IPWG group backs need for nuclear remediation ‘master plan’

Publish date: December 1, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

BRUSSELS—The money is there; the political and financial will of over a dozen countries that have pledged more than $150m combined is there; the radioactive waste and retired submarines in Northwest Russia that will be removed by this money is there—but coordination among interested nations, Russia, and the transparency needed to begin disposing of the nuclear waste are not.

If any of the millions of dollars from countries that support the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership, or NDEP, programme, the Group of Eight industrialised nations, or G-8 and other countries pursuing bilateral nuclear remediation agreements with Russia is to be spent safely and responsibly, then Russian entities beyond the reach of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, will have to be built—perhaps from scratch—the 2003 Brussels Inter-Parliamentary Working Group, or IPWG, concluded.

Minatom, for its part, is the single agency in Russia that receives, controls, and spends western nuclear dismantlement funding. It was the opinion of most present at the conference that many of these Minatom activities—particularly those involving control and expenditure of nuclear dismantlement cash—be taken out of the hands of Minatom and distributed among several other state agencies.

The IPWG, was created with help from the Bellona Foundation in 1998 as an effort to bring Russian and European parliamentarians together to solve pressing issues of radioactive waste in Russia. The November 26th IPWG hearing entitled “How to Coordinate International Environmental and Non-Proliferation Programmes in the Russian Federation” brought together 27 of these decision makers and policy formers.

To make nuclear remediation in Russia work, many at the Brussels IPWG conference advocated a so-called “master-plan” that would systematically govern and audit bilateral and multilateral nuclear agreements between donor nations and Russia.

Such a master plan would help involved nations prioritize, coordinate and codify the work they are doing toward nuclear security and environmental cleanup in Russia. It would also allow for a systematic way in which to present dismantlement data to donor countries as well as allow the swift implementation of plans to deal with problems that donor states have identified as acute. Almost all who spoke said that a large space in this process will have to be carved for—and by—environmental NGOs.

“We need a good watch dog looking after this money,” said Bellona President Fredric Hauge in his introductory remarks. “The risk for corruption is not just a 1000 percent but much, much higher.”

Indeed, in 2000, $270m given to Minatom for funding the protection of nuclear sites “disappeared,” after it was diverted to a number of obscure Minatom research facilities. There are numerous other occasions when Minatom has diverted funding from safety.

To highlight the sheer dilapidation of Russia’s nuclear naval infrastructure—some of which could have been repaired by that diverted funding—Hauge commented on the August sinking of the K-159, a retired Russian submarine that went down while being towed to a dismantlement point. It’s tow line snapped and it sank, taking 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, to the ocean floor.

Why should the West give money at all?
Echoing the words of his colleague Alexander Nikitin, who chairs Bellona’s St Petersburg office, Hauge said: “One wonders whether it’s better to simply leave the submarines to collect at places like the Gremikha Naval Base, where, if they sink, they would cause less of an ecological hazard.”

Towing them for dismantlement, on the other hand, said Hauge, opens up the possibility of them sinking in the open sea.

Nikitin, who was also present at the meeting, questioned, as he has several times in the past, the wisdom of donating money to submarine dismantlement projects when donors don’t pay attention to the unsafe practices their money finances.

“Western donors are better off keeping their money than spending it on such careless projects,” he said, repeating a sentiment he expressed to Bellona Web and the Russian press immediately following the K-159 sinking.

Though the K-159 was not a western funded project, the techniques used by the Russians when they receive western money to dismantle subs are essentially the same. Nikitin was excoriated by Minatom for his comments when they appeared in the Russian press and were branded as being “political,” and aimed at the financial ruin of the Russian government.

Rusted-out, derelict subs like the K159 or the Victors funded by Norway, said both Nikitin and Hauge, have to be transported with the use of floating dock facilities built around the vessels to ensure buoyancy. Other alternatives include de-fuelling the subs prior to transporting them—a task that could be achieved by the Imandra, a nuclear de-fuelling vessel used by Murmansk Shipping Company, which operates Russia’s civilian nuclear icebreakers. Both methods are more expensive, but if financial missteps and corruption are brought to a halt at Minatom, they would be affordable.

