Battle to revise Russia radioactive waste bill continues as enviro groups are shut out of the dialogue

Bellona Archive

Publish date: March 9, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – Powerful environmental groups in Russia have stepped forward to say they have been shut out of a process to revise a new bill on radioactive waste management in Russia, saying their suggestions to improve the bill have been ignored, representatives of Greenpece Russia and Ecodefence told Bellona Web Tuesday.

There is no set date for the second reading of the controversial bill – and three readings are required for it to be adopted as law – but the environmental community has all but been cut out of the process of adding necessary improvements to make it safe, Russian environmental groups said Tuesday, said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefence.  

Slivyak said in an email interview with Bellona Web that according to the Duma’s environmental committee, no information about when the second reading may take place will be available until after March 17th, something Slivyak attributed in an email interview as the Duma wanting “to wait for public attention to calm down a bit.”

At issue is a new law on dealing with radioactive waste in Russia that was passed in January by Russia’s lower house of Parliament, the Duma, in its first reading. Environmentalists, while acknowledging that there are precious few laws regulating the handling of radioactive waste in Russia, say the new law could give the nuclear industry nearly unchecked license to carry on with unsafe waste disposal practices.  

Yesterday Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom presented its second draft of the bill “On Management of Radioactive Waste” during an “expert round table” in Moscow. Prior to the convening of the roundtable, environmentalists issued a statement saying the bill is “convenient for Rosatom, but dangerous for the Russian people.”

After the bill’s first reading in the Duma, more than 30 environmental organisations from Regions across Russia, including Bellona, participated in a protest post card drive to Duma deputies.

February’s mail brought more than 500 signed letters, including ones from people who had sustained injuries and illnesses from Russia’s nuclear industry, urging the Duma not to adopt the bill in the form in which Rosatom has presented it.

On Wednesday, Slivyak said the public outcry continues, with some dozen protest postcards arriving at the Duma daily.

EU anti-nuke support

Protest against Russia’s larger issues of imported spent nuclear fuel and staggering radioactive waste imports were also raised today by the European Union.

European Commission Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger today said in an interview with the Financial Times Deutschland, as quoted by the EU Observer, that Brussels is against member states exporting their nuclear waste to countries outside the EU or to store it in joint sites.

“It is the duty of national politicians to do their homework,” he said as quoted in the EU Observer. Oettinger warned against common storage sites, as well as exporting the radioactive material outside the EU, for instance Russia.

The Financial Times Deutschland reported in February that many Wester EU Member States intended to ship high-level nuclear waste to Eastern European ones for storage – an option viewed by its proponents as being cheap.

Oettinger’s however poured cold water on such a plan saying that special waste exports for economic reasons was “scandalous  and dangerous. He added that shipping such waste beyond EU borders was also out of the question, as the EU has no way to inspect such sites.

Yet Rosatom has two deals, one with the German-Dutch nuclear consortium Urenco, and France’ Eurodif division of Areva to accept depleted uranium hexafluoride – a by-product of uranium enrichment also known as uranium tails –  for reprocessing.  However, according to date reported by Ecodefence, less than 10 percent of this waste is ever returned to its countries of origin.

February meetings included – and flushed – enviro input

But Oettinger’s support of keeping Russia and Eastern Bloc countries free of foreign nuclear waste did little to aide environmental discussions on the ground in Moscow.

Indeed, that environmentalists suggestions would be cast aside was something of a surprise. Through last month, a special working group of various Rosatom departments, Duma deputies and environmentalists met several times to go over the structure of the bill and deal with the hail of criticism its first iteration brought about.

When the bill passed its first reading on January 28th, – three are required for its adoption –environmentalists noted that, if adopted as law, it would, in fact, be Russia’s only law on dealing with the management of radioactive waste, and only the third law dealing with the operation of nuclear industry sites to begin with. But they also argued that passing the current law in the state in which it was presented would have been as big a risk to Russia’s environmental health as was the Russian law on protection of the environment — a 2001 document that de facto sanctioned imports of foreign-generated nuclear waste for reprocessing in Russia.

During February’s meetings with officials, however, environmentalists and citizens’ principle contentions with the new bill remained unheard by Duma deputies or nuclear industry representatives. Further, said representatives of Ecodefence and Greenpeace Russia – who had participated actively in February’s discussions – they were not even invited to take part in the roundtable discussion of the new Rosatom produced bill.

Rosatom officials, reached by Bellona Web on Wednesday, refused to comment on why they had turned away the environmental groups from the roundtable discussion, saying only, “we are satisfied with the way the bill in its current form.”

Bill to manage radwaste needed – but not this one

Greenpeace Russia and Ecodefence readily support the notion of a bill to regulate the management of radioactive waste in Russia, but oppose its current form for a number of reasons, saying that it “will bring disproportionately more harm than good because it is aimed at the creation of favourable economic conditions for Rostatom, often at the expense of environmental safety.”   

In a joint release to Bellona Web, Ecodefence and Greenpeace identified five key issues that make the current reworking of the bill untenable for the purposes of radioactive safety in Russia.  

First, the new legislation legalises the currently illegal practice of injecting liquid radioactive waste into the ground. By pursuing profits, Rosatom plans to undertake actions that will spread radioactive substances in Russia’s water tables. Alternative to this do exist, namely solidifying the liquid waste and burying it.

Second, the bill, and the process that created it in its current form, sets a precedent for totally ignoring public opinion regarding the sites where radioactive waste would be stored – though local populations are the ones who will be forced to live with it for thousands of years.  Russia’s regional governors, who are appointed by the Kremlin, are unlikely to refuse proposed radioactive waste repository projects – and their agreement is all that is required in the new legislation.

Third, the bill in its current iteration encompasses both waste that is piling up prior to its adoption, as well as that which will build up after it is signed into law. In accordance with announcements made by the authors of the bill, the state – that is the Russia taxpayer – is responsible for this waste. This waste includes not only what has built up before the bill’s adoption and what continues to build up afterwards, but radioactive waste that has accumulated at commercial reactors. The principle contained in the bill of giving Russian nuclear power plants a clean slate will cost the Russian taxpayer billions in additional taxes.

Fourth, the bill’s developers’ assertion in discussing new radioactive waste that will build up after the bill’s adoption say that the legislation fortifies the financial responsibility of the waste’s producers. However, the language of the bill contains a so-called “principle of multiple financing sources” for radioactive waste disposal. In practice, this means that one of these financing sources will sooner rather than later become the Russia federal budget. There are already dozens of outright and furtive schemes for state subsidisation of the nuclear industry.

For instance, Rosatom has secured the release of property tax to be paid for temporary radioactive waste storage sites. Within the framework of the current bill, Rosatom has already secured property-tax-free repositories for radioactive waste.

Lastly, the current bill contains no regulation dealing with situations of change of ownership of the radioactive waste. Essentially, this means that if over the course of a few years Rosatom decides to change its name, then it can repeat its focus on relieving itself of the responsibility of all radioactive waste that has accrued previous to that prospective name change.

“Environmental organisations demand, as before, to change the bill,” said Slivyak, “to forbid the injection of liquid radioactive waste into the ground, to take into account public opinion when selecting sites for possible repositories for their nuclear waste, to exclude the various budgets of various levels to dispose of the waste from nuclear energy.”