The ministry has covered up or denied catastrophic accidents; the Urals reprocessing plant Mayak — which offered a rehearsal for the 1986 Chernobyl disaster by blowing up in 1957 — dumps nuclear waste in an open pit that used to be a lake; hundreds of rusting nuclear submarines, awaiting decommissioning, bob with the tide at dockside for months and years, still loaded with their nuclear fuel; the navy, often unable to pay for the electricity that keeps these subs afloat, faces an almost monthly nightmare that they will sink if the power is switched off; security at fissile materials storage sites has allowed dozens of kilograms of radioactive material to go missing without a trace; and whistleblowers like journalist Grigory Pasko and Bellona’s Aleksandr Nikitin are persecuted and jailed for exposing Russia’s nuclear waste disposal practices.
To top it off, Minatom is financing what is says is a civilian nuclear program in Iran that US officials — and even one Russian scientist on the project — have said is a cover-up for a nuclear weapons program in that country.
The public face of Minatom, characterized by cloak and dagger secrecy, was not earned without reason, and it was fitting that it took Chernobyl — the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, which was denied by authorities for weeks — to shed a garish glow on a history of other disasters and near disasters that have plagued the industry, and the country at large, since Stalin’s secret "Sredmash," the Soviet-era code word for Minatom, first began operation.
A kinder, gentler Minatom?
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Minatom has changed its name from its secret designation, and it is even possible to find out bits of information about its doings. The past decade has seen the installation of a press office, and in that press office there is often someone who will answer reporters’ calls — though on some issues you may be asked to wait as long as 45 days for comment.
Minatom also has a sharply designed web site (www.minatom.ru) that displays press centre announcements about once every four days and posts abstracts of articles about nuclear issues in Russia — though accessing any but the press office postings requires a Minatom-supplied password and a subscription that costs $1,000 a year — the atomic age meets credit card web-based commerce.
Minatom’s Director for Information Policy, Nikolai Shingarev, who spoke at last week’s "Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Management 2002: New Russian Initiatives" conference in Moscow, said his ministry has a long way to go before winning the hearts of the public over what Minatom says are the low risks associated with atomic power in general, and the import to Russia for long-term storage and eventual reprocessing of foreign spent nuclear fuel (SNF), in specific.
He candidly displayed statistics, based on polls commissioned by his ministry, which showed the hard-core unpopularity of Minatom’s SNF import plans with the Russian public.
"We are opening our doors," said Shingarev citing the number of ways — including the paid website and planned informational pamphlets — that the public can avail itself of atomic information.
"Because of that," Shingarev added in his presentation at the conference, "we hope the public will see that atomic energy is safe."
Environmentalists say that Minatom only wants the public to know so much, and that the battle for public trust was lost long ago. Changing minds is no easy undertaking for a government ministry that has for the past five decades, and counting, been complicit in covering up and feeding some of the most egregious health, environmental and security threats the world has ever known.
Ever since Minatom began operations in the late 1940s for the purposes of developing a Soviet nuclear arsenal, it has enjoyed almost unchecked powers. But recently Minatom has become so unmoored from the government it serves that many Duma and Kremlin officials have considered plans for splitting up the Ministry to diminish some of its muscle.
In July, a blueprint for the split-up of the ministry — drafted by unknown authors whose anonymity has been closely guarded — was presented to President Vladimir Putin by lawmaker Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the liberal Yabloko party. According to Yabloko Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, Putin was "worried" about the direction Minatom was taking. It is still unclear whether the break-up will occur. No action has yet been taken, but Mitrokhin has said that Putin recently convened a group of experts to discuss the possibility.
Minatom admits SNF unpopular
Though rumours of Minatom’s dismantlement were not discussed at the conference, Shingarev, in his presentation, was open about the public’s negative image of the ministry’s SNF import and reprocessing plans. Citing a poll conducted for Minatom, he said some 90 percent of the country was opposed to the imports, which are now beginning to trickle in from Eastern European customers.
It was a familiar figure: Two years ago, while the Duma was debating three bills that eventually legalized radioactive imports to Russia, a poll showed even then that 90 percent of the population was against the legislative package. It was later revealed that Duma approval had been largely bought with political favours, and in some cases even bribes, by the aggressively lobbying former Minatom chief Yevgeny Adamov.
Simultaneously, a nation-wide petition drive to force the import question to a national referendum was scuttled by the Central Election Commission, or CEC. Environmentalists across the country collected over 2.5 million signatures — more than the required 2 million in 60 regions of the Russian Federation. But 600,000 of these signatures were disqualified by the CEC for such things as "incorrect" street abbreviations.
And in May, a similar regional referendum attempt was thrown out by the Regional Court in Krasnoyarsk, which will receive the lion’s share of foreign SNF for storage at the as-yet incomplete RT-2 storage facility in the closed nuclear city of Zheleznogorsk. The court passed the decision back to Moscow, saying the disposition of SNF was a federal issue.
Does the public have a voice?
Given such an accrual of events, the Russians — with their overwhelming opposition to SNF imports — have by now likely concluded that their opinion doesn’t matter a toss to Minatom.
Indeed, it may not.
"I don’t think it’s the people’s business to decide technical problems. Technical problems are decided in all countries in an established order. It’s unreasonable to decide such things with a referendum," said Shingarev during the spent fuel conference in an interview with Bellona web.
