Russian ecologists adjust their anti-nuclear stance

nuclear-waste-problem Nuclear waste containers. Credit: Bellona

ST. PETERSBURG – Transparency of nuclear and radiological safety projects, contemporary and full access to information, participation of the public and consideration of its opinion were some of the chief demands spelled out by ecologists taking part in last week’s Bellona-hosted 5th annual conference, “The Ecology of Russian Cities/ Public Initiatives” here.

The demands are aimed at Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom.

Russian ecologists had in 2013 distributed similar demands to the Russian media (in Russian), with further stipulations that Rosatom take greater care with ever accruing radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

“It would be good if all representatives of the anti-nuclear movement [in Russia] supported and stood by the principles of the common position at which we all arrived in 2013,” Alexei Yablokov, the grandfather of Russia’s environmental movement, told conference participants.

yablokov Alexei Yablokov speaking at a Bellona conference. Credit: Bellona

He said that state handling of radioactive waste had seen positive developments since the original 2013 demands were issued, and noted that a state structure whose interest it is to deal with radioactive waste in a civilized manner had been established in the form of the National Operator for Radioactive Waste Management, no NO RAO in its Russian abbreviation.

Yablokov credited NO RAO with fulfilling many of the concerns leveled by the environmentalists’ 2013 release.

Nuclear cities getting poorer

Lina Zernova, head of the environmental movement Rodnoy Bereg [Native Shore in English] said Rosatom had been given tax relief from property and land it owns, but that these lands taxes had always been the chief source of income for Russia’s closer nuclear cites, which house everything from nuclear power plants to waste storage sites to former cogs in the Soviet nuclear military industrial complex.

According to Russian census figures from 2012, Russia still has 44 closed nuclear cities, with 1,2 million residents.

“As a result [of the new tax codes] closed cities are as poor as church mice,” Zernova told the conference. “For example, workers in Sosnovy Bor [which houses the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near St Petersburg] are being paid 13 percent less than they were earlier.”

Sosnovy Bor The closed nuclear city of Sosnovy Bor and the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Wikipedia}

The gathered environmentalists had a long detailed discussion on the issue of compensating cities and their residents for risks associated with building nuclear installations or burial facilities for radioactive waste.

Oleg Bodrov, of Sosnovy Bor’s Green World environmental group, noted that Sweden doesn’t offer compensation to cities hosting nuclear waste repositories, aside from creating local employment opportunities.

“Compensations must be view through a lens wider than simple cash influx,” he said.

Yablokov underscored that when projects for storing and handling radioactive wastes are discussed, the concerned populations always speak out against such facilities being built in their cities.

“Of course, there must be some compensation for the risk, and responsible NGOs must demand compensation for this risk,” he said. “At present, NO RAO is suggesting the correct solution – gathering all waste in 20 or 30 places where it will be interred safely, and not leaving it in slightly safe conditions in a slew of different regions – one needs to see a little farther than one’s own interests.”

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona said he was behind Rosatom paying compensation for the risk.

He added, though, “that not all risks are equal to others.”

“There is such a thing a voluntary risk,” he continued, saying, “But as soon as one raised the issue of payment for risk, a problem will immediately appear, on account of which these benefits will be offered to residents of nuclear cities.”

Environmentalists satisfied with Rosatom’s transparency

In discussing timely and full disclosure of information to the public (including affected foreign states) on planned nuclear facilities, Yablokov said that Rosatom was not ideal, but has made strides in the right direction.

Niktin agreed, saying, “We can get information at very different stages on a great many questions.” He however qualified that endorsement, saying that the biggest difficulties arise during public hearings that take place in closed nuclear cities – meaning non-resident Russians need to seek clearance and foreigners are not allowed at all – though even here there are positive examples.

Rosatom's headquarters in Moscow Rosatom's headquarters in Moscow. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

According to Andrei Ozharovsky, an expert with Bellona, and a participant in a large array of public discussions of atomic facilities in Russia, the situation is nearly ideal.

“In my experience participating in hearings, I can confidently say that Rosatom is maximally striving to observe the law, and furnishes information in the legally required timeframes,” he said.

“Environmental inspections and materials from hearing are even put on the internet, where anyone who is interested can review them, which is the highest demonstration of openness,” Ozharovsky said.

However, he noted he’d not observed any positive changes in the regimen surrounding public hearings held in closed nuclear cities, with the exception of a very few. Usually, activists are refused attendance in closed city public hearings even when their documents are submitted in time and according to procedure.

Monitoring the transport of nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel

While discussing public control over the transport of nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel to storage, the gathered environmentalists noted that, sadly, the public really has no say or access to decision-makers.

According to Nikitin, existing laws on public monitoring ascribe the establishment of such monitoring to Rosatom and its affiliates.

“Rosatom’s Public Chamber has created a special working group on the activities of the State Corporation,” he said. “It is working out a mechanism for such control.”

However, and unfortunately, there are any number of issues that qualify as “classified”: The movement of radioactive wastes and spent nuclear fuel, its quantities and contents, are all considered secret, Nikitin noted.

“In my view, that’s not right, but they say its necessary from the point of view of the dangers of terrorism,” he said.

Zernova said closed nuclear cities are in an uncomfortable position because of this; it is to such cities that radioactive waste is transported from who knows where or in what volumes.

The environmentalists at the Bellona conference plan to recommend legal measures that can be taken to assure information is given to municipalities when transport or delivery of nuclear waste is taking place in their areas.

Andrei Zolotkov, chairman of Bellona Murmansk suggested that RosRAO – another nationwide body affiliated with Rosatom charged with handling nuclear waste – should inform local authorities by means of monthly reports on further additions to nuclear waste storage sites.

The environmentalists also confirmed their demands of 2013, which state that prior decisions being taken about the construction of possibly hazardous nuclear and radioactive facilities, consultation with the public must occur and approval must flow from regional self-governing structures.

“We see that this point is now being addressed,” said Ozharovsky.

The environmentalists insisted that medical, biological, psychological and sociological studies must be carried out in places where construction of nuclear and radiologically hazardous facilities are planned to be built near populated areas.

“We announced this in 2013, however Rosatom still doesn’t have any programs like this,” said Yablokov. “Such programs are necessary. We must demand them from Rosatom, and we must insist.”

Charles Digges