Bellona Nuclear Digest, January 2024
A survey of events in the field of nuclear and radiation safety relating to Russia and Ukraine.
Publish date: July 24, 2003
Written by: Charles Digges
Malyshev took over the head spot at GAN under suspicious circumstances earlier this month when GANs former chief Yury Vishnevsky—an outspoken critic of many activities initiated by the Atomic Energy Ministry, or Minatom—was retired by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin because he had reached Russias mandatory, and soon to be raised, retirement age of 60.
Due to his pedigree as a former first deputy minister of atomic energy, the appointment of Malyshev, 44, immediately kicked up a firestorm among Russian and international environmental circles and members of GANs staff. While a deputy minister at Minatom, and, earlier, as head of Atomstroiproekt—the atomic ministrys foreign construction branch—Malyshevs responsibilities were focused on building nuclear reactors, a position that put him at almost constant loggerheads with the regulators that are now his subordinates.
Opinion among many experts immediately concluded that Malyshevs appointment heralded a significant victory for Minatom, which has for years—with some Kremlin backing—sought to enfeeble the regulatory agency to the point of insignificance.
Malyshevs first days as GANs chief took place against the background of a GAN-hosted series of joint US-Russian nuclear regulatory meetings, during which GAN officials convened with their American counterparts from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, and National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. The meetings, according to those present, were meant to address the regulatory gaps in Russian legislation which are making it nearly impossible for Russia to move ahead with the 2000 Plutonium Disposition agreement, signed by former US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Under this agreement, the United States and Russia will each destroy, in parallel progress, 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in an as yet untested fuel called MOX, or mixed weapons-grade plutonium and uranium oxides. The MOX programme—which Bellona opposes as environmentally and economically unsound—involves burning the MOX fuel in specially and expensively retrofitted VVER-1000 light water reactors. This turns the plutonium into a component of an extremely radioactive—so-called self-protecting—spent nuclear fuel, MOX adherents say.
But the reliability of Russias aging reactors even under the best circumstances has been in question since before the Chernobyl disaster. Still, among Malyshevs first acts after becoming GANs chief was the granting of a five-year license extension for the Kola Nuclear Power Plants reactor unit No. 1, whose engineered life span ran out on June 29th. The power plants VVER 440/230 reactor is considered among the most defect-ridden in the country.
Assessment of the New Management
According to GAN insiders, things are off—at best—to an ambiguous start around the office with Malyshev at the helm. In interviews this week, GAN officials gave divergent opinions, depending on whether they spoke for the record or requested anonymity.
Andrei Kislov, chief of GANs fuel cycles department, also known as the 3rd Directorate, said in a telephone interview that everything is going fine and there have been no changes.
Alexander Dmitriev, Malyshevs current—and Vishnevskys former— first deputy was terse in an interview from Moscow with Bellona Web about whether Malyshevs appointment was affecting the independence of the agency.
For now everything is working normally, he said. Malyshev understands all of what GAN does. It is not yet known if there will be any changes. Dmitriev then categorically refused to comment further.
Dmitrievs comments—and lack thereof—noted a Russian official close to Dmitriev, who asked not to be identified in any way, may have been unusually curt because the first deputys job is hanging in the balance.
Dmitriev, at 63, is past the current mandatory retirement age of 60, said the official. A bill that would raise the current retirement age passed its first reading in Russias State Duma. If it is approved by the Federation Council, the upper division of Russias Parliament, the law could be Dmitrievs saving grace.
But prior to Vishnevskys departure, according to the official, Dmitriev had submitted his letter of resignation—which Vishnevsky, when it was apparent that he himself was being forced into retirement, did not approve. The letter, according to the official, remains on Malyshevs desk, unsigned, and it is expected that Dmitriev will remain at his post at GAN for up to another year while Malyshevs management transition is taking place.
Dmitriev is one of the worlds foremost authorities on plutonium disposition and Malyshev doesnt know anything about that, said the official. Dmitriev also ensures continuity in the running of GAN for whatever period Malyshev needs him.
But the politics of Dmitrievs unsigned resignation letter go deeper than continuity, said the official. Dmitriev initially submitted his resignation letter to Vishnevsky because he had been promised a senior advisory position with GAN, which is not subject to age restrictions, after his retirement, said the official.
He would have played a sort of ambassadorial role for GAN, travelling to Washington and Vienna, the official said.
Now, said the official, Dmitrievs job is guaranteed only so long as Malyshev needs him, and if his retirement documents are rubber-stamped by GANs new chief, the gilded parachute Vishnevsky envisioned for Dmitriev will likely be forgotten.
