Mystery Proposal Could Subjugate Minatom to Three Government Bodies

Publish date: July 30, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering a document delivered to him by Yabloko Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, outlining a plan that would subjugate the monolithic Nuclear Power Ministry, or Minatom, to three government bodies, stripping away the Stalinesque opacity that helped drive the arms race and continues to shroud its civilian pursuits in secrecy.

Lawmakers say report had president’s ‘full attention’

The document — whose authorship officially remains a mystery — was delivered to Putin on July 10 and deals in its opening with an analysis of Russia’s looming programme to import, store and reprocess foreign radioactive waste. It contained suggestions that last year’s legislation allowing these waste imports be amended to require the return of reprocessed waste to its country of origin, something the current laws do not regulate.

But within the document, a copy of which was shown to Bellona Web, was a long addendum to the president listing sweeping reforms for Minatom — so sweeping in fact, that Minatom itself would cease to exist and become little more than a small government bureaucracy.

Among the suggestions were that Russia’s nuclear energy monopoly Rosenergoatom — which owns Russia’s 10 nuclear power plants — be handed over to the Ministry of Energy; that Minatom’s nuclear military industrial complex be given away to the Defence Ministry; and that Minatom’s fuel cycle study laboratories be designated as a separate structure entirely and put under the supervision of the Ministry for Industry, Science and Technology.

According to the Kremlin press office, the report has been given to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Putin’s chief of staff Alexander Voloshin has been handed the mandate of assembling experts for an official meeting on the topic. The Kremlin spokesman also said that Minatom has received notice of the proposal and has until August 1 to reply.

"This proposal is obviously being taken very seriously," said the Kremlin spokesman. But the spokesman could only hint at who authored the text.

"Ecologists, perhaps, Duma deputies interested in that sort of thing — I will say no more," he said with a trace of bitterness.

The authors of the report, who are known to Bellona Web but who requested strict anonymity, described Minatom in the report as "an archaic administration that has undergone no reform in many years and is not capable of dealing with contemporary conditions."

"As a result of this, it hatched new and complicated projects that turn out to be calamities for the country," the report continued.

A source close to the authors said the report was delivered to Putin personally by Yavlinsky during a July 10 meeting between the two.

Yabloko Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, who has seen the report, said in an interview with Bellona Web Tuesday that his party, one of the few liberal factions in the Duma, "had followed all of the proposals as they were being drawn up and we fully support the document."

He said that the suggestions were getting "the president’s full attention" and that during a recent meeting with Duma faction leaders, Putin had said that recent actions of Minatom were "troubling" him.

"I think, therefore, we could be seeing some changes in the very near future," Mitrokhin said.

It is too early to say what the break-up of Minatom would mean. Press spokesmen for the Defence Ministry, the Ministry for Industry, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Energy all said this was the first they had heard of the plan.

The Defence Ministry spokesman even expressed alarm.

"Dismantling Minatom means accounting for weapons-grade plutonium and uranium and turning it over to the Defence Ministry," he said. "But I sincerely doubt Minatom has even half of that material accounted for yet."

Nikolai Shingarev, head of Minatom’s board for relations with government agencies and information policy, was also caught unawares by the news, but said that the policy changes relayed to him by Bellona Web were "impossible."

"There are two big problems that only Minatom can take care of and those are ecology and nuclear security," he said. "With Minatom divided across several agencies, these problems will never be solved."

He would comment no further on the report itself because he had not seen it, but he did note that Minatom’s brass had received the requests promised by the Kremlin for a response to the report’s conclusions.

Mitrokhin said, however, that the changes cannot take place with the speed of a "coup."

"This can’t be handled abruptly like a U-turn," said Mitrokhin. "Russia is a nuclear power and Minatom has been responsible for all branches of that. Gradual changes will proceed with that in mind."

But Mitrokhin agreed that, since its inception, Minatom has been accountable to effectively no government agency, running a virtual country of closed nuclear cites across Russia for weapons development and fuel cycle experiments.

Then, last year, Minatom began leading a charge to abandon legislation prohibiting the import of radioactive waste to Russia, saying waste storage and reprocessing fees could net Russia $20 billion over the next ten years. The plan would add another 20,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) to the 10,000 tonnes that Russia has already accumulated by itself.

The plan was a flop with Russian citizens, who organized a petition drive and raised 2.5 million signatures, 500,000 more than were needed to force the import question to a national referendum. But the federal Central Election Commission cast aside 800,000 of those signatures on "technical" reasons, some as petty as "incorrect" street abbreviations listed by petition signatories.

At the same time, then Nuclear Minister Yevgeny Adamov was coddling the Duma with so much cushy eleventh hour lobbying that claims surfaced later that many deputies had been bribed to pass the legislation.

Adamov’s successor, Alexander Rumyantsev, is pursuing the import programme with as much zeal as his predecessor, but — as was shown at a recent press conference, where the minister continually bumbled figures and referred to import customers Minatom does not have — he is just as inclined to cloaking Minatom’s real plans from the public as the ministry’s Stalin-era founders were.

"This is the kind of thing that comes up in any conversation about Minatom," said Mitrokhin. "This is something that has to change."