Bellona report focuses EU parliament on need for coordinated nuclear clean-up in Russia

Publish date: November 26, 2004

Written by: Charles Digges

BRUSSELS—In what is certain to become an important if controversial report, Bellona released a new and revealing report Wednesday on Russia’s nuclear industry, from its inception to its secretive pursuit of weaponry and energy, and how the west is and should be helping Russian nuclear remediation and clean-up efforts.

The presentation of the report in Brusssels was co-organizaed by Diana Wallis, UK Member of European Parliament (MEP).

The report, entitled The Russian Nuclear Industry—The Need for Reform, was presented at a hearing in European Parliament. The report was very well received among the Parliamentarians (MEPs), European Commission members, representatives of Russian State Duma members, diplomats, NGOs and European Union (EU) nuclear industry observers.

“This report will make it harder for the hawks not to tell the truth,” said Bellona President Hauge of The Russian Nuclear Industry—The Need for Reform.

Belgian MEP Bart Staes said during the hearing that “many MEPs want to take up the question of nuclear issues in Russia more aggressively […] this report will be the back bone of those efforts.”

“This book is a huge source of fresh information for us here in the EU.”

Delegates at the hearing emphasised a need for the prioritisation coordination of nuclear clean-up activities, which have often overlapped, greater transparency and regular audits from Russian officials concerning projects receiving funding from the west, and independent expert environmental evaluations of decommissioning projects before they even begin.

Delegates also said these goals would be impossible to achieve without the cooperation of a strong and truly independent nuclear regulatory body in Russia, which—even after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government reshuffle last spring—is almost entirely lacking. Their assessments were in broad agreement with the conclusions presented in the Bellona report.

“This is a sensible and sensitive presentation of the nuclear problems facing Russia,” said Swedish MEP Hedkvist Petersen.

“What is important now is that we have the money and the ability and the EU must coordinate its actions.”

Coordinating the nuclear cash

This coordination would presumably be effected by the so-called “master plan” for nuclear remediation projects, which is currently being developed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

The EBRD holds the some EUR160 million in the Northern Dimensions Environmental Partnership (NDEP) nuclear window fund which is intended for nuclear clean up efforts in Northwest Russia. The original NDEP fund was established in 2001 by the EC, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Russia and several financial institutions. But the release of its funding hinged on the signing by Russia of the Multi-lateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation (MNEPR). This was achieved in May 2003.

Since then, several other nations from Europe and beyond have made sizable contributions, and this funding plus the $20 billion in funding over the next ten years by the Group of Eight industrialised nations has led to a cash bonanza for dismantling the Cold War legacy.

The EBRD’s master plan would presumably help coordinate donating efforts and project priorities, but several sources familiar with the current EBRD plan interviewed after the hearing said it fell short in crucial areas, most notably in its apparent omission on how to address problems of nuclear fuel reprocessing in Russia, and how to safely secure the country’s overabundance of spent nuclear fuel (SNF). EBRD representatives were unable to attend the hearing and copies of its master plan are not yet publicly available.

Commenting on what is known of the EBRD master plan, and its rumoured lack of language on SNF issues, Alexander Nikitin, one of the reports six authors and head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, said “I share my colleagues’ worries about the programme.”

He notes that foreign aid is needed to solve SNF issues in Russia, but said agreements should be reached as soon as possible given the Russian governments newly-fortified opposition to NGO’s operating on western money in Russia.

“In a few years, we won’t be able to clean up any waste at all,” he said.

Bellona’s findings in its new report

Among the most pressing findings in Bellona’s report, as presented at EU parliament by two of the reports other authors Igor Kudrik and Nils Bøhmer, is the fact that the Russian government simply inherited the dilapidated closed nuclear fuel cycle from its Soviet predecessor without evaluating the safety, non-proliferation or practical concerns surrounding this practice.

As a result, noted, Kudrik, much of the western nuclear remediation funding coming to Russia does little more than keep the Soviet era enterprise’s head above water. One such example, said Kudrik, is the US Russian bilateral programme wherein Russia weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) is down-blended to low enriched uranium (LEU) suitable for use in US commercial reactors. The HEU-LEU, or “Megatons to Megawatts” programs, brings in millions a year to sustain Russia’s unsustainable nuclear industry, he said.

In addition, other western funding has been misdirected from intended targets by Minatom, Rosatom’s successor organization, according to both Russian and US audits, said Kudrik.

