Duma demands an end to nuclear reprocessing at Mayak

Publish date: February 9, 2006

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG—A resolution is being prepared by the State Duma’s Ecology Committee, calling for a halt on the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) at the Mayak Chemical Combine.

Russian ecologists still weighing pros and cons of Rosatom plan

The Duma’s ecological committee was, as of Wednesday, still discussing problems surrounding the Mayak Chemical Combine—the most radioactively contaminated spot in Russia—located in the Chelyabinsk region in the southern Urals.

The resolution, which will be discussed at a Duma wide hearing, calls for a cessation of SNF reprocessing at the combine, and demands that Mayak’s license to do so be revoked.

“In the past years, the radiological conditions at Mayak have been appraised as a worsening,” read the resolution.

“Of special danger is the TSV Techa Reservoir System because of the possibility of the reservoir’s overflow and because of damage to hydro-technical equipment and pumps for radioactive substances in the open hydro-geographical network of the Techa, Iset, Tobol and Ob rivers. However, potential dangers will remain so long as reprocessing of SNF is not stopped,” the resolution continued.

The text of the resolution suggesting the halt of reprocessing has been greeted with support by ecologists, who have been fighting for this for many years.

“Halting reprocessing of SNF at Mayak is a revolutionary step that we have demanded from the authorities for almost 15 years,” said Ecodefence! co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak to Bellona Web. “But the question remains as to whether the Duma’s deputies will have the courage to tell the truth and stop the radioactive pollution of Russia.”

Nadezhda Kutepova, chairperson for the ecological organization Planet of Hope—located in Ozersk, the home city of Mayak—also approved of the resolution’s contents.

“I greet warmly this point on halting reprocessing because it could solve many problems at Mayak. The situation would at least stop getting worse,” Kutepova told Bellona Web.

Alexei Yablokov, one of Russia’s leading ecologists, told Bellona Web: “The resolution is unexpectedly good. I am ready to sign under each point.”

The resolution comes at an awkward time in US-Russian nuclear relations. According to a $250m White House federal budget request for 2007, the two countries would unite in producing and reprocessing civilian nuclear fuel for those countries in the world that do not have nuclear weapons programmes. It is unclear how the possible halt of reprocessing at Mayak would affect this agreement, though it is an agreement that the Bellona Foundation has spoken out against.

Responsible parties at Rosatom and the US Department of Energy could not be reached for comment, just as neither party would comment on the White House budget request. Analysts have said that US president George Bush has intentionally been playing down nuclear involvement outlined in his budget for 2007 in anticipation of losing face in the event of shifting nuclear winds in Russia.

Are the deputies bilking money for Rosatom?
In the resolution, deputies outline a number of recommendations for improving the situation at Mayak. As such, they suggest that social, medical and legal measures that are provided for by government target plans finally be taken. Such measures include “overcoming the consequences of radioactive accidents in a period before 2010,” and “the nuclear and radiation safety of Russia."

Aside from these measures, deputies have forwarded for approval a new government target plan called “The integrated plan of action for 2006 to 2008 on the provision of solutions to ecological problems arising from the activities of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Mayak.”

Deputies plan to undertake the following measures within the framework of this programme: to halt reprocessing with dumping of liquid radioactive waste (LRW) into reservoirs; to reconstruct the ridge of dam No. 11 on the Techa Cascade; and primarily to build a combined sewage system with an outlet for waste water on the left bank canal of the Techa Cascade system.

Why the deputies consider it necessary to re-construct only the ridge of the dam and not the whole thing, to give priority to building a combined sewage system over other pressing projects is not explained in the resolution. Meanwhile, Yablokov considers that theese projets should be presented on a competitive basis with the preparation of public environmental impact reports.

“If state structures would suggest programmes of action, then NGOs could undertake public environmental impact assessments,” Yablokov said.

Yablokov was also suspicious that Rosatom was just coming to the government, hat in hand to make a play for money.

“There is the impression that the committee simply supported the requests of Rosatom to earmark funding for the undertaking of these activities,” said Yablokov. “When Rosatom needs money, it always confesses that everything in its purview is bad.”

