Russian prime minister allows to violate Water Code

Publish date: November 8, 2001

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Tomsk Chemical Combine will continue dumping liquid radioactive waste underground, increasing at the same time its export.

In late October, Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed a decree, granting the Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises (SGCE, also known as Siberian Chemical Combine) right for dumping liquid radioactive waste in water-bearing horizons at its sites 18 and 18a.

This governmental decree no.1392-p dated 23.10.2001 makes a reference to a proposal made by the Ministry for Natural Resources, submitted to the approval of Tomsk county administration.

On July 19th, 2001, the Russian Nuclear State Regulatory granted SGCE a license for this environmentally dubious activity. Representatives of the Tomsk Environmental Law Centre already have lodged a complaint, demanding repeal of the licence. The claimant says, the large-scale dumping in the underground water-bearing horizons of between 280 to 400 meters deep, contradicts with the Russian legislation.

"But the legal foot-dragging generally exceeds period of validity of the licence in question," Konstantin Lebedev, a representative of the Environmental Law Centre says.

Legal foot-dragging
Before July 19th, 2001, SGCE did not have a Nuclear State Regulatory licence for underground dumping of liquid radioactive waste and based its activity on a licence for ‘using the natural resources’. Validity of that licence expired in March 2001.

Since 1996 the lawyers of the Environmental Law Centre had been trying to prove that the licence does not stipulate the liquid radioactive waste dumping. At the end of 1998, the case was heard at the Tomsk county court and then appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1999, the Tomsk county court again refused to fulfil the requirements of the environmentalists, and in March, 2000, the panel of judges of the Supreme Court sent the case back for a new trial.

Complaint by the Tomsk environmentalists
The complaint, composed by the Ecological Law Centre, mentions that Article 104 of the Russian Water Code bans dumping and disposal of radioactive and toxic substances into water bodies. The Water Code clarifies that the underground water bodies comprise water-bearing horizons and groundwater basins.

Moreover, Article 54, part 3 of the Law “On Environmental Protection” also prohibits dumping activities of the combine.

The State Committee for Environmental Protection of the Tomsk county has many times officially mentioned the dangerous character of SGCE activities: "A considerable risk is represented by the large-scale underground dumping of liquid radioactive waste. The total activity of the waste exceeds 37bn GBq. Dumping into water bearing horizons at between 280 to 400 meters deep, has been carried out for 30 years. The fissile materials are absorbed by sandy-argillaceous rocks, and accumulated in the wellheads. Water being used as moderator of neutrons, critical mass, sufficient for self-sustaining chain reaction, may be accumulated."

Gorgievka inhabitants vs. SGCE
Ceasing to dump liquid radioactive waste into underground geological formations was one of the demands at the trial of Georgievka inhabitants against SGCE.

Georgievka, situated in Tomsk county, western Siberia, suffered from the accident at a SGCE plant on April 6th 1993, which caused radioactive contamination of the area. During the court hearings 14 of the 26 claimants died. In the writ, the claimants said the radiation release of April 6th 1993 did not have the most significant impact on the radioactive and chemical contamination of the area. The accident only partly lifted the veil of secrecy, surrounding the SGCE activities.

The court rejected the demand for ceasing of liquid radioactive waste dumping, referring to opinion of the experts committee of, saying the environmental impact is permissible. The experts said, the underground depositories may be used till 2015, and the waste buried doesn’t influence upon the environment beyond the determined bounds.The court ascertained that liquid waste dumping has been carried out by SGCE since 1963.

Inadequate position
The papers which ground the prolongation of the operation terms of the liquid waste underground repositories provide different hypothetical situations. One of them is drilling in the reservoir bed containing the waste, during a boring operation. It is written in the paper: "such situation would have the most significant consequences, but its probability is rather low and can not be calculated, because it is based on an assumption concerning inadequate behaviour of people (e.g. mass insanity)."

In March 2001, during a discussion on the future dangerous activities of SGCE, Konstantin Lebedev said he hoped that the behaviour of people would be adequate while deciding on the question of liquid waste dumping, at least they should follow environmental laws.

The government seems to have its own approach to the question.

