GAN Chief ‘Retired’ Under Suspicious Circumstances

Publish date: July 4, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Yury Vishnevsky, who has been chief of Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency Gosatomnadzor, or GAN, for 11 years, retired earlier this week amid a swirl of rumours and suspicions that the marginalized nuclear watchdog will become even more irrelevant as the Ministry of Atomic Energy swoops in to take over GAN vacancies, officials close to GAN told Bellona Web.

Vishnevsky’s replacement, a former deputy minister at Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, Andrei Malyshev, 44, took over his new job on Wednesday, which began, according to sources who were present, with a very “uncomfortable” meeting between Malyshev and his new staff. Fears are high that GAN will be stripped of its licensing and regulatory power by the government, and returned to its pre-Chernobyl state, when it was nothing more than a nominal safety arm of Minatom.

Prior to Malyshev’s experience at Minatom, he was the head of the commercial Atomstroiproekt, which is responsible for Russia’s foreign nuclear power station construction and development—a position he held until 1997 before being tapped for his vice-ministerial position with Minatom. One of Malyshev’s first actions as GAN’s new boss was to grant a five-year license extension, through his first deputy, Alexander Gutsalov, for the Kola Nuclear Power Plant’s reactor unit No. 1, whose engineered life span ran out on June 29th.

The reactor type, a VVER 440/230, is considered among the most unreliable in the country. Anti-nuclear activists organised a mass mailing to Minatom and the Kola plant in the days before the licence was extended, reported.

In the official government document relieving Vishnevsky of his duties, it was stated that he would be stepping down because he had reached Russia’s legal retirement age of 60. The document—Russian Federation Decree No. 838—was signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on June 23rd, but, in a highly irregular fashion, officials said, it did not reach Vishnevsky until June 27th. The staff of GAN was not notified until Monday, June 30th.

A bill to raise Russia’s current retirement age to 65 is wending its way through the Russian Parliament, or State Duma, and has passed its first reading. According to Vishnevsky’s close associates at GAN, who requested they not be identified, Vishnevsky had no plans at all for retirement, and was counting on the passage of the Duma law to back him up legally—suggesting Vishnevsky’s retirement was timed to come before this bill became law.

“He was counting on another five years at GAN,” said one of Vishnevsky’s close colleagues.

Besides, it is often routine for government employees to remain in service long past the mandated retirement age. At Minatom, former chief of the international relations department, Mikhail Ryzhov, remained at his post until he was 68, as did First Deputy Atomic Minister Lev Ryabev.

Environmentally active State Duma Deputy and opposition Yabloko Party Member Sergei Mitrokhin said in a statement that “one of the most qualified regulators in the country’s nuclear complex has been sent into retirement. After his departure,” the statement continues, “there is not one specialist who [like Vishnevsky] has actually worked in a nuclear power plant, a fuel fabrication facility or other important radioactively dangerous institution, left among the nuclear echelons of the Russian government.”

What Malyshev Has Inherited
With Malyshev’s succession of Vishnevsky, much hangs in the balance, and government officials, nuclear experts and environmentalists have expressed concern in interviews this week that GAN’s new Minatom and Atomstroiproekt–bred chief may derail many important foreign and domestic nuclear safety efforts that were just gaining a foothold.

The most prominent of these programmes is the 2000 US-Russian weapons-grade plutonium disposition agreement, and several important regulatory exchanges between GAN, the US National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC. The programmes were just beginning to be cemented between senior Russian regulators, and were headed up by senior regulator of licensing and infrastructure Sam Thomas, from the US Department of Energy, or DOE, and Andrei Kislov, GAN’s chief of fuel cycles, or 3rd Directorate.

The 2000 agreement calls for the destruction in Russia and the US of 34 surplus tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium apiece. Originally the agreement stipulated that part of the plutonium be immobilised and the other burned in specially retrofitted commercial reactors as part of mixed plutonium and uranium oxides fuel, or MOX. Both the US and Russian programmes are to proceed in parallel. Environmental groups, like Bellona, have criticised MOX as a highly dangerous and expensive method—as opposed to immobilisation.

But the administration of US President George Bush decided this year to abandon immobilisation altogether in favour of an all-MOX plutonium disposition plan, which has meant huge regulatory headaches for the perpetually snubbed GAN, because it will now have to license everything from MOX fuel production facilities to the specially revamped VVER-1000 reactors that are slated to burn it.

The main agenda for Thomas and Kislov was to not only write regulatory statutes for the MOX programme, but to turn GAN, through the US-Russian exchanges, into a truly independent regulatory agency, said one anonymous Russian source connected to GAN and Minatom. But with Minatom-primed Malyshev running the regulatory agency, US and Russian nuclear experts have said the creation of such independence is highly unlikely.

“This is certainly a negative development because Minatom is essentially a promotional agency,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist for the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, and former president of the Nuclear Control Institute, in a telephone interview from Washington. “To remove any vestige of independence [from GAN] is a step backward.”