Slivyak, however, doubted that the resolution was created with the aim of earmarking money for Rosatom.

“I might believe that if the Ecological Committee didn’t have among its representatives people from Minsredmash Rosatom’s former name who constantly defend the nuclear industry. They would hardly refuse their political situations for the sake of momentary gains,” he said.

Cooperation with the general public
A working group was created with the aim of solving Mayak’s problems in January 2006 on the initiative of new Rosatom chief Sergei Kirienko. Ecologists and human rights advocates were invited to work with nuclear scientists, who have all long criticised the foot dragging of bureaucrats and management at Mayak.

The working group is charged with conducting a tender among NGOs for the best sociological and ecological projects. Rosatom has put 12m rubles up as grant money.

Ecologists are embracing with hope Kirienko’s initiatives.

“An open competition for NGO—that is an unprecedented initiative from Rosatom. We hope that this will produce the possibility for real developments of suggestions,” said Natalya Mironova, a participant in the working group and head of the environmental organisation Movement for Nuclear Safety, in an interview with Bellona Web.

At the same time, participants of the working group say that the group’s remit is limited and nebulous. As Kutepova told Bellona Web, the activities of ecologists, by Rosatom’s design, will only concern the consequences of Mayak’s emissions—that is to say, social, medical and legal problems. From another point of view, the task of NGOs will push them to the limit.

“We are happy with any proposal,” said Rosatom management advisor Igor Konyshev in an interview with Bellona Web. Given this divide in opinion, there is the impression that the organizers themselves don’t have a clear picture of the goals of the working group and the possible role of NGOs in solving ecological problems.

Konushev said that Kirienko already gained experience cooperating with NGOs when he headed the committee to destroy chemical weapons—which by all accounts was a dismal failure.

Lev Fyodorov, leader of For Chemical Safety took up that point.

“That is a pack of lies—there is no cooperation with NGOs,” he told Bellona Web.

According to Fyodorov, Kirienko applied a “class system” toward NGOs when forming the working group.

“He loves some of them tenderly, some of them he doesn’t and others he selected specially,” he said. Of those that were specially chosen, said Fyodorov, were Clean House from the Saratov region. Fyodorov added they were not given big money, and the group simply imitates stormy action.

Many ecologists fear that the working group created by Rosatom is just a PR tool, and that NGOs will not get the chance to influence the biggest decisions.

“We need to do everything so that this initiative does not turn into a PR-campaign that whitewashes Mayak with the hands of NGOs,” said Mironova.

Yablokov says that in such an event, there is no sense for NGOs to take part and that the working group was created so that NGOs “don’t belly-ache”

The public advisory board at Rosatom
With Kirienko taking the helm, the idea of a public ecological advisory board was reborn. Such a board, in which social activists would be represented along with management and experts at Rosatom, was an idea that first saw the light of day some years ago during the tenure of former Minatom—which was succeeded by Rosatom—chief Alexander Rumyantsev.

However, more than two years ago Minatom, on its own initiative, discontinued the work of the previous public board and none of the questions tabled by the board were ever addressed.

The task of the new board is the “recruitment of civil society institutes for the formation of policy in the field of the use of atomic energy,” as well as “the collective development of recommendations to take decisions in the area of atomic energy use, environmental safety, nuclear and radiation safety,” reads the project on the decree on Rosatom’s public board.

The composition of the new public board is significantly different from that of the last. Only three representatives of 30 representatives of the old public ecological organisation are expected to remain. These include Green Cross President Sergei Baranovsky, Anatoly Nazarov, chairman of the Chernobyl Union, and Vladimir Kuznetsov, Green Cross’s nuclear and radiation safety leader. The overwhelming majority of others will come from Rosatom and affiliated structures.

Finally, “among the members of the board are people who have not been involved in any activities concerning the nuclear industry,” a statement from the ecologists reads.

“With such an approach to cooperation with civil society, it will fall to Rosatom not only to solve noble tasks put before them by the public board,” said the ecologists.