Fate of Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant to be decided in Russia Supreme Court

Rashid Alimov / Bellona

Publish date: August 21, 2008

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Translated by: Charles Digges

CHELYABINSK, Southern Urals – Environmentalists from Chelyabinsk will appear before Russia’s Supreme Court on August 26th with a case against the Russian government, which has confirmed plans to build a nuclear power plant in this region.

Attorneys and environmentalists representing the Chelyabinsk Region point to a number of elisions of constitutional norms that have allowed the construction plans for the nuclear power plant to progress.

In February, the Russian government issued a decree that gave the green light to the construction of the controversial Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant. With this document, the general scheme for nuclear power plant construction in Russia was confirmed – and included the building of the Southern Urals plant.

Attorney Andrei Talevlin and environmentalist Nataliya Mironova, who head up the organizations For Nature and The Movement for Nuclear Safety, say that the adoption of the February government decree ignores a plethora of constitutional norms and breaks several laws.

The most serious violations, say the environmentalists, is that the bureaucracy “forgot” about a Chelyabinsk city referendum held on March 17th, 1991, when the construction of the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant was defeated by 76 percent of those who voted. The results of the referendum were declared valid by the Chelyabinsk city council. Incidentally, voters were also given a ballot on whether or not the Soviet Union should be preserved on this day.

“Some 600,000 people took part in the vote,” said Mironova. “Almost half a million people, or 76 percent, voted against the Southern Urals Nuclear Power Plant – it is unacceptable to ignore public opinion.”

Mironova asserted that the Russian government more and more neglecting its obligations to citizens who have suffered from radiation catastrophes in the Urals.

“In a situation of flagrantly ignoring the rights of victims, who and for what are they forwarding a new radioactively hazardous installation?” said Mironova.

“We intend to achieve the cessation of exploiting institutes of government corporate or group interests in court.”

Talevlin said that referendums were the highest and most direct expression of public opinion to authorities by citizens.

“In correspondence with generally accepted norms of rights and legislation, changes or cancellations of decisions taken in a referendum are only possible by means of a new referendum,” said Talevlin. “In this way, the disputed decree of the Russian Government violates the constitutional right of citizens and doesn’t fit the conception of a law-based state.”

According to Olga Krivonos, the legal advisor for the St. Petersburg offices of Bellona, “federal legislation regulating regional and local referendums were absent before 1997.”

“Nevertheless, the USSR constitution of 1977 and the constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic of 1978 stipulated the right of citizens to participate in national discussions and votes, and participation in discussions and adoption of laws and decisions of general and local significance,” she said.

“The results of ecological referendums were ‘legalized’ by the city council and because the referendum is the highest form of the expression of the people’s will, its results must be taken into account.”

The USSR law “On general origins of local self-administration and local economy in the USSR of April 1990” specified that “decisions of local referendums on issues relating to conducting local self-administration by laws of union and autonomous republics are necessary for the corresponding Soviets of People’s Deputies, organs of territorial public self administration, all organizations and citizens on a given territory.”

Referendums on nuclear power plant construction in Russia
The referendum in the Chelyabinsk region is not the only regional referendum on which decisions about the conditions of building a nuclear power plant that has been adopted.

More than 90 percent of the residents of the far eastern Khabarovsk Region turned out in 1990 to vote against the construction of the Primorsky Nuclear Power Plant.

In Voronezh in May of 1990, 90 percent of voters turned out to vote in favor of reconstruction a thermal electric plant over a nuclear plant. Also in 1990, in April, 96 percent of the residents of Medvezhegorsk voted down the construction of the Karelia Nuclear Power Plant. And in April of 1993, 73 percent of Saratov Region residents voted against the expansion of the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant.

Then, in 1996, 86 percent of voters in the Kostroma Region turned out to vote against the construction of the Kostroma Nuclear Power Plant. The voter turnout was 57 percent. The legality of the referendum was challenged by the construction workers who had been assembled for the project who lived in a nearby workers village of Chisty Bory.

The workers said the referendum violated their rights to work and a worth standard of living, which has been promised them by the Ministry of Atomic Energy when it hired them for the project. The referendum was declared invalid by the Kostroma Regional Court and Supreme Court.

Aside from these instances, a planned referendum in 1989 on the construction of the Komi Nuclear Power Plant did not take place, though the public voice was still heard when Komi regional authorities imposed a moratorium on building nuclear power plants in the area.

In 1998 to 1999, efforts were taken to conduct a referendum on the construction of the Rostov Nuclear Power Plant, but the group that forwarded the initiative was not registered.

The procedures governing referendums are regulated by the federal constitutional law “On referendums in the Russian Federation,” which was adopted in 2004.

The currently active Russian law “In fundamental guarantees of electoral rights and rights on participation of Russian citizens in referendums” was adopted in 2002. According to the current law “On the use of atomic energy,” adopted in 1995, decisions about the construction and location of nuclear power plants are taken at a federal level.

Since April 2008, an amendment to the federal constitutional law “On referendums” has been in effect in accordance with which it is stated that referendums cannot include “questions relating to the exclusive competence of federal organs of state authority in accordance with the constitution and federal constitutional laws.”

2002 environmental victory in the Supreme Court
The current case is not the first time Chelyabinsk environmentalists have gone to court against the Russian government. In 2002, a claim lodged to the court by Talevlin and Mironova overturned government decree 1483-r of October 15th 1998 concerning the import to the Chelyabinsk Region of spent nuclear fuel from the Paksh Nuclear Power Plant in Hungary. The court’s decision turned away 377 tons of spent nuclear fuel.

The government decree had not undergone a state environmental impact evaluation. Aside from that, in accordance with the July 16th 1997 decree of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, the State Committee on Ecology, and the former state nuclear oversight body Gosatomnadzor, the waste was accepted from Paksh for reprocessing purposes, but without the required clause for the return to Hungary of radioactive waste arising from the reprocessing process.

A significant quantity of poisonous radioactive waste arises from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, which exceeds by several hundred times the amount of the final fuel product emerging from reprocessing.

Yelena Yefimova reported from Chelyabinsk and Rashid Alimov reported from St. Petersburg.