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Imported spent fuel may not reach destination

Publish date: February 13, 2001

Written by: Vladislav Nikifоrov

In response to the plans to import spent nuclear fuel Russian envirogroups say Russian railways are not ready to ship the fissile materials.

In response to Russia’s nuclear lobby plans to import foreign spent nuclear Russian environmental groups presented report titled Transportation of Radioactive Materials and Nuclear Fissile Materials in Russia: Practice of Unavoidable Risks. The poor maintenance of the Russian railway network and a long list of incidents documented during the past years prove the risks outlined in the report.

The report was co-authored by Russian environmental group Ecodefense and Vladimir Kuznetsov, expert for the Anti-Nuclear Campaign of the Socio-Ecological Union and former inspector of the Russian Nuclear Regulatory (GAN).

The research was performed in order to confront the successful lobby attempts of the Russian Nuclear Ministry, Minatom, to push the amendments to a number of Russian federal laws through the State Duma, lower house of the Russian parliament. The Duma approved the amendments in the first reading in December 2000. The new bills can lift the ban on importing spent nuclear fuel from all over the world. To become a law, the bills must be approved by the Duma in the second and the third readings, then by the Federation Council, and finally by the president. After that hundreds of new nuclear shipments will flow across the country. Taking into consideration the technical quality of the Russian railroads and management problems, nuclear transportation in Russia will dramatically increase the danger of serious accidents involving highly radioactive materials, authors of the report said. Minatom plans to earn $20 billion on importing 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. The environmentalists calculated that each Russian citizen will get in average 140 grams of foreign nuclear waste and $3.5.

According to the authors of the report, only a part of the study is finished and presented, but the work will be continued through 2001. The report included chapters: on accidents documented during transporting radioactive materials in 90s, the Russian new containers and their safety, general issues of safety on railroads. The document will be mailed to the Russian prime minister, all members of the State Duma, several Russian federal ministries, the authors of the report said.

Each year hundreds of nuclear transports cross the globe. According to the report, the number of accidents in Russia is two to three times higher compared to the West. Some of the incidents were described in the study:

– The Ural Electrical-Chemical Plant in Novouralsk often practises transportation of various radioactive materials. In 1994, the train carrying a radioactive solution containing uranium crashed what caused release of 1,000 litres of uranium-containing solution on the railroad outside the plant, contaminating the ground near densely populated cities;

– A special truck carrying containers with Ir-192 and Co-60 collided with a bulldozer near Tubuk village, Chelyabinsk region, on September 11th 1997. The sealed containers were broken and released radioactivity into the environment;

– On September 20th 1991, an accident happened at Bilibino nuclear plant, in the Russian Far North. While transporting the radioactive waste to the storage, one of the containers fell on the ground what caused radioactive contamination.

In 1999, there were two cases of illegal shipments of radioactive waste through Russian railroads. Also during 1999, four big accidents happened with crashed trains on the South-East railway and the North-Caucasus railways. Safety conditions of the Russian railways are getting worth with each year.

According to the report, the containers used in Russia for transporting radioactive materials violate the safety regulations. At the Siberian Chemical Plant in Tomsk-7 it was revealed that transportation of the nuclear materials is carried out in the containers of AT-316 and BT-134 types, while such containers do not meet Russian nuclear safety norms. The plant transported nuclear materials without appropriate certificates and licenses. The same containers without necessary approvals are widely used by the Mayak reprocessing plant near Chelyabinsk, in the southern Ural.

According to the authors of the report, the Russian nuclear safety norms are far from being ideal. But even in such situation the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy regularly violates the Russian nuclear safety norms. The main reason is a lack of respect for legislation developed by the Russian Nuclear Regulatory.

"The Minatom’s plan to import nuclear waste for storing/reprocessing on commercial basis must be reviewed and disapproved by the Russian legislators. Extremely dangerous nuclear shipments may result in great accidents causing wide-spread contamination of the environment, exposing many people to radiation, paralysing the main transport roads in the country,” the report concludes.

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