Europarliament and Duma to watchdog spent fuel import to Russia

Publish date: July 4, 2002

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russian Duma and EU parliament members will follow up plans for importation of spent nuclear fuel to Russia; promote nuclear safety programs.

An inter-parliamentary working group comprised of State Duma members and members of the European Parliament was established in Brussels on Bellona’s initiative to watchdog possible contacts between Russia’s Ministry for Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, and European nuclear industry regarding spent nuclear fuel imports to Russia.

At a meeting in the European Parliament on June 26th, Bart Staes, co-chairman of the newly established group, said it was important for European politicians to understand the issue and to ensure that the project brings no harm either to Russia or to the Member States. Mr Staes, member of the European Parliament from Belgium, Greens/European Free Alliance, chairs the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee.

Sergey Mitrokhin, Russian Duma member from Yabloko liberal faction, who also co-chairs the group, said that Russian nuclear industry is not equipped to accept foreign spent nuclear fuel (SNF) for storage or reprocessing struggling to cope with its own problems. He greeted the establishment of the group, which will facilitate control of the lawmakers over industry and executive bodies of the countries involved.

Valentin Luntsevich, Duma member from Murmansk region, who also took part in the meeting, said he voted in favour of the SNF importation bill, but he was ready to work in ensuring that all the laws are followed and no project is carried out should the safety be compromised or it can present danger for the health of people.

The Russian State Duma approved three bills favouring foreign SNF imports to Russia in 2001 after a heavy lobby from Minatom, which included not only verbal argumentation but also alleged bribes to some Duma members. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the laws in summer the same year.

Minatom said that shipping in around 20,000 tonnes of SNF to Russia could earn up to $20bn in profit. The fuel will be either stored or reprocessed, according to Minatom’s plan. Environmentalists opposed the plan fiercely and claimed that Russia is unable to manage safely its own waste and that the project will turn the country into an international nuclear dump site. Now largely marginalized Russian Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, said such fears have their ground.

The project caused an uproar in the society. According to various polls 70 to 90 percent of the population in Russia oppose the importation plans. In 2000, environmentalists collected 2.5 million signatures, that was 500,000 more than needed for a national referendum to force the radioactive waste import laws into a vote, but 800,000 of them were shot down by Central Electoral Committee for such things as incorrect street addresses written down by the signatories.

Inter-parliamentarian group goals

The inter-parliamentarian working group members will exchange information on the plans of the executive bodies of the countries involved in the import of spent fuel to the Russian Federation. They will also assist in stopping the projects in violation towards EU legislation or posing a threat to non-proliferation of fissile materials or posing a threat to the health of people living in the countries involved.

As a first step, the group will involve nuclear safety experts to make a report analysing the expediency of the spent fuel importation venture and the fuel and waste management practices currently in place in the Russian Federation. The report will be among other things used to get the European Commission to work out a distinct strategy towards possible projects to ship spent nuclear fuel to Russia.

The group will promote further European assistance to Russia in tackling radwaste management issues. In October 2002, European Parliament members will visit Murmansk to visit various nuclear installations and meet local authorities involved in the clean up effort.

EU radioactive materials export legislation

Euratom legislation requires the European Commission to authorise exports of nuclear materials from any Member State to a third country. The Commission has to ensure compliance with international agreements and that the general interests of the Community is safeguarded.

Under Council Directive 92/3/Euratom of February 3d 1992 on the supervision and control of shipments of radioactive waste between Member States and into and out of the Community, Member States are prohibited from exporting shipments of radioactive waste to third countries that do not have the “technical, legal or administrative resources” to manage it safely. It would be therefore for the relevant authorities in Member States to assess whether this condition is met before any nuclear waste could be shipped to the Russian Federation.

According to Derek Taylor, head of unit in Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, which is responsible for nuclear energy related issues in the EU, spent fuel can be considered as waste if the country of destination does not intend to reprocess it. Minatom was not entirely clear what it intends to do with the imported SNF. If the fuel will be reprocessed a Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and Radioactive Waste should be applied. The Convention has not entered force yet, but similar rules will apply for SNF as for radioactive waste — the recipient country must meet certain standards to accept the fuel.

Written question to the Commission

Although the majority of the EU countries and Commission do not consider management of radwaste and spent nuclear fuel in Russia to be safe, there still may be conflicting interpretations of the Member States in regard to what are the technical, legal or administrative resources which allow safe management of SNF in Russia. Such issue is brought up in a priority written question to the Commission made by Heidi Hautala, Greens/European Free Alliance MEP from Finland. Heidi Hautala has also joined the inter-parliamentarian working group on SNF exports to Russia.

Heidi Hautala also says in her request that prior to EU-Russia Summit in the end of May 2002 in Moscow, the Russian Minister for Nuclear Energy Alexander Rumyantsev had indicated his intention to discuss with Commissioner Loyla de Palacio Russia’s possibilities to import spent nuclear fuel from the EU, and in particular from Spain. Was this topic brought up and did it lead to any follow-up measures?

The answers are yet to arrive, but such questions will be one of the tasks of the working group.

GAN denies to approve Minatom’s plan

Prior to the meeting in Brussels Greenpeace Russia has obtained a report made by Minatom which analyses the current situation of SNF contracts of the Russian Federation and describes the bright future of the expansion of such business. Minatom has currently contracts with a number of Eastern European countries on fuel return from the reactors built by the Soviet Union. From 1992 and until 2001, Minatom shipped in 2,030 tonnes of SNF, including 1,608 tonnes from the Ukraine. The report was intended for the President of the Russian Federation and was to circle around various ministries for approval prior to be sent to the head of the state.

GAN has refused to approve the report disagreeing on a number of principle points there. A letter — also obtained by Greenpeace — from Yuriy Vishnevsky, head of GAN, to Aleksandr Rumyantsev, Russia’s nuclear minister, says that Minatom is wrong in stating that Russia has administrative and technical capabilities to accept SNF from other countries. The only operational Mayak reprocessing plant in the southern Ural has sever problems with radwaste management and cannot reprocess foreign SNF without significant upgrades. Russia has neither legislative foundation national and international to perform large-scale operations with spent nuclear fuel, Vishnevsky wrote.