Murmansk lawmakers pass radwaste bill that will turn Kola Peninsula into a nuclear dump

Publish date: February 22, 2010

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MURMANSK – Legislators in Russia’s Far Northern Murmansk Region, on the Kola Peninsula, have signalled a green light to the interment of liquid radioactive waste in their region – brushing aside the public and environmentalists’ concerns and, effectively, giving Moscow authorities a carte blanche to create nuclear repositories in Murmansk, while the costs of handling the already accumulated stockpiles of radioactive waste will have to be borne by regional and municipal budgets.

The questionable bill “On Management of Radioactive Waste” was passed in its first reading in the federal parliament in the Russian capital during a plenary session on January 20 and raised a storm of objections from Russia’s ecological organisations. Non-governmental organisations decried the bill as a means for the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom to attend to its own narrow interests while going bluntly against the interests of the nation. In an open letter to lawmakers in Moscow, they urged them to halt on passing the bill without making serious amendments.

They praised the attempt to better regulate the issues of radiation safety in Russia – the country still has no law governing the management of radioactive waste – but the new law, environmentalists said, will allow injecting liquid radioactive waste underground, which runs contrary to other Russian legislation already in force – namely, the Law on Protection of the Environment and the Water Code. It will, they said, place all responsibility for the disposal of liquid radioactive waste on the shoulders of local municipalities and absolve Rosatom of any accountability for the handling of waste already accumulated. It will also allow authorities to disregard the public’s opinion when making decisions to create radioactive waste repositories, environmentalists warned.

The bill probably affects Murmansk Region more than other constituent territories of the Russian Federation. Vast stockpiles of radioactive waste have been accrued on the Kola Peninsula in the decades since atomic power has been used commercially and for military purposes in the Soviet Union and Russia. These activities have engendered quite a number of most urgent problems in terms of radiation safety, including storage of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste at former naval bases, such as the infamous Andreyeva Bay, issues associated with decommissioning Soviet and Russian nuclear-powered fleet and refuelling vessels, just to name a few.

Furthermore, plans are in motion for 2018 and 2019 to start decommissioning Reactor Units 1 and 2 of the Kola Nuclear Power Plant (Kola NPP), which will result in the generation of even more radioactive waste. Mishandling these hazardous materials could spell radioactive accidents with grave consequences – serious contamination for the environment and, of course, the risk of harm to the health of the local population.

Murmansk regional parliament rejects environmentalists’ amendments

A copy of the list of amendments that environmental organisations prepared and sent in late January to the Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, was also extended to the regional Duma of Murmansk Region. Ecologists insisted that a law was indeed necessary to manage Russia’s radioactive waste – but not the disastrous draft lawmakers had on the table in front of them. On reception of the document, members of a dedicated committee in the Murmansk Duma presented the amendments to their colleagues for discussion on the floor.

Yet, at a next meeting, on February 18th, Murmansk parliamentarians rejected the amendments and voted for the draft bill in its original version. Furthermore, lawmakers declined to allow local environmentalists to participate in the hearing.

Five regional lawmakers said “aye” to ecologists’ amendments; ten voted “nay”; one abstained. By a majority of votes – 17 voted for the bill, two against it, and one abstained – Murmansk Duma legislators passed the bill, dismissing all objections that came to the draft, via environmental organisations, from their concerned constituencies.

“The parliamentarians have created all conditions needed to turn our region into a nuclear dump; dozens of pleas from the public were ignored, and neither the bill, nor the amendments were even afforded the discussion they were due,” Vitaly Servetnik, chairman of the Russian ecological group Priroda i Molodyozh (Nature and Youth), told Bellona.

“Notably, the State Duma has already conducted three meetings between its members and representatives of environmental organisations; work is actively in progress on the amendments. [But] regional lawmakers hurried to pass a bill that had come from the top without so much as a thought about the region’s interests,” Servetnik said.

Yevgeny Nikora, Chairman of the Murmansk Regional Duma, explained to Bellona why he voted “nay” to the amendments.

“I personally was against passing the amendments, because I am certain they are caused by unnecessary concerns on the part of the ecologists,” Nikora said. “Having worked 13 years at the Kola NPP, I can say with certainty that Rosatom uses modern technologies that make the management of solid and liquid radioactive waste absolutely safe.”

However, according to Bellona-Murmansk’s head Andrei Zolotkov, this outcome has more to do with political considerations. Zolotkov traced the Murmansk lawmakers’ prevailing position to the influence of Yedinaya Rossiya – or United Russia – the ruling party behind President Dmitry Medvedev and former President and currently Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Since its inception in 2001, United Russia has become the predominant political force in the country and has, according to critics, successfully stifled, by less than democratic methods, all rival initiatives both in Moscow and across Russia’s regions. Party membership, critics say, is also a crucial factor at the various levels of decision-making for officials in the Russian power branches, including those in administrative positions.

In Zolotkov’s opinion, current political circumstances are such that one could have well foreseen from the start that the entire package of amendments proposed by environmentalists in Murmansk would be rejected.

“Why all of a sudden would United Russia correct a government-proposed bill and introduce amendments from a regional parliament?” he said. “It has to be another ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and so it was in Murmansk. Political loyalty is more important than doubts of an environmental nature.”

Zolotkov added he believed Murmansk Region will soon have to start making decisions on building a long-term storage facility or a repository for radioactive waste on its territory.

“It will be fair, too. The nuclear submarines, the non-military nuclear fleet, the Kola NPP – we operate them, we’re proud of it, but we must provide safe storage for radioactive waste as well,” Zolotkov said.

He pointed out that for such a site to be at a remote location, with low population density, and with suitable geological formations available, will all be the first good arguments to support the idea.