “A person would have to stand on the platform at Kapitolovo for 400 hours to receive the maximum yearly dose that would cause no harm to his health.”

Dmitry Artamonov, head of Greenpeace’s St. Petersburg office, disagreed with Shishkin’s reasoning.

“This sort of transportation could be a great present for terrorists, either as a source of nuclear materials, or as a direct target for an attack,” he said. “Such an attack could lead to very serious consequences, since it would not be too difficult to destroy the containers. And even without terrorists, an ‘everyday’ accident could produce an effect just the same.”

Informing the public
The issue of telling people about trains carrying nuclear waste passing through their city produced lively debate.

“As a specialist, I can say that informing [the public] increases the number of unforeseen situations by four times,” said Vitaly Dovgusha, director of the Industrial and Maritime Medical Research Institute at the Federal Medical and Biological Agency.

But deputy Yevdokimova said that telling people about upcoming transports is essential.

“I think that if a person is informed, he is already 50 percent safe,” she said. “From my point of view, we don’t have to announce it through a megaphone, but there should be open sources where anyone who wants can find this information. Who will see this source is another question, but I am absolutely convinced that citizens have the right to know about such transports.”

The experience of Ekozashchita!
“We think, as a matter of principle, that citizens of Russia have the right to know about dangerous activities,” said Andrei Ozharovsky of Ekozashchita!

A few months ago, Ekozashchita! carried out an experiment by using media outlets to tell people about a planned route for a train carrying uranium hexafluoride.

“This experience showed, first, that people are interested in this topic, and second, that people are prepared to receive this information in an appropriate way, without panicking,” Ozharovsky said. “The issue now is a small one – to get the public informed.”

Uranium hexafluoride imports
Matthias Eickhoff of the German organisation Aktionsbuendnis Muensterland gegen Atomanlagen set out the position of German environmental organisations on imports of uranium “tails” to Russia.

“The international trade in radioactive waste must stop. Every country should reprocess the dangerous waste that it produces,” he said.

Since 1996, the German division of uranium manufacturer Urenco has been sending the waste from its uranium-enrichment process – that is, unusable uranium hexafluoride and uranium tails – to Russia. Up to 90 percent of the imported waste remains at Russian enterprises for final storage. The total quantity of waste imported into Russia over the past decade is somewhere near 100,000 tonnes. If Urenco did the reprocessing itself, its products would cost five times as much as they do.

“Sending uranium hexafluoride to Russia is based not on technological necessity, but on economic gain for Urenco,” Eickhoff said.

In addition, private nuclear transportation increases the risk of terrorist attacks and accidents during transport by sea and rail, environmentalists said. Uranium hexafluoride is sent from the German port of Gronau by train to Rotterdam, and then loaded onto a boat and sent by sea to St. Petersburg. Further, it goes by train to facilities in the Novouralsk and Sverdlovsk Regions as well as the Seversk, Tomsk, Angarsk, Irkutsk Regions.

“Since no-one can guarantee complete safety for these loads, they should be stopped,” Eickhoff said.