Malyshev is not going to want any advisor telling him what to do, the Russian official said. Of course, Dmitriev is afraid of losing his job—they havent started firing people left and right yet—naturally, hes not going to say anything.
Alexander Zhorkin, another of Malyshevs deputies inherited from Vishnevsky, enthusiastically offered that Malyshev is dealing with a number of important issues, when contacted in Moscow by Bellona Web.
There is nothing new here, Zhorkin said. We have a new boss—theres nothing new about that.
In point of fact, Vishnevsky had been GANs boss ever since it was founded in 1992.
Zhorkin said, however, he would not discuss the issue of any possible cadre changes at GAN over the telephone.
Other GAN officials, who talked more openly with the promise of confidentiality, were not as commending of Malyshev.
Many dont like his management style, said one GAN insider who requested his name not be mentioned. Vishnevsky was easier to make contact with—if you needed to deal with something, you walked right into his office. But Malyshev is almost unapproachable. Even his deputies find it hard to schedule time with him.
One GAN official refused to answer any questions about Malyshev at all, saying angrily: What do you want, for me to lose my job?
Malyshev said in his statement, a copy of which was obtained by Bellona Web earlier this week, that GAN will continue its involvement in the efforts to create a regulatory and statutory infrastructure for regulating nuclear and radiation safety, to develop recommendations and a course of action for successful compliance with safety standards, and to ensure compliance with regulations governing the license terms and conditions, of nuclear facilities.
State-level regulation of nuclear and radiation safety in the use of atomic power makes it possible to exercise highly effective control and to develop the necessary conditions that provide the maximum protection to nuclear facility personnel, the public, and the environment, from unacceptable radiation exposure and prevent uncontrollable proliferation and use of nuclear materials, his statement continued.
He also said that keeping the bodies of state power and the public informed about changes in the state of nuclear and radiation safety at nuclear facilities—one of the most important areas in Gosatomnadzors activity—has remained GANs top priority.
Malyshev also directly addressed concerns raised by several US officials and Bellona Web last week that, under his tenure, several important regulatory exchanges between GAN, the US NNSA and NRC would be derailed. The relationships are just being cemented between senior Russian and US regulators under the leadership of Senior Regulator of Licensing and Infrastructure Sotirios "Sam" Thomas, from the US Department of Energy, or DOE, and GANs Kislov.
There is no doubt that development of the regulatory authoritys international collaboration in the area of safety regulation of the use of nuclear power is very helpful for enhancing nuclear and radiation safety, Malyshev said in his statement.
The US-Russian regulatory exchange process began as an effort to review nuclear regulations and strengthen Russian guidelines in anticipation of the MOX disposition programme. But the process blossomed, at Kislov and Thomas initiative, into an overhaul of GANs regulatory structure as a whole, with the aim of fortifying GAN as a truly independent nuclear regulatory agency—an anathema to those among Minatoms brass who would like to see GAN swept away for good.
Earlier this week the NNSAs Assistant Deputy Administrator for Defence and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Kenneth Baker flew to Moscow for a meeting with Malyshev, according to a GAN official who asked to remain anonymous. The substance of their meeting is unknown— neither Baker nor Malyshev could be reached for comment—but it likely concerned maintaining growing Russian-Western ties to keep the MOX programme on track.
Threats to the MOX Programme
This could be especially difficult now that the 1998 US-Russian bilateral agreement on technical cooperation on the plutonium disposition programme has run out. According to a highly placed European official, who requested his name not be used, the US State Department has offered a three-month extension on the agreement—provided Russia agrees to abide by liability procedures outlined in the Pentagon-run Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, Umbrella Agreement. The Umbrella Agreement stipulates that liability for any accident occurring during nuclear dismantlement or disarmament projects in Russia falls to Moscow.
The Russians, said the European official, would prefer that liability issues follow the guidelines of the recently signed Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR, agreement, which gives Russia more breathing room in case of accidents.
The Russians feel they are being blackmailed into accepting the CTR terms for work on the plutonium disposition programme to continue, said the European official. Without this technical cooperation agreement, the whole programme could unravel.
Its a paradoxical situation, Minatom Chief Alexander Rumyantsev told the Russian state-run ITAR-TASS news agency, that there will be no agreement, but cooperation between Russia and the US in the nuclear field exists and is increasing in tempo.
Repeated attempts to obtain comment from the State Department on the lapsing of 1998 technical agreement went unanswered.