“We are all aware that Minatom has been trying to co-opt GAN and take away its regulatory authority for a long time,” Lyman added. “GAN started with a disadvantage—their prospects for regulatory control look dim. Now with Malyshev in charge, they look even dimmer.”

Novaya Gazeta, the feisty investigative Russian weekly, and one of a handful of independent papers left on the Russian media scene, was even more critical. “So now Vishnevsky’s position has been taken by the deputy minister of Minatom Andrei Malyshev. In other words, the realm of the ministry will now be controlled by this same ministry’s people,” the paper wrote.

Despite several calls, neither Malyshev nor Vishnevsky could be reached last week for comment on the situation.

Suspicious Circumstances Surrounding the Resignation r /> In his statement, Duma Deputy Mitrokhin indicated that Vishnevsky was retired while Putin was out of the country, suggesting that the regulator’s removal may have been intended to happen behind the president’s back. Putin has reportedly become more wary of Minatom’s powers and plans, and even considered, at one point last fall, a scheme that would have broken the ministry into three separate parts, with its functions transferred to other governmental agencies.

Other inside observers, however, have pointed out that Putin’s absence during Vishnevsky’s retirement could mean precisely the opposite—that the president was fully aware of the impending retirement of the GAN chief and was out of the country to distance himself from the speculation that the Kremlin was behind the staff change.

According to Novaya Gazeta, the document—Decree No. 838—was intentionally delayed for Kasyanov’s signature until Putin left the country. However, Decree No. 839, which confirmed Malyshev’s new position as GAN chief, was “given the green light” right away, the paper said.

According to Russian law, documents concerning the retirement of government officials are prepared by the president’s cabinet and then signed by Putin or Kasyanov. In the case of Vishnevsky, it remains unclear who forwarded the retirement documents to Kasyanov for his signature, but many observers at GAN say the documents must have come from Minatom chief Alexander Rumyantsev, who, as a member of Putin’s cabinet of ministers, would have had the opportunity—as well as the motivation—to do so.

This theory was also forwarded by Novaya Gazeta. According to the paper, Rumyantsev had, on several occasions, assured he would work within the cabinet to extend Vishnevsky’s term of service beyond age 60, especially with the imminent passage of the Duma law extending the pension age to 65. The paper even said that Rumyantsev informed Vishnevsky that Putin was ready to sign off on an extension of his service.

“Instead,” said one government insider, who asked not to be identified in any way, “Rumyantsev made sure Kasyanov got Vishnevsky’s retirement documents and signed them.”

Kislov said that “we can only guess at this point” about who forwarded the documents to Kasyanov.

Both Minatom and government spokesmen refused to comment on any of this to Bellona Web.

Another development that immediately preceded Vishnevsky’s removal is that all vacation leave for employees of GAN’s international division was cancelled. Under Russian law, employees cannot be fired while on sick leave or vacation. The cancellation of vacations led the Russian source and several Duma sources, who all requested anonymity, to say they expect a massive “flushing” of Minatom cadre into GAN’s offices at 34 Taganka Street in Moscow. “If GAN’s international department can’t go on vacation,” said one of the Duma sources, “they can be present in Moscow to be fired.”

Malyshev’s Marching Orders
Malyshev was described by the anonymous Russian source with close ties to Minatom and GAN as “a decent guy who probably won’t change much, but who does what he’s told.”

At issue then, is whom he is taking his orders from, the Russian source said, and at Wednesday’s meeting, he was accompanied by a representative of the Kremlin staff. The source said the alleged pressure from the Kremlin to ensure Malyshev’s appointment could point to larger financial and energy interests in the nuclear industry that might have been blocked by Vishnevsky’s regulatory keenness.

On several occasions, Vishnevsky publicly locked horns with Minatom—which has systematically campaigned to undermine GAN’s authority. These events, some sources and experts say, may have led to his retirement, which they insist was forced.

GAN’s Kislov, a close associate of Vishnevsky, however, denied that there was any backstairs politics involved in his retirement.

“Everything here was done in accordance with Russian law,” said Kislov in a Wednesday telephone interview with Bellona. “I want to emphasise that point.”

But over the past four years, Vishnevsky has had several public fallings-out with Minatom, and the Russian source said the Kremlin simply got tired of the international embarrassment Vishevsky was causing them. Among the most prominent scuttlebutts was his opposition to spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, imports to Russia, a plan Minatom says will net Russia $20 billion over 20 years. Later, Vishnevsky spoke out at an international nuclear conference and said that Russia had “no independent nuclear regulation.” Most recently, and perhaps most embarrassing to Minatom, he refused to renew the SNF reprocessing license for the Mayak Chemical Combine because of the facility’s repeated waste dumping into nearby water sources.