Other sources of radioactivity in need of immediate funding
To further highlight Northwest Russia’s current nuclear dangers, Hauge pointed to Russia’s thousands of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGS, which are batteries fueled by radioactive strontium 90 that power maritime navigational equipment. The vast majority of these generators are scattered along northern Siberia, are totally unguarded—even by signs indicating radiation hazards—and are checked sometimes less than once a year.

Just two weeks ago, two RTGs on the Kola Peninsula—which is home to 153 of the devices—were found vandalized by unknown suspects, and their strontium sources discarded nearby.

“This is access to nuclear material from which one could make dirty bombs. RTGs are in remote places in locations were they are on permanent vacation—1000s of them are in place along the northern sea route,” Hauge said. “But when you can make more money selling vodka on the street than you can guarding nuclear materials, then you have a problem.”

Bellona’s recently published working paper on RTGs can be found at Bellona’s web page. The organization, along with the several others favour funding the use of solar power to run these decrepit generators, all 1000 of which are well beyond their engineered life span. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is funding the replacement of 45 such devices.

IPWG meeting offers ‘jaw-dropping’ information and recommendations
Hauge added that “we wish to update other parties working with the nuclear challenge in Russia through our website—we need a complete picture, otherwise it will be tug of war with each sub,”
for any two given nations that wish to provide dismantlement funding.

But information presented by delegates on November 26th in Brussels suggests perhaps the most sweeping need for reforms in the way money is donated to Russia for nuclear remediation that had yet been considered by members of the IPWG—many of them donor nations themselves.

“The more information that was presented, the lower the jaws of attendees—especially the European delegates—dropped,” said one attendee of the Brussels meeting.

Among the participants of the IPWG Vince Novak, of the Nuclear Safety Department of the EBRD; Isidoro-Lopez Arcos, principle administrator of the European Commission, or EC; Norway’s Ambassador to Belgium, John Bjornebye; Vera Pisareva, assistant to Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin; the head of unit, European Commission, Europe Aid Cooperation office, Jean-Paul Joulia; Astrid Thors, Finland’s liberal member of European Parliament, or MEP; Stephan Pfitzner, secretary to the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentarian Cooperation Committee of the European Parliament; Roland Turner, the EC’ Detached National Expert of the EC’s Europe Aid office; Bellona president Frederic Hauge and his staff; Alexander Nikitin; Bellona-Murmansk director Sergei Zhavoronkin, Soizick Martin, director of Bellona-Europa in Brussels, as well as many other European MEPS.


Suggestions for the ‘master plan’
All speakers agreed that whatever plan emerges for spending money on Russia nuclear remediation should be completely transparent, precisely to avoid the kinds of problems that the United States, Norway and other donor nations have faced.

But achieving such a level of transparency with Minatom—which receives and controls all dismantlement cash—said Duma Deputy Mitrokhin’s assistant Pisareva, will not be easy.

According to her and other sources, Minatom has been on a steady march to strip GAN of all the authority that it can. Much of this is done by systematically transferring installations that used to fall under GAN’s jurisdiction, where Russia’s Ministry of Defense, oversees much nuclear material and answers to no one.

This is especially galling to donor states, given that most military dismantlement projects are contracted by Minatom and fall inside the realm of the Defence Ministry, with no oversight of GAN whatsoever. Information about donated money, inspections by donor states, and audits of how the money is being spent is, for donors, often hard, if not impossible, to acquire from Minatom.

To circumvent this, the IPWG delegates put forth various methods of implementing the master plan of money management in the new era after MNEPR and the G-8 pledge. All of them implied a decreased role for Minatom.

Bellona, in a position paper presented at the conference, suggested that the only way to make effective use of western funding for nuclear dismantlement projects was to reduce the role of Minatom, making it only the implementor of dismantlement projects. Safety oversight should be taken away from the Ministry of Defence and handed back to GAN. Expenditures on western funded dismantlement projects should be the responsibility of the Russia General Accounting office. All of these agencies, then, should submit produce reports that would be accessible to donor nations.

Pisareva favored a large role in the plan for NGOs in ensuring accountability

“Any plan has to take into account the informational contributions and access to documents for NGOs,” she said.

