Ambivalent Krasnoyarsk Court Kicks Big Decision to Moscow

Publish date: July 1, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

The Regional court in this city handed down a paradoxical decision regarding a referendum to build nuclear waste internment tomb, honouring the plaintiffs' arguments, but deciding that where to dispose of nuclear waste was a federal decision and beyond the competence of the local court.

The court also said that local referendums on such questions were not outlawed, as the February decision had stipulated — and in the verdict, the court even encouraged such grassroots activity. But in the end, the hot potato of what to do with spent nuclear fuel (SNF) — be it of domestic or foreign pedigree — was handed off to Moscow.

On Monday, Krasnoyarsk Region Judge Sergei Polentsev deliberated for more than two hours before reading an approximately 10-page decision in which he defended the rights of Russian citizens to seek referendums regarding the import and storage of radioactive waste,

But Polentsev found, de facto, for the local election commission — which had challenged the referendum — writing in his decision that the storage and disposition of nuclear waste was the prerogative of the federal government. It is expected that a storage facility for upwards of 20 tonnes of foreign and domestic spent nuclear fuel (SNF) will be built by Russia’s Ministry for Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, somewhere in the Krasnoyarsk region over the next several years.

The group initiating the class action suit against the building of the nuclear waste tomb — which included members of the environmental group Greenpeace as well as local citizens — said they would appeal the decision to Russia’s Supreme Court, "seeing as it falls under federal jurisdiction, " Ivan Blokov, of ‘Greenpeace’, said.

At issue is the construction of the underground cask for the storage of some 20 tonnes spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from foreign or domestic sources. Russia’s ministry of nuclear energy, or Minatom, has long lobbied for a permanent storage facility for high-level radioactive waste, likely in Krasnoyarsk.

But when the question came up last December, concerned local citizens and environmentalists embarked on a signature-collecting campaign to force the question to a regional referendum — a process that has a dark history following last year’s attempted referendum to scuttle a national law allowing the import of radioactive waste.

That referendum was put down by the national election commission, which disqualified 800,000 of the 2 million required signatures on technical grounds, such as inappropriate street abbreviations. Activists had collected 2.5 million signatures — an indication of the import law’s unpopularity. It was passed, however, by a comfortable margin in the Duma, thanks largely to the 11th hour lobbying of then-nuclear minister Yevgeny Adamov — who was accused by some Duma deputies of outright bribery, but who nonetheless promised the country $20bn over the next 10 years for their services in reprocessing and SNF storage.

To put the question to a vote in Krasnoyarsk, 40,000 signatures were required, but the local election commission disqualified 31,748 of them. Of those, 2,550 were contested by neither side as invalid. But the remaining 29,198 fell into a grey area between what — and what is not — considered a legal referendum.

Of those disputed signatories, most signed their names, followed by the date — an acceptable format for a regional referendum, but which was at dissonance with federal guidelines that require passport information, addresses and the like. Local laws now correspond with that format, said Yelena Kurzmiskyaya, who appeared Monday as the Krasnoyarsk election commission’s legal counsel.

Also mentioned in the election commission’s case against Krasnoyarsk anti-import petition collectors was trouble at the bank. According to the local election officials, the "initiating group," or group of citizens running the petition drive, did not open a bank account with Russia’s state Sberbank in time to print their petitions. By law, this must be done within 40 days of the proposed referendum.

"You try opening a bank account with Sberbank," commented Ivan Blokov of Greenpeace to Bellona Web.

"It takes at least two weeks to get anywhere."

Compounding the bank account problems was the appearance of stickers and flyers urging voters to take part in the referendum that were printed and distributed by other local political groups prior without agreements with the initiating group with any local print houses. This, too, qualified in the election commission’s eyes as early agitation — or campaigning — about which there are strict laws in Russia.

Sweeping these complaints aside, Judge Polentsev supported the right to collect signatures for a referendum — bank complexities and the participation of outside parties — notwithstanding. It was a moment in the 10 minute reading of the decision that caused brief smiles to flicker back and for between environmentalists gathered for the case. But the tide abruptly changed when the judge passed decisions regarding the import and storage of fissile materials to Moscow.

Greenpeace and Vladimir Besedin of the Krasnoyarsk branch of the Union of Righteous Forces (SPS) — one of the groups that printed up stickers urging Krasnoyarsk residents to the polls — said they would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court in Moscow.

"Paradoxically, this decision supports referendums, and, paradoxically, the Regional court has sent us to Moscow in order to get expert opinion there," said Besedin after the verdict was read.

Putting a brighter spin on the events was Andrei Ozharovksy, President of the non-government Initiative for International Development and Cooperation, who currently is occupying a camp near Zhelznogorsk protesting the import of radioactive waste to Russia.

"The judge agreed with everything the environmental petitioners said and lifted the ban on conducting a referendum," he said after the hearing.

"But they can only be on the federal level, and no one is going to ask Minatom if they want to build a nuclear site here or there — that is the level of democracy we are talking about."