When asked if the Mayak incident may have played a part in Vishnevsky’s retirement, Kislov coyly said: “I do not think that it played a decisive role … you understand.”

“In time, Malyshev will have to deal with the same kinds of decisions,” Kislov added.

Mayak’s reprocessing license was restored after three months, following Minatom’s newly repeated promises to look into other radioactive waste disposal methods besides dumping the waste into Lake Karachai and the flood-prone Techa reservoir system, which are located near the plant. Press reports at the time suggested the shadow of Minatom’s influence on the renewal of the license.

According to several Russian governmental sources, grudges within the Kremlin over the Mayak shutdown remained strong, and according to ex-GAN official Vladimir Kuznetsov, who is an advisor on two State Duma committees, Vishnevsky’s retirement was a long time in the coming. Other evidence pointing to the fact that Vishnevsky’s retirement was a dish of revenge served cold is that a replacement—Malyshev—was already waiting in the wings, according to anonymous official sources.

The Russian source with close ties to Minatom and GAN put it more bluntly: “The word is that Vishnevsky’s dismissal was the work of the Russian White House staff,” Russia’s presidential cabinet. “Vishnevsky spoke out internationally and in public against Russia’s nuclear regulatory policies and no one ever forgave him—the apparat presidential administration doesn’t tolerate that kind of dissent.”

Kuznetsov, who is also an advisor to Duma Deputy Mitrokhin, added that many in the Duma expect a full-scale purge at GAN, from the agency’s vice chairmen, to the 3rd directorate, to district managers.

What Remains Uncertain With Malyshev at the Helm
Kislov said that he was not expecting a mass purge of GAN staff. But he also said he didn’t expect that new chief Malyshev’s Minatom pedigree would bring greater cooperation between the two organisations.

“I can’t say if Minatom will listen to us any more closely than they have before because I have no examples on which to base such comment,” he said.

One of the most important things that such “examples”—and the leadership switch as a whole—could have a bearing on is the growing cooperation between GAN, and the US side’s NNSA and NRC, who have been aiding GAN in developing regulatory procedures in a programme that was forged by Kislov and the US Department of Energy’s Thomas.

Kislov said in his interview with Bellona Web that “I don’t think this will have a big effect on our international cooperation,” with the NRC and NNSA. Thomas, who was on vacation all week, was unavailable for comment.

The NNSA’s Director of Public Relations, Brian Wilkes, told Bellona Web in a telephone interview that “it would take a lot to affect our relationship with Russia on non-proliferation related issues. We have very good relations. It’s not like we’re talking about replacing a Putin or something like that.”

Responsible parties at the NRC did not return repeated requests for comment.

A US-Russia Liaison Structure
Kislov and Thomas have pushed for the creation of a liaison position in Russia to coordinate regulatory educational seminars and exchanges among GAN, the NNSA and the NRC, which are aimed at establishing an appropriate, independent regulatory structure that would be needed for the implementation of the MOX programme, if not for Russia’s other nuclear headaches. According to one GAN source, the leading candidate for this position would be Thomas himself.

But at a recent secret working meeting between the DOE and GAN officials, the liaison idea was shoved to the back burner by the Americans, according to Kislov.

“We at GAN certainly want someone to fulfil this role, but the Americans are still discussing it,” said Kislov. “They have not refused outright, but they want time to think about it.”

Kislov said that at the meeting, which took place in London, John Baker, director of the technical programme for the DOE’s plutonium disposition project, who chaired the meeting, shelved the liaison idea, and the Americans said they would consider it.

But Baker, said Kislov, also ordered that the Russian request for the regulatory liaison be stricken from the record of the meeting.

The Russian source with close connections to GAN and Minatom said the behaviour of the DOE’s Baker “bordered on document tampering.”

Baker was not available for comment.

“There are people in Minatom who would gladly flush the MOX programme,” the Russian source said, “and not everyone in the DOE because of the stringent licensing regulations MOX production would require wants to see GAN as an independent regulatory structure.”

Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview from Washington that the MOX programme “is putting enormous strain on independent [nuclear regulatory] agencies to produce regulations quickly” that are thus substandard for their intended purposes. He added, though, that the kind of cooperation taking place between the NRC, the NNSA and GAN “is the kind of cooperation that should be going on anyway,” independent of the MOX programme.

According to ex-GAN official Kuznetsov, GAN “will now simply be a satellite of Minatom.”

He also predicted that Minatom would seize all significant licensing and regulatory responsibilities from GAN and that “atomic enterprises will control GAN’s structure from within the ministry—that is, we will return to such circumstances as existed within Minsredmash [as Minatom was called in the Soviet era] prior to the Chernobyl catastrophe.”

“Now that GAN has officially ceased to be independent, the last control over the nuclear industry is NGOs,” he said. “It is precisely these organisations working in Russia that are the only means of avoiding a second Chernobyl.”

Rashid Alimov contributed to this report from St. Petersburg.