Germany’s environmental minister refuses conclusively to send radwaste to Mayak

Publish date: December 6, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

German Environmental Minister Norbert Röttgen announced yesterday that a cargo of radioactive waste that was intended to be shipped from Germany’s Ahaus storage facility to Russia’s Mayak Chemical Combine in the Chelyabinsk region will not take place, the environmental group Ecodefence said.

Even though protests from high levels of in the German government and overwhelming opposition from activists had cast extreme doubt on whether the load would leave the country, yesterday’s announcement from Röttgen seals the conclusion.

In his announcement, Röttgen said that the main reason the planned shipment would not move forward was because Mayak could not safely handle the spent nuclear fuel elements that come from the Rossendorf research reactor in the former East German region of Saxony.

A wrench in the works for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative

The refusal to ship the waste flies in the face of comments made last month by Chelyabinsk Regional Governor Mikhail Yurevich that Mayak is “absolutely safe.” It also represents the first effort by a country involved in the US-Russian Global Threat Reduction Initiative to stand up and say that Russia simply cannot safely protect repatriated nuclear fuel.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative was conceived in 2004 between the United States, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency with the purpose of repatriating Russian-origin highly enriched uranium fuel from research reactors around the world.

Some 17 countries, including Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Vietnam have successfully returned spent fuel to Russia. But many Russian and US scientists and environmentalists were sceptical that shipping the fuel to Russia was secure or environmentally tenable. Germany seems to have issued its verdict on sending further research reactor fuel back to Russia.

Russia’s Ecodefence, which staged several actions of protest against sending the German fuel to Russia, warmly greeted the decision of German environmental minister in a statement.

“We welcome the decision of Minister Röttgen to not send radioactive waste to Russia – after many mistaken decisions, at least one is right,” said Ecodefence co-chair  Vladimir Slivyak on Monday. “Röttgen finally said what has needed to be said for along time – that Mayak is an extremely dangerous and unreliable enterprise with which it is not worth associating.”

Slivyak added that: “Now any country that thinks of sending nuclear waste to Russia will look like a criminal ridding itself of poisonous waste at Russia’s expense, which German refused for ethical reasons.”

Mayak most contaminated place on earth

According to Russian environmentalists, the territory surrounding Mayak constitutes the most radioactively contaminated area on earth. In 1957, a waste storage container at Mayak exploded in the Kyshtym disaster, irradiating land for several hundred square kilometres and forcing the permanet evacuation of thousands. Evacuation effort are still underway, 63 years later.

Mayak continues to dump radioactive waste into the surrounding environment, particularly into the Techa River and Lake Karachai. In November, Mayak management announced it would continue dumping radioactive waste into water bodies until 2018.

Germany had planned to deliver 951 spent fuel rods in 18 containers to Mayak from its Ahaus temporary storage facility through April 2011.

Throughout November, Germany was the site of heated discussions during which ecological groups and practically all political parties, with the exception of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), spoke out against sending the waste to Russia on the basis of Mayak’s dubious safety record.

Even Germany’s CDU, however, evidenced cracks: The CDU mayor of Hamburg protested the waste be shipped through Hamburg’s port. Near the end of November Ecodefence and the German anti-nuclear group Kein Atommull of Ahaus stages large protests. Some 160 other organizations from around the world took part in signing an appeal to the German government demanding that they refuse to ship the waste to Russia.

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