"Democracy, of course, is a good thing — the people must decide many questions, but not technological questions. Practice has shown that they are emotional and thus wrong," he said. Shingarev cited a case in Armenia where completing the construction of an atomic power station was voted down. But when severe power and heat shortages became apparent, construction was reinstated and the plant was opened.
"You ask someone on referendum if he wants waste and he will say no I don’t want it,’" Shingarev added. "Or you ask him do you want your children to work, or do you want a normal salary at the cost of imported fuel and improvements in the environment’ and he’ll say yes, I want that.’"
It is Shingarev’s job to sugar-coat the seemingly technocratic approach espoused by his ministry, and his statement above provides a good example of that. He also said he hopes that Minatom’s newly-stated policy of providing more public information will help the public see the "real" picture behind SNF imports and nuclear power in general.
But often, he indicated, the atomic lobby is simply out-gunned in the media by the green faction.
"Of course, it would be desirable if there were published more real information about what atomic energy is because if you take any news agency getting daily information from Greenpeace or Ecodefence!, these agencies get information from Minatom, in the best circumstances, once a week, although we have a lot of news," he said.
"A policy of more frequently distributing news is a policy we need to introduce and develop."
Minatom’s statements anger environmentalists
Shingarev’s words concerning the voting public’s inability to comprehend technical issues ignited the ire of many local and international environmentalists and journalists. Foremost among their complaints was the near blockade of important information about the ministry’s doings and the useless bones that are occasionally tossed to mollify them.
"With that kind of approach that assumes the masses are ignorant you can’t arrange any kind of referendum, because some person who says I am a specialist, and I know better than other people’ will always appear," Ecodefence! co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak told Bellona web.
"If you espouse the kind of system Shingarev is espousing, it’s not even up to the politicians to decide. You’ll have a situation where the government isn’t needed and the president isn’t needed because Minatom knows best. Nobody has the right to decide anything but the experts at Minatom," he added wryly.
Slivyak said that by skirting referendums in areas that would be affected by SNF imports, Minatom is attempting to staunch criticism and defend the carte blanche under which it operates.
"That’s certainly the case with any industry," said Slivyak. "But you have to recall that in a democratic country, industry exists for people, and not the other way around. If these people, I mean Minatom, serve the country, as they say they do, then they must listen to the people and their opinions, because Russia is not created to fulfil the wishes of Minatom."
Last year, many of these people took a poll, and unlike the simple question of supporting or not supporting the import of SNF, there were more complicated questions dealing with reprocessing. Again, said Slivyak, the figures were near 10 percent for, 90 percent against.
"The people are much smarter and more knowledgeable about the nuclear industry than Minatom gives them credit for," he said.
Slivyak, who runs the environmental news web site www.antiatom.ru, added that he doubted that any "real" information, as was described by Shingarev, would be forthcoming from the ministry, especially at the ministry web site’s prohibitive subscription costs.
Bellona’s Aleksandr Nikitin, who also runs St Petersburg’s ECR ecological rights group, said that some technological questions are best left to the experts. Complicated fuel cycle issues would certainly not be put to a vote. But he said it was crucial not to confuse a genuine technical question with a technical question whose results "will effect the environment and the lives of millions."
Nikitin agreed with Slivyak — though in stronger terms — saying: "This Shingarev, who is paid by Minatom to conduct its PR — we don’t believe him any longer. The PR hot air at Minatom is dedicated to making money and to the manufacture of nuclear weapons and to the development of dangerous nuclear technology and to keeping secrets."
"How else is one to interpret that access to the most important information on the Minatom web site costs $1000?" said Nikitin.
"Yes there is a web site, but it is devoted, by its subscription fee, to keeping secrets."
An American consultant to the US Department of Energy (DOE) and Russian national labs agreed in theory with Shingarev that not all questions can be decided by referendum, but he added that Minatom is doing nothing to inform the public of the benefits that SNF imports could reap. He said the best possible PR move for Minatom would be to spread around some of its money and take care of nuclear cities.
"The public should be informed absolutely, which Minatom is not doing: To me, if they want good PR, they should quit keeping the money in Moscow," said the consultant.
"People in America who live around nuclear facilities live very prosperously and they are very pro-nuclear because they are very well informed. There is a risk involved, but hey look,’ say the people who live there, we have good jobs.’ But this isn’t happening here in Russia."
At present, the consultant said, the government, in the guise of Minatom, will scuttle referendum attempts because they don’t want to give the people an opportunity to vote no’.
"They should send the money to Zheleznogorsk and Ozersk, and I tell you, any referendum would bring a resounding yes, because so many jobs would be created that would create prosperity," said the consultant.
"But for now, those people in Zheleznogorsk and Ozersk are living in misery while Minatom chiefs in Moscow ride around in chauffeur driven foreign cars. What sort of PR is that?"
"They work in the shadows," said Bellona’s Nikitin. "We don’t believe Minatom, which has brought this country so much misery — Minatom means atomic weapons, it means atomic tests, it means the arrest of innocent people who expose its doings, it means a history that has led to catastrophe after catastrophe, and so on and so on, and they reserve the right to say what is safe and what is not safe? It’s ludicrous."