Russian and German environmentalists blockade nuclear factory in Gronau

Gronau Protest

Publish date: November 13, 2006

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

ST. PETERSBURG - Some 20 activists from German and Russian anti-nuclear organisations blocked the entrance to the Urenco uranium enrichment plant in the German town of Gronau for over an hour on Saturday, leading to their brief detention by police.

The rally was organized to protest transportation of radioactive waste to Russia, and was organized jointly by the Russian anti-nuclear group Ecodefense! and Germany’s Aktionsbuendnis Muensterland gegen Atomanlagen. Participants included five environmentalists from Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Tomsk, which are all destinations for foreign uranium tailings.

Russian law forbids the import of uranium tails, yet up to 90 percent of these nuclear materials remain at Russian enterprises for final storage. But for both the European and Russian side, the law seems bendable according economic convenience: If Europe’s nuclear giant Urenco itself undertook the reprocessing of the uranium tails, the cost of its products would increase roughly five-fold. Meanwhile, Russia’s nuclear industry gets to stuff its coffers for accepting the illegal waste.

Saturday’s blockade lasted around 70 minutes, and ended when police broke it up.

“We are demanding an end to the storage of radioactive waste in Russia, because it creates a threat to the health and prosperity of future generations. Germany should not be allowed to make use, in its own interests, of the nuclear industry in Russia being allowed to break laws and sneer at public opinion,” said Vladimir Slivyak of the Russian anti-nuclear group Ecodefense! during the protest, he told Bellona Web from Germany.

“We completely support our Russian colleagues – we must stop the international trade in radioactive waste. Every country should independently reprocess dangerous waste that it generates,” said Matthias Eickhoff, president of Aktionsbuendnis Muensterland gegen Atomanlagen.

What are uranium tails?
Uranium tails are a by-product of uranium mining. In mining, the uranium and its decay products that are buried deep underground are brought to the surface, and the uranium ore contained them is crushed into a fine sand. The uranium is then chemically removed, and the remaining radioactive sand, called uranium tails, is stored in huge reservoirs.

If these uranium tails are left on the surface and allowed to dry out, the radioactive sand can be carried great distances by the wind, and enter the food chain and bodies of water. Uranium tails contain over a dozen radioactive materials that are all extremely harmful to living beings. The most important of these are thorium-230, radium-226, and radon-222.

Foreign radwaste storage and transport a bad precedent
The environmentalists gathered at Gronau said that imports of uranium tails to Russia not only establishes a precedent for storing foreign radioactive waste in Russia, but also entails the use of private nuclear transports, thereby increasing the risk of terrorist attacks and accidents at sea or on the rails.

German radioactive waste is delivered to the Port of St. Petersburg, where it is unloaded onto trains bound for the Siberian destinations of Novouralsk, in the the Sverdlovsk Region, Seversk in the Tomsk Region, and Angarsk in the Irkutsk Region, as well as other destinations.

Other nuke transport dangers

Uranium hexafluoride –which is the chemical that makes uranium enrichment possible – is transported over enormous distances, often unguarded. In July 2006, activists from Greenpeace’s St. Petersburg office discovered several unguarded trains containing uranium hexafluoride at the train station in the village of Kapitolovo in the Leningrad Region, where Izotop – a state-owned nuclear materials transport firm – is based.

The wagons bearing the uranium hexafluoride were parked directly next to passenger platforms. Moreover, Greenpeace measured the radiation dose on the platforms where passengers were standing at 800 microrontgens per hour, or more than 40 times the normal radiation background level.

“This sort of transportation could be a great present for terrorists, either as a source of nuclear materials, or as a direct target for an attack,” said Dmitry Artamonov, head of Greenpeace’s St. Petersburg office. “Such an attack could lead to very serious consequences, since it would not be too difficult to destroy the containers. And even without terrorists, an ‘everyday’ accident could produce an effect just the same.”

How much nuclear material is travelling into Russia?
In November 2005, Ecodefense! presented a report detailing imports of radioactive waste into Russia under the guise of final reprocessing.

Since 1996, the German division of uranium manufacturer Urenco has been sending the waste from its uranium enrichment process – such as unusable uranium hexafluoride and uranium tails – to Russia.

The total quantity of waste imported into Russia over the past decade is somewhere near 100,000 tons.

In the last six months protests against nuclear transport have taken place in the Russian cities of Yekaterinburg and Tomsk, as well as in Germany and The Netherlands. In October the same organisations held similar protests near the German Embassy in Moscow.

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