The Russian Nuclear Industry—The Need for Reform was written, he said, “to make sure we understand the whole picture—it proves that you can do harm by investing large amounts of funding”

“Russia has taken its old [closed fuel cycle] system for granted and kept it in use with western funding,” he said.

He also underscored the fact that Russia is still running three weapons-grade plutonium production reactors—two in the Central Siberian towns of Seversk and one in Zhelzenogorsk—that produce a combines total of 1.2 tonnes more of weapons-grade plutonium a year. Additionally, they supply heat and electricity to surrounding communities.

The US Department of Energy is working with Russian officials to shut these reactors down and replace them with fossil fuel plants—a dubious environmental proposition—but even this process has been bogged down in the bureaucracy of both governments and the 17 contractors working on the project. Meanwhile the plutonium quantity continues to grow.

Russian has a history of clinging to its plutonium in anticipation of the day natural uranium reserves dry up, and have historically resisted attempts to immobilise surplus weapons stocks.

Bøhmer suggested in his presentation that Russia would eventually like to realise, with the help of foreign funding, a closed plutonium cycle relying on fast neutron, or “breeder,” reactors that both run on plutonium and produce reactor-grade plutonium as waste.

Beyond Russia’s current financial impossibilities of building such an infrastructure and the shaky science that it is based on, Kudrik pointed out that breeders would constitute a flawed approach to non-proliferation as each reactor would have to maintain its plutonium stocks on site where it could possibly be stolen.

However, because of Russia’s current political structure, Kudrik said an extension of the closed plutonium cycle was under serious discussion simply because nuclear industry brass have Putin’s ear.

“There has been no public discussion of this at all, but because certain people have Putin’s ear, they are willing to pursue this programme which exists only on paper,” said Kudrik.

Meanwhile, Kudrik said, waste produced by the Cold War closed nuclear cycle machine is accruing on a massive scale, a point of concern shares by most delegates present at the hearing. Neither, said Kudrik, is there any appropriate environmental assessment programme in place. This shortcoming was pointed out starkly last August by the sinking of the K-159, a decommissioned submarine that sank in heavy weather while being towed to dismantlement.

Though the project was not funded by the west, projects funded by the west have nonetheless been carried out in the same fashion, and many nations were forced to rethink their donation strategies to avoid financing another such disaster.

Both Kudrik and Bøhmer emphasised the importance of conducting full environmental impact studies for each nuclear remediation project before it begins, thus anticipating and eliminating potentially disastrous results.

This and other problems could be solved by a comprehensive Russian master plan that would ease western efforts, said Kudrik. Such a Russian master plan, to complement the EBRD version for donor states, would also prevent incoming donations from supporting the Soviet practices of the nuclear industry.

Kudrik and Bøhmer concluded their summary of the new Bellona report by underscoring that Russia needs true independent nuclear regulation—far beyond what is currently available from Russia’s Federal Service for Ecological and Technical Oversight (FSETAN)—even if it means building such a structure from scratch. Ideally, they said, the regulatory body proposed in Bellona’s reports would be fully transparent and invite the expertise of NGO’s.

What to do about waste?

Jean Paul Joulia of the EC’s European Aid Co-operation Office said that the EC is working to support the technical infrastructure surrounding what becomes of GAN, FSETAN’s predecessor organization.

Joulia’s offices have also invested in new safety measures for the Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors still in operation at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant and the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, and have invested $20 million over the past 10 toward waste management problems.

Joulia rejoined Bellona’s assertions on Russian nuclear oversight saying that his offices will contribute to the reform of nuclear regulation in Russia.

“Without proper regulation, no nuclear reform is possible,” he said.

Joulia was also more optimistic than Nikitin regarding the Russian political brass and their acceptance of foreign aid.

“We have formed a cooperative relationship with Russia and want to continue as such,” he said.

He cited NDEP, and its primary focus on the issue of securing nuclear waste, as the tightest link the west now has with Russia. He said that “there was a strong Russian investment in this programme, and that is important.” Russia, he said, also subscribed strongly to that component of NDEP that makes it a forum for international coordination of nuclear remediation projects. The EC would meanwhile aid Russia in identifying funding priorities, which would help lay the basis for an international strategy for a final master plan.