Siberian Chemical Combine – history
The Siberian Chemical Combine site was the next nuclear materials production reactor and reprocessing site built in the former Soviet Union after the Mayak reprocessing plant. The site construction began in 1948 at a location 25 km north-northwest of the city of Tomsk (about 500,000 population) on the Tom River. Tomsk city is located now 10km to 12km from the main production facility of SGCE in Seversk (Tomsk-7). The world’s largest discharges of radioactive wastes to the environment have occurred here – the combination of underground injections and discharges to surface waters.

The two remaining plutonium-producing reactors ADE-4 and ADE-6 in operation provide 350 MW of electricity and 600 Gcal/hr of heat. This meets the needs for the Combine, the associated city of Seversk, and 40% of Tomsk. In consent with intergovernmental agreement between Russian and the United States, these two reactors were to be converted by 2000 thus halting the production of plutonium. But the deadline was overridden and now the date is said to be December 31st, 2005.

Other major facilities are the uranium-enrichment plant (closed in 1990), isotope separation plant, sublimate, radiochemical, and metallurgical plants, research and design institutes.

During the 50 years that the Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises has been in operation, the production of weapons grade plutonium and the enrichment of uranium have resulted in large amounts of radioactive waste. Solid and liquid waste are either stored or placed into permanent repositories at various sites within the enclosed areas of the Combine. There are 50 different storage areas within the borders of SGCE that receive solid and liquid waste generated by the plant’s activities. The two forms of waste together have a total activity of 4,6m TBq (125 MCi).

There have been about 30 accidents during the Combine’s 50-year history, four of them were rated third level of the International Atomic Energy Agency scale. The last major accident happened on June 14th 1999, when an operator’s fault caused contamination of the plant, and two workers were exposed to a radiation dose exceeding the annual radiation tolerance three times.

SGCE increases export
The main source of income for SGCE has been export of enriched uranium hexafluoride. During the eight years passed, Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises has pushed up its export ten times.

The Combine’s export comprises also natural uranium hexafluoride, enriched uranium metal, anhydrous hydrogen fluoride, stable isotopes, lithium and high-energy magnets.

SGCE maintains relations with 21 countries, including UK, Germany, France, Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Chile etc. Export to the US is carried out on the basis of the HEU-LEU contract (high enriched uranium – low enriched uranium).

In 2001, the Combine won a tender, held by KNHP (South Korea), making two contracts for uranium hexafluoride supplies for South Korean nuclear power plants.

In the second half of the year 2002, Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises plans international ISO-9001 certification of its quality control.

… and keeps on radiation releases
The direct releases to the Tom River from the combine, and possibly from migration from reservoirs and natural ponds lead to the higher levels of radioactivity in the Kara Sea in Arctic.

In November, 2000 scientists from organisation Siberian Scientists for Global Responsibility and the US watchdog, the Government Accountability Project, charged that the degree of radioactive contamination measured in the Tom and the Romashka Rivers is the highest in the world. Caesium and strontium-90 vastly exceeding safety levels were found in the rivers. The scientists registered phosphorus-32, which decays within a couple of weeks, meaning that the discharge was of very recent origin. Fish purchased in a Tomsk market had radiation levels 20 times higher than normal. The Combine admitted neptunium-239 releases, which lives only 2.35 days and after decay transfers into plutonium-239 with life-time of 24,119 years, meaning that plutonium has been accumulating in the river sediments all the decades the Combine has been in operation.

According to Environmental Law Centre information, under normal operation the Combine releases ten grams of plutonium into the atmosphere annually, whereas one millionth of a gram may cause serious diseases if consumed by humans. The soils and waters contain chemicals, and the level of beta-activity in the atmosphere is four to ten times higher than the natural level.

Currently, according to the SGCE data from the early November, 2001, radioactive releases of the Combine, amount to 0,1 – 0,3% of the maximum permissible release rate, prescribed by the Ministry for Natural Resources. In the same time, radionuclides of induced activity natrium-24, phosphorus-32 and neptunium-239 are registered in Combine’s manufacturing waters. The releases amount to 12, 45 and 5% of the Ministry for Natural Resources norms.