Duma to eliminate nuclear safety watchdog

Publish date: November 24, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy lobbies amendments that may throw nuclear safety control back to pre-Chernobyl era. Russian envirogroups call upon president Putin to interfere.

The State Duma, lower house of the Russian parliament, will soon consider a bill calling to amend the Law on Application of Atomic Energy. The bill suggests transfer of licensing functions from the ‘regulatory agencies’ to the ‘managing agencies’. In other words, the right to licence civilian nuclear related activities will be passed over from the Russian State Nuclear Regulatory (GAN) to the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy (Minatom), should the bill be voted for. The only GAN’s allies seem be environmental NGOs.

Russia’s nuclear watchdog short history may end

The understanding for the need of an independent nuclear state regulatory came after the Chernobyl disaster. But the practical steps were made only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. GAN was established in 1992 as a federal agency and direct subject to the President of the Russian Federation. The regulatory functions before 1992 were in the hands of Minatom, one of the most powerful ministries in the former Soviet Union.

But the newly born agency was too weak to fight such administrative monsters such as, for example, the Defence Ministry. In September 1993, GAN was stripped of its responsibility to regulate the nuclear component of the Russian Navy. The GAN’s rivals in the Defence Ministry’s nuclear safety inspection managed to persuade the President that the civilian intrusion into the submarine bases could lead to unwelcome transparency. This in turn would make it difficult to protect the state secrets. The real reason, however, is believed to be the desire of the military nuclear safety inspectors to hold their high ranks. The split of the responsibility between the two state agencies could downgrade the status of one of them.

In practice it has led to that the defence installations are still beyond the scope of the federal legislation. The Law on Application of Atomic Energy from October 1995 regulates only the civilian part of it. The defence installations, stands in the Law, are regulated by other legislation. The ‘other legislation’ has not been developed until today.

The need for guarding the state secrets, as the officials put it, led to the practice of stamping GAN’s annual reports ‘for internal use only’ beginning from 1996.

In 1995-1996, each entity, except for the military, which had radioactive substances in use, was obliged to obtain licence from GAN to operate. This resulted in heavy quarrels between GAN and Minatom over several controversial nuclear sites.

In 1997, GAN suspended reprocessing licence for Mayak plant in Chelyabinsk county. The reprocessing did not halt, however, as Minatom managed to lobby through lifting of the ban. In 1999, GAN refused to licence operation of two ancient plutonium-producing reactors in Seversk (former Tomsk-7). The reactors were not shut down either. They in fact still operate without approval of the state nuclear safety watchdog.

Beginning from June 2000, GAN has no authority to issue licenses for these reactors. The Russian government bowed to Minatom’s pressure and issued a decree on June 20th 2000. The decree transferred the right to licence military related nuclear activities to Minatom. Besides Seversk reactors, the decree resolved another controversial dispute between the two agencies in Minatom’s favour. In spring 2000, GAN withdrew licence for manufacturing of spent fuel transport and storage casks at Izhora plant in Leningrad county. The project was an international effort and involved international funding. From the Russian side the project was managed by the Defence Ministry and Nuklid, an obscure Minatom’s establishment based in St Petersburg. GAN said that the containers had design faults and did not meet safety requirements. But the governmental decree removed the GAN-roadblock factor. Izhora plant is now working on serial production of the containers.

Nuclear safety setback

But Minatom would not stop fighting GAN down to its knees. A new amendment authored by Robert Nigmatulin, Duma member and brother of deputy nuclear minister, Bulat Nigmatulin, suggests transfer of all the licensing procedures from GAN to Minatom. That will strip GAN of all the influence on the nuclear agency and turn the nuclear regulation back to the pre-Chernobyl era. The amendment is being discussed in Duma committees and can be put for a vote shortly. Experts believe that the chances for the amendment bill not to pass the vote ‘approximate zero’.

In an interview with Russian daily Segodnya, Yury Vishnevsky, head of GAN, outlined the reasons for Minatom’s crusade against nuclear safety watchdog. Vishnevsky bitterly attacked the plans put forward by nuclear minister, Yevgeny Adamov, to increase output of nuclear power in order to produce ‘cheap’ electricity and to import foreign spent nuclear fuel into Russia ‘to solve environmental’ issues. “Do not believe a single word Adamov says,” Mr Vishnevsky said.

Mr Vishnevsky went on to compare the 50-year nuclear development plan presented by Adamov this year with decisions of Politburo in the old Soviet times. Nobody can foresee in such detail what happens in 50 years, the whole plan is a bluff, said Vishnevsky.

Adamov tries to make Minatom look like a super department, but has nothing to give these attempts a substance. The nuclear power stations operate mainly on first-generation reactors. Beginning in 2002, 12 reactors (out of 29) are scheduled for decommissioning, while no funds are available to build new reactors. Each new reactor unit costs around one billion USD, therefore many countries including Russia are working on to prolong their life time. The trouble with Adamov’s approach is that he wants to spend $70-$90 per kilowatt of energy produced on upgrade, while GAN believes that $200-$300 are required to ensure that nuclear power plants operate safely beyond the original design limits.

Mr Vishnevsky also criticised other projects promoted by the nuclear agency such as import of foreign spent nuclear fuel, saying the money earned will be “eaten by Minatom or stolen”. Minatom keeps saying that imported nuclear fuel (20,000 tons) is a resource after it has been reprocessed, enough to burn in nuclear reactors for 10-20 years. But Mr Vishnevsky replied to that argument that “the scales are wrong” when the risk of endangering the population of the whole country with discharge of radioactive waste from reprocessing plants is envolved.

The strong wording of Vishnevsky’s statements serves as a proof of the feud between the two agencies. Minatom has long been acting as a commercial enterprise rather than a state agency. The fight that Minatom seems to be winning will be profitable for the agency business-wise, while the nuclear safety will cease to be a forced priority and thus will be largely neglected.

Envirogroups appeal in support of independent watchdog

The most prominent environmental groups in Russia called upon the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Russian government Friday not to strip GAN of the licensing functions. The appeal says that such a step would drive the nuclear safety control back to the pre-Chernobyl time.

“GAN was deprived of the responsibility to control Navy’s nuclear installation in 1995. It hampered the on-going international co-operation to secure naval radwaste,” says the appeal. “We call on you not to reduce the functions of the independent nuclear regulatory further.”

But the NGO’s seem to be the only ally of GAN in this fight in Russia and too weak compared to resources Minatom has.