Chelyabinsk environmentalists vs Russian government

Publish date: February 27, 2002

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Radioactive waste illegally stored at the Mayak plant in the southern Ural for four years will be sent back home to Hungary.

The Supreme Court satisfied a complaint filed by environmentalists from Chelyabinsk on February 26th. They contested a governmental decree, issued in 1998, which allowed as an exception storing in Russia spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from the Hungarian Paks nuclear power plant.

The legislation, which was in force at the time this governmental decree, N1483-r, was published, prohibited imports of nuclear materials for storage in Russia. Radwaste, remaining after spent fuel reprocessing, were to be returned to the country of origin. The new Law On Environmental Protection, signed by President Putin in January 2002, though allowing imports of spent nuclear fuel, declares the “priority [for Russia] of the right to return the radioactive waste, generated after the reprocessing [of SNF] into the country of its origin.”

But, in spite of these legal regulations, several shipments from Hungary to the Mayak plant took place in 1998 and 1999. Later, the Balkan crisis complicated the route of the trains with nuclear materials, and the shipments were halted. Nowadays all the waste, produced during the reprocessing of the Paks NPP originated spent fuel, are stored at the Mayak. According to the yesterday’s verdict of the Supreme Court, this waste should be sent from Mayak back to Hungary.

Movement for Nuclear Safety
The complaint was initiated by the envirogroups from Chelyabinsk-based organisations — The Movement for Nuclear Safety and Pravosoznaniye (The Sense of Justice), Natalia Mironova and Andrey Talevlin. Greenpeace-Russia also supported the complaint. “The Court’s decision will undoubtedly improve the environmental situation in Chelyabinsk County, when thousands of cubic meters of high-radioactive waste will be brought to Hungary,” Natalia Mironova said.

She told Bellona Web about the course of the trial. The representatives of the government showed evident disrespect to the Court: the first session was postponed, because they could not say for sure, whether the environmental evaluation had taken place, before the documents were put on the Prime Minister’s desk. At the second session, on February 26th, they did not show up. There was only a letter from the government, ignoring the question about the enviro-evaluation, but casting doubt on the need of this very procedure, required by the Federal Law.

Consequently, the case was considered in the defendants’ absence. The prosecutor supported the plaintiffs and said that the decree N1483 was in violation all the preceding and present legislation.

As a result, the Supreme Court admitted that the government violated constitutional rights of the Chelyabinsk County inhabitants — the right for favourable environment and reliable information about it, the right for health protection.

Soviet nuclear inheritance
The representatives of the Russian government said, while preparing the decree, they followed the agreement between the USSR and the People’s Republic of Hungary. The agreement regulated participation of Soviet specialists at building of the Paks NPP, operating on four units with VVER-440/213 type reactors. It also stipulated Russia’s obligations to conduct repairs of the nuclear plant.

“But this agreement did not require Russia to store on its territory the radwaste, generated during reprocessing of the spent fuel, generated at this nuclear plant,” Andrey Talevlin commented earlier for Bellona Web the document of the Soviet past.

The situation with the radioactive contamination at Mayak and the neighbouring territories is very difficult. Vast areas in Chelyabinsk County, nearly 168,000 hectares, are contaminated with radionuclides.

Greenpeace Russia says, referring to the Chelyabinsk county oncological centre, the cancer sickness rate is growing the county. In 1950 there were 45 persons ill per 100,000, in the year 1960 this figure was 120, in 1970 there were 197, in 1980 already 243 were ill. In the year 1990 this figure was 294, and in 2000 the total of the ill persons amounted to 360 per 100,000. Thus every year more than 13,000 of the Chelyabinsk county inhabitants fell cancer-ill, and 8,000 of them die.

Storing the radioactive waste at the territory of Chelyabinsk County aggravates the damage, brought to the environment by Mayak, and violates human rights of the people, living there, the activists say.

The trial against Mayak
The governmental decree N1483-r has never been published. The environmentalists learned the very fact of its existence accidentally during the legal proceedings against the Mayak combine. In this trial, started in May 2001, they demand that Mayak must stop dumping of liquid radioactive wastes into the Karachay Lake and other ponds.

This trial will be continued, basing on the yesterday’s decision of the Supreme Court and other complaints, the Chelyabinsk environmentalists are going to lodge.

“We’ll keep on placing the nuclear industry into the legal field’s borders,” Natalia Mironova promised.