Minatom forgets to inform President about spent fuel import

President Vladimir Putin og lederen for Føderasjonsrådet Jegor Stroev.

Publish date: October 22, 2001

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Duma approved in second reading a bill, which allows spent fuel import. Minatom sends a train to Bulgaria to collect spent nuclear fuel without following the regulations set by previously approved laws.

The Ecodefence! envirogroup said that Tekhsnabexport, or TENEX, one of Minatom’s sub-units, is about to ship spent nuclear fuel from Bulgaria to Russia.

A special train for transportation of spent nuclear fuel departed from Russia two weeks ago and now is waiting at the terminal of Bulgarian Kozlodoy nuclear power plant.

According to the contract, signed by TENEX and Kozlodoy NPP in summer 2000, 41 tonnes of spent fuel would be brought to the Russian Chemical and Mining Combine in Krasnoyarsk-26.

This will be the first shipment of spent nuclear fuel after President Putin signed bills, which legalised and structured the proceedings for storage of foreign nuclear waste in Russia. But will those regulations be followed? Most likely not.

According to the information obtained by Ecodefence!, the head of the State Nuclear Regulatory (GAN), Yury Vishnevsky, sent a harsh letter to TENEX on October 16th, pointing out that such activities require an official licence. Moreover, the spent nuclear fuel bills stipulate that each shipment must receive proper environmental evaluation. Besides, TENEX must prove that a part of funds earned on the imports will be allotted to the remediation of contaminated areas in Russia, even if such programs have not been developed yet.

There is no information whether TENEX answered to GAN. But the company has nothing to answer anyway.

Signing the bills this summer, President Putin said that he would personally control each spent nuclear fuel import contract. Putin also said that he would establish an independent commission to evaluate such business. The commission was to be headed by Nobel prize winner physicist Zhorez Alferov.

As of today, no commission has been set up, Putin most likely has not heard about the spent fuel coming from Bulgaria, whereas the remediation programs have not been written yet.

Minatom’s promises of huge revenues on the import operations (amounting to $20bn) are also fading away. Bulgaria is ready to pay $620 for one kilogram of spent nuclear fuel. Minatom used to say it would take not less than $1000 per kilo.

The environmental groups, GAN and reasonable politicians in the Russian State Duma warned earlier against the import plans. But the warning calls were futile. Now Minatom has legalised its corporative business, which is under no independent control. The revenues of this business will be diverted to support post Soviet vast nuclear weaponry complex, which has been mostly useless after the cold war was over. Whereas the future generations will enjoy taking care of the hazardous waste for the coming thousand of years.

Duma keeps approving

On Thursday, the State Duma passed the second reading of the Law On Environmental Protection. MPs almost unanimously voted for spent fuel imports to Russia and abolished governmental environment funds, transferring money back to the common budget.

308 MPs voted for the bill, 36 voted against, and 99 did not cast their vote. Earlier the nuclear lobby, supported by Minatom made amendments to article 50 of the Law On Environmental Protection, allowing spent nuclear fuel imports to Russia. In June 2001, these amendments were signed by President Putin and came into force. But yesterday MPs had to consider the law as a whole, and that is why they returned to the controversial amendments to the article 50.

The opponents of the spent fuel imports again tried to stop turning the country into an international nuclear dumpsite, but failed. The majority of the MPs did not want to vindicate themselves before their electorate. Polls say more than 90% of Russians oppose the import of spent nuclear fuel.

Challenging the bills

The liberal Yabloko party keeps on criticising the idea of nuclear imports. Yabloko faction proposed two new amendments to the article 50, at least to minimize the damage from Minatom’s activity and to ban eternal storage of the imported spent fuel in Russia. Yabloko also suggested that all the waste generated during reprocessing of the foreign spent nuclear fuel and newly manufactured fuel should be returned to the country of origin. But the MPs refused to discuss Yabloko’s amendments and approved the article as it is.

Nuclear safety turns out to be particularly important issue in the wake of the terror acts in the US. “It’s a pity, the majority of the MPs don’t take the catastrophe in US as a warning… But the threat of nuclear terrorism is very actual in Russia, and becomes increasingly actual after the country has resolved to accept spent nuclear fuel from all over the world,” Yabloko faction member Sergey Mitrokhin said.

Referendum vs spent fuel, nuclear lobby vs referendum

The bills favouring spent nuclear fuel imports, approved by the State Duma and signed by the President, may be abolished by a national vote. Yabloko is going to initiate it, supported by envirogroups.

Last year, environmentalists tried to start the referendum, but the Central Electoral Committee said 0.6m of 2.5m of signatures collected were not valid. According to the Russian legislation, to start the referendum 2m signatures must be collected in a period of three months.

But the Minatom lobby tries to prevent the coming vote. In early October, a group of little known MPs proposed bills, hampering citizens’ initiative for the referendum.

Both bills are called “On the amendments and additions into the federal constitutional Law On the Referendum in Russia”. One of the amendments is that the questions, put forward for people’s evaluation, should be approved by the upper and the lower chambers of the Russian parliament. That violates article 3 of the Russian Constitution, which stipulates that referendum is the “supreme and direct expression of people’s power”. Another amendment calls for that a group, who initiates a referendum, should be registered not in a centre of a federative subject, where the majority of the group lives, but in the Central Electoral Committee in Moscow.

According to the legislation in force, the initiative group may collect signatures anywhere, but not in the places said specifically about. The third amendment stipulates, that the Central Electoral Committee will define the place for the collection of signatures on its own choice.