United Kingdom MEP Christopher Beazley was blunt about foreign governments’ promises to deal with Russia’s SNF woes. He noted that not a single country in the world has yet enacted a feasible solution to dealing with SNF and radioactive waste.

“We can’t get rid of nuclear waste—we can just make it harmless,” he said, addressing the hearing. “The waste has to be isolated from the environment for hundreds of years. The only thing you can do is keep it safe and secure.”

Nuclear industry response

But Jon Coniam of British Energy, or BE—which owns Britain’s nuclear power stations— sensed the discussion was throwing the baby out with the bathwater and drew a bold line between Russia’s nuclear waste infrastructure and the more developed infrastructure of the West.

He noted that shutting down nuclear power plant, in the East or West was not as simple as simple a picture as he thought the environmental movement paints. He first drew the distinction dealing with civilian waste, which in the West is a far more transparent process, and dealing with military waste, which was essential a lost cause in his view insofar as the Russian government demand it remain secret.

An immediate shut down of civilian plants, he said, would lead back to standard cyanite releasing energy plants with are extremely pollutant. He likened the situation to the difference between pollution caused by a Lada—Russia’s famous pollutant-belching vehicles—and a more environmentally friendly Mercedes.

“It not the Mercedes fault if the Lada causes more pollution,” he said. “Western expertise [to Russian nuclear stations] can be applied, and it works.”

He further applauded the efforts of existing nuclear threat reduction and environmental clean-up programmes financed by the West, but underscored that the West’s nuclear industry did not bear blame for nuclear contamination in Russia.

“We want to take part in solving these problems, but not all of the responsibility,” he said.


How well are current programmes doing their job?

According to Nikitin, the current progress of both Russian and international programmes are scattershot in their successes.

“Some programmes are working as intended, and others are not working at all—they need coordination,” he said.

Assistant to Russian State Duma Deputy Valentin Luntsevich, Sergei Filippov noted that the West has made great strides with the signing of MNEPR and the release of NDEP funding, but noted that Washington efforts, as well as those by the G-8 remain as yet unrealised.

“The United States and the G-8 have promised some good initiatives, but the initiatives remain initiatives,” said Filippov, who was formerly with Bellona’s Murmansk office.


Russia, he said, has embraced the MNEPR program, but is eschewing US efforts to continue US Defence Department led Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) efforts because of US liability requirements. Under current US State Department policy, US directed nuclear remediation projects must adhere to the so-called CTR Umbrella Agreement that the Duma refuses to ratifiy because it forces Russia to carry the blame for any accidents occurring during CTR related work. By contrast, MNEPR allows for arbitration in the event of accidents.

The main obstacle to US-Russia cooperation remains encumbered bureaucracies on both sides, Filippov said.

“Minatom is gone and the state of Rosatom has yet to be clarified, so decisions are handled on an executive level, which slows things down,” he said.

As for other remediation plans, said Filippov, the Duma is open to proposals, but input must come from NGOs—something Luntsevich is amenable to.

Belgian MEP Staes, who has worked extensively with Russia in general and Bellona specifically noted that three years ago, Bellona and he were engaged in the same dialog—and the governments have yet to act on any NGO initiatives.

Bellona President Hauge agreed with Staes saying, “its depressing that we are still talking about these issues—we need some organisation that will support transparency.”

NGO progress must happen fast

Bellona’s Nikitin noted that whatever reform NGOs try to effect on Russia’s nuclear situation must come quickly.

“Russia is becoming more and more closed each day. They hide information and limit access to conferences for NGOs—that’s how these propagandists operate,” he said.

“We have to find new ways of working with the authorities, but we are not going to rely on information from Rosatom.

What’s next for Bellona’s new report

The EU parliament presentation of the report will serve as a trial balloon as to how well it will be received by Russian authorities, who jailed Bellona’s Nikitin on treason charges for his contribution to Bellona’s previous report, The Russian Northern Fleet—Sources of Potential Radioactive Contamination. Delegates from the Russian mission to the EU had no comment after the hearing.

The Russian version of the report will soon be presented in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities, and both versions will eventually be available Bellona’s web site. The report will also be presented to non-proliferation policy makers in Washington.

Along with Bøhmer, Kudrik and Nikitin, the reports other principal authors include Bellona’s Charles Digges, former Russian nuclear regulator Vladimir Kuznetsov, and environmental journalist Vladislav Larin.

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