Supreme Court Blocks Hungarian Radwaste

Publish date: May 21, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

In landmark decision for environmentalists, the Russian Supreme Court today upheld its 1998 decree ruling blocking a 377-tonne-shipment of Hungarian spent nuclear fuel which had been granted passage into the country by a governmental decree, and paving the way for possible legal action against Russia's Nuclear Energy Ministry, Minatom.

The decision represented an upset for Minatom, who arranged the import deal. When the original shipment was stopped, the federal government intervened with an appeal on Minatom’s behalf, and in recent weeks, Minatom representatives had been predicting victory.

When then Russian PM signed the decree on Oct. 1998 — which predated Russia’s 2001 legislation that legalized the import of radioactive waste — it provided for the importation and reprocessing of 400 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary to the Mayak reprocessing facility near the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.

Alarm was raised when the first 23 tonnes of SNF arrived at Mayak and a number of Chelyabinsk environmental groups, as well as “Greenpeace,” stopped the remainder of the shipment with a suit in the Supreme Court. The federal government, however, intervened with an appeal.

Appearing this Tuesday for the federal government were attorneys, Olga Chernikova and Yevgeny Drozhko, whose principle line of argument concerned the standing of Natalya Mironova of Chelyabinsk’s Movement for Nuclear Safety to argue on behalf of the health of the entire 1.5 million citizens of the Chelyabinsk region.

But after less than 20 minutes of deliberation this Tuesday, Supreme Court Judge Alexander Fedin returned with a verdict upholding the court’s earlier ruling.

Chernikova and Drozhko hurriedly left the courtroom after the verdict was read, commenting only that the government would appeal the case in the presidium of the Supreme Court.

Yabloko Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin — whose party has long campaigned against the imports of SNF — applauded the decision and said in an interview with Bellona Web that the case was important “mainly because it shows citizens can, even thought Russia’s legal system, overcome the obstacles Minatom places in the way of the environmental movement.”

“The court’s verdict was correct and it sets a precedent for future cases, where perhaps some of Minatom’s shadier dealings can be dealt with,” he said.

Although Hungary has already refused to take back the waste, generated during reprocessing of 23 tonnes of SNF, supporters of the Chelyabinsk plaintiffs applauded jubilantly as the verdict was read and characterized it in interviews as an unprecedented victory in the fight to keep radioactive imports out of a country they say can barely manage to handle its own catastrophic pile-up.

The plaintiffs also said the verdict emboldened Russia’s ecological lobby, which is still smarting from the dubious passage of last year’s legislation allowing radioactive waste imports, as well as the apparent scuttling by the government of a nation-wide referendum that would likely have killed the import initiative.

“We have demonstrated the possibility of the influence of society on the forging of the nuclear policy of Russia,” said Natalya Mironova of Chelyabinsk’s Movement for Nuclear Safety after the verdict was announced.

“The global weakness of Russia at the moment poses a real threat that the dirtiest technology… will be dumped on Russia, and Minatom is aiding and abetting this process. Minatom is standing against Russia’s national interests.”

Indeed, following the verdict, Mironova’s lawyer, Andrei Talevlin said he intended to approach the office of the Prosecutor General and demand an investigation of Minatom’s part in the deal with the Paks plant.

“The government position was weak and this was an easy case to win because it involved a clear violation of the law — the actions of Minatom fell well outside of the field of legal play and we will hear about it in court,” said Talevlin.

“Those who made this decision [to broker the import deal] broke criminal laws.”

Talevlin added that the Prosecutor General will likely take up the case without his intervention.

“An odious practice exists in the way spent nuclear fuel is dealt with,” he said.

Minatom — whose opacity, Soviet truculence and almost complete lack of oversight from other government bodies — is being ever more criticized in the western press and environmental lobbies as a Cold War relic in the run-up to this week’s summit between presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin.

“We greet today’s decision, but we consider it an exception to the usual practices of the Russian judicial system,” said Vladimir Chuprov, of “Greenpeice,” one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“Minatom conducts itself like a state within a state — it could care less about the wishes of the citizens and even less for legislation. The verdict may set a good precedent, but history tells a different story,” he said in an interview with Bellona Web.

But Minatom officials Tuesday had little to say about either the verdict or the threats of legal action from the environmental community.

“The decision of the court has been handed down, and we will fulfil it,” said assistant to Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister, Nikolai Shingaryov, in a telephone interview with Bellona Web Tuesday. “As for legal action, well, the governmental decree issued in 1998 is about as legal as you can hope for.”