At this weeks US-Russian regulatory meetings, said the GAN source, representatives of the NRC, NNSA, and the US nuclear concern Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster—which will be designing and building the complicated and expensive MOX fuel fabrication plants in both countries—were also present.
One official who had attended the meetings and who requested anonymity when talking to Bellona Web, said that the total cost of building Russias MOX fabrication plant, which is to be located near Tomsk, will be about $2 billion.
At the moment, though, we only have $800 million in the bank, the official said. But the feeling is that funding is significant enough to begin the project. The money for the Russian fabrication plant is coming from the US and various international funding sources in Europe.
Malyshev concluded his statement by expressing the desire that the trend toward enhancing the safety of Russias nuclear power stations—a trend that was clearly defined ten years ago and that has enabled the nuclear power plants belonging to the Rosenergoatom concern the private energy giant that operates all of Russias civilian reactors to be among the safest stations in the world—continue in the future.
But this conclusion is hardly shared by members of the environmental community or Russian nuclear specialists, according to the website of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense! at www.antiatom.ru.
In a June survey conducted by Nuclear.ru, a nuclear industry website sponsored in part by Minatom, Ecodefense! noted that 86 percent of the respondents—the majority of whom were nuclear specialists working in Russian nuclear industry—said that a catastrophic accident at any of Russias 10 nuclear power stations was likely. Most of the experts surveyed said the chief cause of a second Chernobyl-type incident would be human error, Ecodefence! reported.
Suspicious Circumstances Surrounded Vishnevskys Retirement
Despite Malyshevs statement—which according to one GAN observer hit all the right notes—it is apparent that what remains of Vishnevskys apparatus is circling its wagons and hoping to stave off a possible purge. Immediately prior to Vishnevskys departure, all summer leave for GANs international department was cancelled. Under Russian law, employees cannot be fired while on vacation or sick leave.
Vishnevsky was one of the most vociferous critics of Minatoms policies in Moscows upper echelons, and over the past four years had had several public rows with the atomic ministry and even private disputes with the Kremlin. According to the Russian official who asked not to be identified, the Kremlin simply got tired of the international embarrassment Vishnevsky was causing Russias nuclear industry.
Among Vishnevskys most prominent and public disagreements with Minatom was his opposition to spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, imports to Russia, a plan Minatom says will net Russia $20 billion over 20 years. Despite opposition of nearly 90 percent of Russias citizens to this Minatom undertaking, the legislation package legalising the imports was ramrodded through the Russian Duma by Minatoms powerful lobbyists.
Later, Vishnevsky spoke out at an international nuclear conference, saying that Russia had no independent nuclear regulation.
Most recently—and perhaps most embarrassing to Minatom and the Russian government—Vishnevsky last January refused to renew the SNF reprocessing license for the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Ural Mountains because of the facilitys decades-long history of repeated waste dumping into nearby water sources. Mayak is known as the most radioactively contaminated place on earth.
According to a Kremlin source, who spoke with Bellona Web Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, the Mayak closure was the last straw. At the time of Mayaks forced shutdown, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov drafted a letter to Vishnevsky indicating the GAN chiefs unsuitability for the post, the Kremlin official quoted Kasyanovs letter as reading in a telephone interview from Moscow.
Within three months, Mayaks reprocessing licence was reissued amid a flurry of all-too-familiar promises from Minatom to examine radioactive waste disposal practices that did not involve dumping the radioactive garbage into nearby Lake Karachai or the flood-prone Techa reservoir system.
Despite the veiled, but apparent, threat from Kasyanov, Vishnevsky—because of the imminent passage of the Duma bill raising the retirement age—had been counting on another five years in office, according to several of his associates. Nonetheless, Kasyanov signed Vishnevskys retirement papers when Putin had left the country on a state visit.
According to the Kremlin source and several sources in Russia State Duma, Kasyanov had waited until Putins departure to sign the documents. As these government officials said, this has two opposite explanations. The first is that Kasyanov waited to sign the documents so that Putin would not have a chance to put up any opposition. The other, more likely, scenario, the sources said, is that Kasyanov waited until Putin left so that no blame would fall to the president.
Kasyanovs office would not comment on any role the prime minister may have played in Vishnevskys retirement.
According to Russian law, documents concerning the retirement of government officials are prepared by the presidents 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.
Not even GANs Kislov could say. But many observers at GAN say the documents must have come from Minatom chief Rumyantsev, who, as a member of Putins cabinet of ministers, would have had the opportunity—as well as the motivation—to do so.
A survey of events in the field of nuclear and radiation safety relating to Russia and Ukraine.
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