Russia stops construction of plutonium storage site

Publish date: April 13, 1998

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

The Russian Goskomekologia (State Committee on Environment) stopped the construction of the U.S. funded plutonium storage site in Mayak on April 10th due to violations of Russian environmental laws.

The storage site, which has been under construction for three years, is intended to be an interim storage facility for plutonium from nuclear warheads. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) under the Co-operative Threat Reduction program (CTR), and is one of the cornerstones of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts in Russia. So far, U.S. has provided $55 million to the construction, which will cost some $250 million. The first stage is expected to be completed by the end of 2000. The storage will hold 50 000 containers with plutonium from 12 500 nuclear warheads.

According to Goskomekologia the construction can continue after officials prepare new technical and environmental documents and receive a positive finding from the state committee on Environment. The construction work has been going on without first submitting to environmental checks, which are compulsory under Russian law. The ecological risk is leakage of radioactive elements into the ground water.

Yury Golovin, a consultant to Mayak, says in an interview with Moscow Times that they could performed this study in about a month, but due to the spotty financing from the Russian side, this has not been done. An ecological study conducted by researchers from Mayak would not have been legally valid. Russian law requires an impact survey from an independent body.

-This is the first time that the environmental authorities in Russia have used the power given to them by federal legislation in the right way, says Vladimir Sliviak of the environmental group Ecodefence.

-Mayak has always despised Russian law, it has always been a state within the state, says Natalia Mironova, the leader of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk, the main city near the Mayak plant. She accuses Mayak of keeping information from the government and the public. -They are condemning this population to an uncertain future, they keeps its ears and eyes shut, she says.

-To the extent that the Mayak project is aimed at preventing plutonium proliferation, it deserves support. However, it is an embarrassment if a U.S. -funded project cannot meet Russian environmental laws, says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington-based environmental group Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). He underline that it is essential that the dismantlement of nuclear warheads continue in both Russia and the U.S., and that the plutonium from these warheads must be stored as safely and securely as possible.

A U.S. General Accounting Office report noted last month that there have been problems assuring U.S. access to Mayak to monitor radioactive materials stored there.