Another strategy to improve accountability, said Novak of the EBRD, was to contract work and pay for it only when it was completed. While the work was being completed, he said that total transparency would be a requirement. It would also require the leadership of a group of Russian experts to assure project movement and transparency from the Russian side, and also to define the work of GAN and other Russian authorities in the plan.

The EBRD, Novak noted, has an environmental policy that was updated in April 2003, and said the bank will develop a specific environmental policy for the “master plan” programme and the NDEP work that it will entail. A donors’ meeting for NDEP will be held December 15, he said, when the groups 14 member states and pan-European organizations will examine the fund’s priorities.

Thors, Finalnd’s liberal MEP, said she hoped Finland would also be contributing to efforts toward structuring a “master plan” But she had many questions about its development: Would the policies adopted under it be common EU policy? Would its framework be based on accepted international standards, like those of the UNs International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA? Can, in fact, the IAEA help to establish standards to be observed between Russia and donors?

She noted that Russia does not have the technical and administrative capacity to accept a plan like the master plan at the moment.

“Some things are working but there are too many flaws,” she said. She also commended the EBRD suggested plan and its insistence on transparency. She said that this same transparency must also be extended to Non-Government Organizations and environmental groups, who, she said, should have the same access to documents and nuclear remediation sites that government officials do.

How will Minatom react?
It could be said that Minatom, with its secret budget and occasional public scandals about misappropriated funding, has managed to survive and even expand thanks to western donor countries and their willingness to bend to Minatom’s demands in the interest of cooperation or expediency.

But some interviewed on the sidelines of the IPWG conference saw Minatom’s tactics in this regard as coercion. At the heart of the matter is Minatom’s very survival itself, some said, and to subject each nuclear remediation deal to the sort of scouring audits that conference members advocated will break many rice bowls at the ministry.

One European official said that, after a recent meeting with Minatom head Alexander Rumyantsev, it was apparent that “Rumyantsev doesn’t so much control Minatom as Minatom controls Rumyantsev.

At one level, said one delegate who spoke with Bellona Web, Minatom has a self-perpetuating and self-preserving old guard who will fight as hard as they can against opening the books. This group, said the source, has managed to survive for the last 12 years of CTR and other programmes by dictating to the furthest extent possible what the terms of dismantlement operations will be, who will have access to them for auditing and verification, and most importantly, how the money will be spent. Millions of dollars of that money has been misallocated over the years.

Among these Minatom officials who will most likely be against a change in the status quo is Viktor Akhunov, head of Minatom’s Department of Ecology and Nuclear Installation Decommissioning who is famous for his antic outbursts to the press.

During a press conference following the Control Expert Group meeting of the IAEA in Murmansk on November 16th—to which NGOs were not admitted—Akhunov was asked by Bellona-Murmansk’s Zhavoronkin what procedures needed to be followed for NGOs to be admitted to the notorious Andreyeva Bay nuclear waste dump. His curt reply was that “we don’t deal in radioactive tourism.”

But Novak pointed out at the IPWG that there is a younger, newer guard emerging at Minatom who could be persuaded to cooperate with the programme at hand, and who understand the need for a transparency in nuclear projects.

Novak even pointed to Rumyantsev as a possible ally because he is Russia’s first Atomic Energy Minister to hold meetings with representatives of environmental NGOs. Nikitin, who has been among those environmentalists to meet with Rumyantsev, agreed—with some reservations.

“Often we fail to understand one another’s points of view, but the meetings are a good step,” he said.

Indeed, it may be possible, in the near future, that Minatom will not be the supervisor as well as the administrator of submarine decommissioning. AS per a governmental decree of September 15th 2003, Minatom was ordered to come up with a “master plan” of its own for the submarine decommissioning problem by May of 2004.

From that point on, the Ministry of Economic Development will take over as the coordinator of submarine dismantlement activities, with Minatom operating only as the implementer of these plans.

Pisareva pointed out that could have hurdles of its own. The Economic Development Ministry is a bureaucracy as well, with its own red tape to unravel. But the ministry is, she said, scrupulous in its accounting practices.