Roundtable discussion of uranium tail transports through St. Petersburg provides no reassurances on city’s safety


Publish date: September 23, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – A roundtable discussion on depleted uranium hexafluoride imports to Russia hosted by the Bellona and Ecodefence environmental organisations, and the local newspaper Moi Raion (My Region) provided a frightening glance at what disasters may loom as a result of transporting the lethal loads of radioactive waste through this city of 5 million people.

The roundtable, entitled “Uranium Next to your Home” – which took place on the eve of the international day against uranium dangers – was attended by city legislative assembly members, representatives of St. Petersburg’s port, the October Railway Company, and representatives of the Avtovo municipal region of St. Petersburg.

The list of attendees therefore included personnel who are responsible for the offloading and transport of the highly toxic substance – and who are also at extremely high risk of contamination.

The depleted uranium hexafluoride – or uranium tails – arrive approximately every month from Germany, France and the Netherlands by ship, and is transported by rail, and sits in the rail switching yard in the city’s Avtovo region. It is here that the transports are routinely greeted by protestors, who are in turn greeted by police – in one case, at gunpoint.

The the roundtable discussion began by the showing of a video on the city Avtovo region residents and the dangerous and toxic radioactive loads it plays host to – and how little the area’s inhabitants know of the trainloads of nuclear waste they encounter in the course of any given day.

“If they transport radioactive waste, that means there should be some kind of agreement. How does the city allow these transports through populated areas? This is a matter for the courts,” said one young woman interviewed, who had only just found out about the dangerous loads from a reporter with Moi Raion, which, along with Bellona and Ecodefence, has been active in reporting on the radioactive waste loads.

“I am scared,” said another woman featured in the video. “I want this to stop because when you look out the window and see how enormous barrels are going past your bulding, containers accompanied by police and laboratory personnel – it is a very unpleasant feeling,” said the woman who lives on St. Petersburg’s Tramvainy Prospekt.

“The problem worries us because they are hauling radioactive waste through a city of millions. We think this isn’t right,” said Gennady Truskanov, a representative of the Avtovo municipal region, during the round table.

In 1997 alone, an agreement between Russian nuclear fuel giant Tekhnabexport (Tenex), the German uranium enrichment corporation Urenco, and France’s enrichment enterprise Eurodif, brought 125,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride – classified by many countries, including the United States, as radioactive waste – through St. Petersburg. These uranium tails arrive in the Port of St. Petersburg, and are then loaded on trains to Siberian nuclear facilities in either Seversk, near Tomsk, Angarsk, near Irkutsk, Zelenogorsk, near Krasnoyarsk or Novouralsk, near Yekatrinburg, for reprocessing.

Russian nuclear industry representatives have said depleted uranium hexafluoride produces valuable raw material. Environmentalists disagree, pointing to the fact that 90 percent of the waste extracted during reprocessing remains in storage in Siberia.

“At present, industrial reprocessing of uranium tails is not taking place,” said roundtable participant Oleg Muratov, a doctor of technical science.

Environmentalists have come to a starker conclusion: Western countries are using Russia as a dumping ground for their radioactive waste.

“These substances have no business being in Russia,” said Rashid Alimov, editor of Bellona Web’s Russian pages, at the roundtable. “The law on environmental protection forbids the import of radioactive waste and nuclear materials into Russia.”

Ecodefence co-chair Vladimir Slivyak agreed.

“This is a good way for European countries to keep their costs down,” he said. “According to our calculations, Urenco’s production costs would rise by five times if the company reprocessed the uranium tails itself.”

Russian facilities are already burdened with more than 700,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom has admitted the futility of importing the uranium tails. In 2007, Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko said the imports would stop when Russia’s contracts run out in 2009.

Uranium tails in crowded neighbourhoods
Environmentalists insist that transporting uranium tails is extremely dangerous business. Depleted uranium hexafluoride causes alpha-irradiation of living beings. When uranium tails come in contact with water, it produces fluoric acid, which, when inhaled, can lead to mortal consequences. The substance also gives off fluorine, which can lead to calamitous water and land contamination.

According to assessments by British nuclear giant BNFL, a uranium hexafluoride leak could lead to possibly lethal concentrations of the substance within a 32 kilometre radius from the point of the leak. Nevertheless, containers of these radioactive loads routinely sit for days on the railway platforms in the densely populated Avtovo neighbourhood. Indeed, thousands of the regions residents cross the switching yard daily.

In June of this year, environmentalists carried out measurements of radioactivity near containers of a uranium tail load, and found that radiation levels were some 680 micro-roentgens per hour – exceeding normal levels by 30 times.

“We are also concerned that a train bearing the uranium tails was parked for a long period next to a load of combustible lubricants,” said Alimov.

Independent inspections of the loads during their transport are practically non-existent. In port, the hermetic seals on the containers of waste are checked by official from Izotop, a local nuclear enterprise, which also facilitates their further shipment, said Yury Orlov, a captain at St. Petersburg’s port, at the roundtable.

“Departmental control means total non-control,” said Olga Kurnosova of the St. Petersburg division of the United Citizens’ Front. No one says this is working poorly.”

Officials from Izotop, though invited to participate in the discussion, cancelled their appearance at the roundtable the day before it took place.

“After the federal law on the protection of juridical entities was passed in 2001, the Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Rights was stripped of its rights to measure radiation near railway cars” containing radioactive loads, said Yury Merkushev, a specialist with the Legislative Assembly’s Heath and Environmental Commission.

“And the Federal Bio-Medical Agency can conduct measurements only once in two years,” he said.

Merkushev said that, in October, his commission will hold a hearing with a representative of The Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Technical and Atomic Oversight, and question him on the transport of radioactive waste through St. Petersburg.

Merkushev also said that the Legislative Assembly is currently preparing radiation safety legislation for St. Petersburg, and advised those at the roundtable to send their suggestions and amendments, as well as to take part in the discussions of a federal law insuring risks that could be incurred as a result of these waste shipments.

Uranium is no loaf of bread
“It is unacceptable to subject people to the impact of a toxic substance without informing them, and without securing their agreement,” said Dr.Tatyana Ladoba, an associate professor at St. Petersburg’s Paediatric Academy. “Even a small rise in radioactive levels can lead to an accumulation of breakages in the genetic apparatus of our children.”

However, many transport officials consider information about the transports to be classified information that could be used by terrorists.

“Uranium hexafluoride is a dangerous load and is transported with the assistance mobile containers over a special scheme of delivery,” Svetlana Minina, a press agent with the October Railway Company, said. All information about the transports falls under government secrecy.”

Orlov, the St. Petersburg port captain, also held his cards close to his chest.

“Information that is worth a loaf of bread is one thing – information that is worth a state secret is another matter,” he said, and refused to disclose any details about the off-loading of the uranium tails in port.

Russia’s law on state secrets, however, forbids the classification of information regarding the state of the environment and sanitary conditions. Many participants in the roundtable expressed apprehension that concealing information concerning the transports could itself cause a panic among city residents.



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