Comment: Russia’s new radioactive waste law: Wanted the best, but it turned out as always

Sikring av russisk radioaktivt materiale er både fredskapende og miljøeffektivt.
Foto: Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: November 27, 2010

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MURMANSK – The Russian parliament, the State Duma, has postponed the second reading of the new draft law “On Management of Radioactive Waste” – a controversial piece of legislation that is bound to place a heavy burden on the shoulders of Russian taxpayers while allowing importation of foreign radioactive waste into the country.

On November 15, the Russian State Duma made a decision to defer until a later time its second reading of the draft law “On Management of Radioactive Waste and Introducing Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation.”

The bill was passed in its first reading last January 20, but the vote – in particular, the approval of some of the provisions in the proposed new law – caused a storm wave of harsh criticism in the media. Quite unexpectedly, the news triggered a real public discussion, one which involved active participation of Russian NGOs. The debate disrupted the State Duma’s schedule adopted for the reading and passing of the “fateful” law. To settle the many objections, a special commission was organised that even included representatives of non-profit environmental organisations.

The postponement

A short while ago, information surfaced that the second reading was slated for November 17. At the very last moment, both the text and the tables listing the new changes were posted on the State Duma’s website. Notably, the table of those amendments that have passed the parliamentaries’ scrutiny stretches for 99 pages; those that have been rejected take another 82 pages. It is obvious that Duma members worked very hard on the language of the bill.

Who took part in the efforts to revise the text? These were the Legislative Assembly of Chelyabinsk Region, regional Dumas of Moscow and Kostroma Regions, members of United Russia – the country’s ruling party – as well as of the Just Russia party and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and senators from the parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council. The final ratio of the adopted changes versus the rejected ones was in favour of United Russia – not exactly a surprising turn of events.

However, the final result bears no trace of any participation in this discussion of the many other regions where the Russian nuclear industry’s numerous enterprises are based. Murmansk Regional Duma, for one, did not even think it necessary to consider the changes prepared by the dedicated committee.

The second Duma discussion, scheduled for November 17, did not take place. But reasons are scarce to assume that it has anything to do with the indignation and concerns voiced by environmentalists.

The taxpayers’ burden

The bill will no doubt be passed eventually – but later. There is no certainty that its language will not undergo any more revisions. But one can be certain in one thing: When the Duma announces its decision to pass the law, the reasons for doing so will be something like these words, said by Energy Committee Chairman Konstantin Zaitsev in late October, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti: “There were many amendments made for the second reading; most of the suggestions made by non-profit environmental organisations, and by the scientific community, have been accepted.”

It is also probable that one very interesting conclusion will be made from this situation: The greens are delaying the passing of a very important law, and this will have its effect on costs incurred to the state, regional, and municipal budgets.

Why? Very simple. The bill divides all waste into two categories – prior to and after the passing of the law, itself a striking differentiation. The costs of handling the waste that falls into the “before” category will be paid out of the state, regional, and municipal coffers – meaning, each and every one of us honest taxpayers. The waste that comes “after” will be the financial responsibility of the enterprise that has generated it, and a special fund will be created to handle the related costs.

The state nuclear corporation Rosatom is thus in for some major inventorying. The process has likely already begun. We do understand that because during the Cold War the Soviet nuclear industry’s enterprises were working for the benefit of the state’s military machine the result becomes our common, if unwanted, legacy. But what does this have to do with, say, nuclear power plants? They have been working for the national economy, producing energy, earning their profits. Must we really now help them earn another quick buck on the waste they have accumulated?

It is equally curious just how Rosatom – using one’s own resources and minding one’s own guidelines while inventorying the vast amounts of waste stored behind the several rows of barbed wire that guard its enterprises against intruders – will be taking stock of this waste prior to that watershed Day X – taking liberal estimates to account for a few years ahead, to be on the safe side, so to speak, or totally fair and square? Down to the very last becquerel or curie, every kilogram and cubic metre? Some of today’s estimates say Russia has over decades accumulated radioactive waste to the tune of over 500 million tonnes.

When the stock is taken and all chickens are counted, how completely will we be able to trust the final figures? Rosatom’s data on the piles of radioactive waste stored across Russia will be for all of us a mirage at best – elusive to the touch or look, subject to no weighing or verification otherwise. By contrast, the money that will be trickling into the corporation’s waste disposal coffers from the country’s budgets of all levels will be very real, palpable roubles…

How did they manage to convince the Ministry of Finances and its head, Alexei Kudrin, to accept such an arbitrary division of waste, given that it requires such sizable additional expenses from the state budget? What arguments did they use? We can only guess.

It’s difficult to even imagine the sum total that it will cost to have the waste “prepared for disposal, disposed of, transported, placed in long-term storage…” and so on across the broad expanse of the Russian nuclear industry. I wish I didn’t have to remind the readers about what happens in Russia with the “efficiency” of using budget funds even in those industries where one would think everything was transparent enough and there were no state secrets to protect. Given Russia’s rampant corruption, what would happen with the billions of roubles meant for Rosatom, which creates for its enterprises the conditions that they operate in – total secrecy and impermeability to outside financial scrutiny? Has anyone ever checked this bill for corruption risks?

The import of radioactive waste

There is another strange development that comes with the bill – a part of it entitled “Peculiarities of import into the Russian Federation and export out of the Russian Federation of radioactive waste.” The new revision allows importation of foreign waste into Russia. The legislators behind this bright proposal are United Russia members representing Arkhangelsk, Astrakhan, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, and Rostov Regions, and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District.

These Duma members have surely worked so hard they well deserve Rosatom merit badges for such ingenuity: “Importation into the Russian Federation of radioactive waste for purposes of storage and disposal is prohibited barring cases stipulated by this Article.”

Even Rosatom, as the bill was undergoing its first revision, didn’t dare introduce this groundbreaking idea as a mere suggestion or otherwise. Well, the corporation had its little helpers to do its work for it.

Locally in Murmansk Region, the media have reported a lot of statements voiced in support of the bill, along the lines of: “very indispensable, its significance cannot be stressed enough,” “we need this bill passed yesterday,” “international experience has been taken into consideration,” “these NGOs, what they need from all of this is an excuse to make some noise, to raise their importance before their grant-givers, they’re just using this for their own PR game…”

What a very simple technique to deploy for the population: Swearing by the goodness of the draft law, it’s the be-all and end-all, etc., but – first and foremost – saying nothing about those controversial passages that cause criticism on the part of NGOs. The impression is that the bill’s proponents are still living in the last century, in the Soviet Union, that is.

Rosatom sanctions the imports – while Europe bans the exports

The latest development on the radioactive waste management front is the “Main recommendations of the European Commission regarding radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.”

The European Commission has proposed that the European Union nations adopt a set of mandatory basic principles for storage of radioactive waste. If these recommendations get approved, these principles will in several years come into force as baseline standards for management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel in all of the twenty-seven member states of the European Union.

There is one particular item in these recommendations: “Certain countries may join their efforts in order to create jointly managed storage facilities for [radioactive waste] and [spent nuclear fuel] within the boundaries of the [European Union]. However, exporting nuclear waste beyond the boundaries of the [European Union] will be prohibited.”

A very timely proposal, indeed: Everyone bears responsibility for the results of their own activities and no country of the European Union will have the luxury of solving its nuclear problems on the cheap by dispatching its waste abroad.

But Rosatom, alas, is moving in just the opposite direction. First, they opened Russian state borders for spent nuclear fuel. Now it’s the radioactive waste that they hope will get an EZ Pass into Russia if the new bill “On Management of Radioactive Waste” is adopted…

Andrei Zolotkov is the director of Bellona Murmansk.