Another radioactive waste ship on the approach to St. Petersburg

Bellona Archive

Publish date: March 12, 2008

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – According to data obtained by Bellona and Ecodefence, another ship loaded with radioactive waste from the German-Dutch uranium enrichment giant Urenco passed the approach beacon to St. Petersburg’s port around four a.m. local time.

The ship is now awaiting permission to enter the city’s port near Krondshadt Island in the Gulf of Finland. Environmentalists are awaiting the offloading of the waste load and will measure radiation background levels along the eventual rail route the load will take to the Urals for storage. Environmentalists have also announced protests.

In coming days, the containers will be sent from the port of St. Petersburg to Novouralsk in the Sverdlovsk region of Siberia. Environmentalist intend to meet the vessel carrying the waste – the MV Shouwenbank – with a demonstration on Saturday at four p.m. on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Maloy Konyushennoy in a protest jointly arranged by Bellona and Ecodefence.

The environmentalists say all who are interested in seeing an end to Germany’s shipments of uranium tails to Russia are invited to attend.

“The transport of such loads is extremely dangerous. They are fraught with incidents because of faulty hermetic seals on the containers, which could lead to poisoning a large number of people, and the toxic radioactive contamination significant portions of land, including Russia’s large cities,” said Rashid Alimov, editor of Bellona’s Russian-language pages.

Apart from this, said Alimov, more than 700,000 tons of uranium tails have already been dumped in Russia. Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom signed a contract with Urenco in 1996 to receive another 100,000 tons.

The Shouwenbank hauled a load estimated at 2,000 tons to St. Petersburg in January.

The current transport of tails to Russia began on March 5th, when railway cars left the Gronau facility of Urenco. On March 7th, the radioactive parcel was loaded onto the Shouwenbank in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. According to German environmentalists following the load, the radiation background level was higher than that of previous loads.

The Russian Atomic industry asserts that it accepts the uranium tails for further enrichment – that is, additional extraction of uranium from them with technologies that are supposedly unique to Russia. However, Urenco has similar centrifuge technology and could certainly perform the enrichment process on its own. Furthermore, environmentalists have information that many of the imported tails aren’t slated for enrichment anyway, and are just sent for storage at Russian facilities, often in the open air.

According to data from the Russian Ministry for Technical Oversight, state reports conducted between 2004 and 2006 found that Russian enrichment facilities store many containers of tails in conditions that subject them to corrosion, presenting the very real possibility of a leak of dangerous substances.

Piled up tails

The uranium tails, which are formed during the uranium enrichment process, belong to Urenco. Since 1996, by the Rosatom contract, more than 80,000 tons of Urenco uranium tails have been imported to Russia. The contract stipulates that Russia receive 100,000 tons of the material by 2009. The uranium tails over the course of the contract have been shipped to Novouralsk, Seversk, near Tomsk, Argarsk, near Irkutsk, and Zelenogorsk, near Kransnoyarsk..

Article 48 of the Russian Law on the Environment forbids the import of radioactive waste and nuclear materials whatever the intentions. The tails, however, are shipped to Russia under the label of raw material for reprocessing.

“By sending their tails to Russian facilities, Urenco is attempting to get rid of the responsibility for their radioactive and toxic waste on the cheap,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefence. “We demand cessation of this cynical and amoral business, which we are deeply convinced contravenes Russian legislation.”

Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko said last year that he would sign no new contracts with Urenco or the French Eurodif enrichment firm for delivery of uranium tails, thus admitting indirectly that the initial agreement was a mistake. Nevertheless, the conditions of the contract, which expire in 2009 and 2014, are unknown and no one can say whether it contains language for its automatic renewal.

Ecodefence asserts that the export of uranium tails is also a violation of German law. Environmentalists have filed suit with the Prosecutor of Munster, Germany.

The United States considers uranium tails to be radioactive waste by a decision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on January 18th 2005. Many European countries on the other hand still prefer not to consider the material waste and send it on to Russia.

Local reaction where the waste is stored

From St. Petersburg, the tails will be sent most likely to Novouralsk, where they have been sent since 2003. From time to time, even government officials express their disagreement with the arrangement.

“I can say right off that I don’t like this – when they bring 1,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride, enrich it and send it back and 90 percent of it stays with us. Maybe the price of uranium will get so high at some point that it will be profitable to enrich it, but when that will happen no one knows,” said Yury Zubkov, head of the Division of Radiation Safety of the Tomsk Regional Committee for Environmental Protection in an interview with Bellona Web.

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