Comment: Oil politics and thwarted NATO jingoism ironically stem new radiation crisis for Russia


Publish date: September 10, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

Early this week, US President George Bush pulled his much-vaunted civilian nuclear cooperation pact between the Washington and Moscow out of Congress, putting it on ice for the next president to deal with. Later this month, Australian parliament may renege on its agreement to ship uranium to Russia for enrichment. The intended punishment is doing Russia a much-needed favour.

Yet, no one in Washington or the Western mainstream press has seen fit to mention that Russia – which is already groaning under the weight of 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and 700,000 tones of depleted uranium hexaflouride, just to mention the highlights – is better served by watching these nuclear deals sink.

In the cases of both America and Australia, the nuclear deals are foundering on the shoals of strong Western reaction against Russia’s military incursion into Georgia – a former Soviet republic that NATO has been courting. The punishment for the some 2,000 who lay dead as a result of the Russian invasion last month is to clip the nuclear carrot from the end of the stick, and hope a good wallop will get things back on track.
The yanking of the Washington-Moscow pact from US Congress for approval means that the White House is passing the buck on its plans to build an international uranium fuel bank with Russia, and also withhold from Russia one of its long coveted prizes – the import of US-origin spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing in Russia. The US controls some 80 percent of the world’s spend fuel, so Russia is again locked out of the big reprocessing game.

It is ironic that western diplomatic intervention in this military crisis would have reversed such a grim environmental prognosis for Russia. After all, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s US courtiers have mostly pointed to the region’s value as blank map over which to draw oil pipelines – a proven environmental hazard in the Caucasus region. 

The practice of shooting holes in oil pipelines, selling the booty and leaving an oil slick has been a source of income for the destitute in Georgia’s neighbouring republic of Chechnya for decades. There, a genocidal “police action” continues, and has barely been mentioned in the western press since it was reinvigorated by Vladimir Putin when he came to power in 2000. 

The invasion of Georgia, however, ranked front page above the fold play in the New York Times for more than six days – about as many days of front page coverage that the fall of the Soviet Union received, and a few short of 9/11. Yet it is a slow news day indeed that would bring the ongoing war of attrition in Chechnya to the front page.

The crucial difference between Georgia and Chechnya, as the US State Department would have it, is that Chechnya is an internal matter – a republic of Russia full of Wahaabist terrorists kept at bay by Kremlin-backed death squads – where Georgia is a sovereign state that votes.

In the eye of western policy makers, however, it’s really the difference between a bunch of disenfranchised Muslims – who hold equal value for potential pipelines – and an English speaking, well tailored, American educated president – in short, a guy to do business with. It’s of no matter than most of the west was confusing Georgia with a southern US state by the same name until the early August invasion. 

So, the American civilian nuclear pact, that would have brought to Russia several thousands more tons of nuclear waste, both from enriching uranium for the world market and reprocessing a boom in US controlled spent fuel (something the Americans view as a favour) has been popped like a soap bubble in the interest of a sovereign state. Sovereignty trumps genocide, for this US administration especially, any time – so long as that sovereignty protects something America wants.

It is a matter of convenience that Georgia’s “sovereignty” happens to guard a few vulnerable and shaky  democratic principles. But the real trade off sketched out in Washington’s White House supported conservative think tanks is this: Let Georgia run oil to the Caspian or we’ll trash that sweetheart nuclear deal we signed with Moscow in May.

Thus, Realpolitik and its guiding principle that states don’t hold immutable values or even national identities so much as they hold immutable interests, has accidentally turned a cynically crafted point to the favor of Russia’s citizens and their right not to choke on the world’s nuclear trash.

It would have been pretty keen had more enlightened Western voices spoken up and derailed the nuclear deal on the strength of that notion alone, and drawn attention to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people, and the generations that follow them, who stand to be the direct victims of all manner of radiation inspired disease and death hold at least as much value Georgia’s sovereignty.

But such a stroke of mercy begins to smack of John Lennon’s Imagine whose chords sound dissonant in this increasingly modern world were superstates like Russia and the United States have ceased to be the guardians of their citizens rights so much as the citizens have become chattel for the states’ interests.

Australia’s parliament, when it votes later this month on whether to progress in its deal to ship thousands of tons of uranium for enrichment to Russia, has the opportunity to actually get it right.
It could make both points, and recognise that one is not mutually exclusive of the other.

Australia has the unique opportunity – that America passed up – to say that it is not going to do any favours for a country that more or less arbitrarily invades one of its sovereign neighbours, a la the Soviet Union, nor is it going to further abet the slow national suicide that Russia’s nuclear industry is guiding the country toward in the interest of making a few million short term bucks – none of which will go to the benefit of the people who are forced to live in this nuclear wasteland. 

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