Eastern Siberian community demands that its referendum against uranium extraction stand

Publish date: October 28, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – Prosecutors are demanding that an October 12th referendum giving a thumbs down to uranium mining in the Krasnochikoisky district of the Far Eastern Siberian Chita Region be declared invalid, while organisers of the vote said they will continue to wage their battle in court.

On October 12th the Krasnochikoisky district turned out and handed in an 85 percent vote against uranium mining at the Gornoye deposit, which is located some 20 kilometres to the north east of a territory suggested for the Chikoi national park.

The municipal council decided to conduct a referendum despite the fact that on October 10th officials had already declared the referendum invalid before the fact. A local court decided on that day that uranium mining fell under federal jurisdiction and that municipalities do not have the right to put such questions to their community.

“Municipalities in truth do not have this authority. However the given legislative norm goes contrary to the fundamental principles of environmental protection laid out in the (Russian) constitution and the law “On Environmental Protection,” Bellona lawyer Olga Krivonos said.

Russian’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom considered the referendum an inappropriate expression of public opinion about the project.

“It is puzzling why local authorities still organised this referendum after is was declared illegal, and moreover not calling upon anyone for a discussion of the problem,” Rosatom Press Secretary Sergei Novikov told Bellona Web in an interview. “The opinion of the community must not be ignored. When the (project) documentation is ready, we must go there and discuss the project with people.”

However, as follows from Novikov’s statement, a hearing will be held only after investors have been found for the project – that is, when it is almost impossible to have any influence on the situation.

Local residents assert that the “referendum was the last hope for us to be heard in Moscow. It is apparent what kind of harm the development of Gornoye will have on health, and we want to raise normal, healthy children.”

Currently, the council of municipalities in the region is advocating for Chita Region residents in the regional court,  relying on the hope that the court will put the matter of the uranium deposit in the sphere of “questions of local significance.”

The Gornoye deposit
The decision to hold the referendum was adopted by the Municipal Council of the Krasnochikoisky district in June, after a contest for surveying and mining uranium was held.

As a result of this competition, a license was given to Russia’s nuclear fuel giant Tekhsabexport (Tenex) which, according to Novikov, passed it on to the Atomredmetzoloto company. Novikov said that development of the deposit would begin in two to three years, after the project has been prepared for discussion, and Atomredmetzoloto finds investors.

Local authorities’ rights

According to article 3 of the Russian Constitution, “the people express their power directly, as well as through organs of state authority and organs of local self-governance, and referendums are the ‘highest  direct expression of the authority of the people.’”

However, the authority of local power in Russian laws is only occasionally spelled out. In May, Bellona collided with one of these gaps: In Moscow and in St. Petersburg, the organs of self-governance were not accorded the right to register a public environmental impact study.

The Krasnochikoisky referendum is yet another proof that Russia’s conflicting laws prevent municipalities from standing up for the rights of their residents.

According to laws governing underground extraction, the uranium deposit is considered federal property. Municipalities, therefore, do not regulate matters in this sphere. The law “On General Principles of organisation of local self-governance in the Russia Federation,” concerns issues of local significance only in the areas of “property, use and disposition of municipal property, and regulation of the use of widespread mineral deposits” – a category under which uranium does not fall.  

“In practice, local authorities coordinate a general plan that defines the zoning of the territory with regional and federal officials,”  Dmirty Afinogenov, the project coordinator for St. Petersburg EKOM expert centre for the society of naturalists, said.

“However, it should be the other way around so that the state takes into consideration plans of local organs of authority,” he said.

The State Duma in April 2008 adopted on third reading amendments to the law “On Referendums,” which generally forbade open discussions of “issues relating to the exclusive competence of the organs of state power.”

Earlier the Duma had changed this law, introducing limitations on referendums at different levels: issues in the jurisdiction of federal authorities can only be addressed by national referendums. That means that the entire country must speak out on the issue of uranium mining in the Krasnochikoisky district as long as the project relates to the federal level. However, it is abundantly clear that the problem in all reality worries only the local community, which cannot express its protest.

How uranium extraction is dangerous
“The workplaces pose no detriment,” to the environment, said Rosatom’s Novikov in characterising the social and environmental impact of uranium extraction, while calling the referendum’s results an “emotional reaction” to the question it put to voters.

According to Novikov, it will be easier to convince the local community of the project’s safety when the project is ready in two or three years. By this time, he said, prospecting for uranium in Krasnochikoisky’s neighboring district of Olov will already be developed.

“It will be possible to see for oneself and be convinced that this activity poses no harm to local ecosystems,” Novikov said.

However environmentalists data shows that uranium extraction presents a serious danger to the community near the deposits.

“There are already examples of how similar projects have destructively impacted people in Krasnokamensk,” Vladimir Chuprov, energy projects coordinator for Greenpeace Russia told Bellona Web. “The Krasnoyarsk Region health and environmental factors are toppling.”

Since uranium extraction began in Krasnokamensk, cancer rates among the local community have risen by almost five times. Aside from radioactive substances being released onto the surface of the land, uranium extraction also releases radioactive radon gas. Inhaling this gas leads to cancer in the human respiratory system.

Uranium mining also produces huge quantities of liquid radioactive waste, the spreading of which is very difficult to control. Ground water contamination as a result of uranium extraction is a familiar feature not only in Russia, but other uranium extracting countries.  If such water is used as drinking water, it is a direct path to introducing lethal radiation into the human body.

The national park
In April, Krasnochikoisky residents voted during public hearings for the creation of the Chikoi national park on the territory of their municipality. The park would include the river head of the Chikoi and Chikokon Rivers, as well as the Atsinsky and Burkalsky wildlife preserves.

The pakr would occupy 1.4 million hectares in the Khentei-Chikoisky highlands, which are located in the Selengi river basin, a tributary to Lake Baikal from the east. Untouched natural ecosystems that are comprised of Siberian cedars, larch trees and birches, and other essential trees  have been preserved in the area. The region is inhabited by 31 species of rare animals, and 44 types of rare plants grow there, all of which appear in Russia’s Red Book of endangered species and in regional lists of disappearing life forms.

Now, the national park project will have to undergo an environmental impact study in Moscow.