Swiss nuclear firm embargos uranium from Russia’s Mayak Chemical Combine over environmental mistrust

Publish date: November 15, 2011

Written by: Charles Digges

One of Switzerland’s leading nuclear utilities, Axpo, has said it will stop receiving shipments of uranium supplies from Russia’s controversial Mayak Chemical Combine on the grounds that the company has not been granted access to examine the Mayak area’s environment first hand.

The move by Axpo represents growing trend of European mistrust toward the Mayak Chemical combine – located in the Ural Mountain in the Chelyabinsk Region – over issues of radioactive contamination and environmental unsuitability surrounding the site.

Germany in December of 2010 refused to repatriate Soviet-origin highly enriched uranium from a formerly East German research reactor to the Mayak, defying a US-Russian nonproliferation agreement, on the basis that Mayak was too environmentally unsafe to hold or reprocess the spent fuel. Germany decided its own facilities in Arhaus were safer.

“The fact that Axpo is saying a loud and clear ‘no’ to Mayak based on mistrust of Mayak, its safe operation and its environmental track record is a step in the right direction,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist and executive director.

Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, agreed, saying: “In the post-Fukushim era, the nuclear industry has no option but to prove each day that it doesn’t harm people or the environment. If they don’t, they may as well pack it in.”

Germany has since said that it will abandon nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima by 2022. Switzerland’s parliament similarly said it will shut down its country’s nuclear reactors by 2034. Belgium, too, has agreed to a nuclear phase out of its oldest reactors by 2015 and the remainder by 2025 if it can find alternative sources of energy.

Axpo owns Switzerland’s Beznau nuclear power station as well as stakes in the Gösgen and Leibstadt plants, constituting three of the countries five commercial nuclear plants.

Axpo denied access at the last minute

According to a statement posted on the Axpo’s website on Saturday, the company said it will forgo further shipments of uranium products from Mayak as Axpo personnel were refused the opportunity to inspect the plant and its environs as a part of investigations of its Russian suppliers.

In the process of its investigations, Axpo was allowed to visit Seversk, near Tomsk, by the plant’s operators and had been due to visit Mayak in June, but was denied access to the plant on the basis that it lies in a military area, at the last minute.

The statement noted, however, that the embargo against Mayak-fabricated uranium products may only be temporary: Axpo has ordered its supplier, France’s Areva, to exclude uranium from Mayak from its supply chain until such time as the chain can be fully monitored. Instead, it will use fuel from the SCC plant in Seversk.

Axpo has decided not to void its contracts with Mayak, saying that it maintaining them may have a positive impact on the stalemate.

The company said that it found Seversk’s facilities to “correspond to internationally accepted regulations [and] meet statutory requirements” – a statement that Greenpeace Switzerland strongly condemned.

Axpo’s list of environmental concerns

But Axpo’s release continued with a laundry list of environmental complaints against Mayak that, the company said, will prevent it for the time being from doing business there until it can evaluate the problems first hand.

Among the environmental problems Axpo singled out in its release were that, “The area around the Mayak plant [in the Chelyabinsk Region] has been contaminated by radiation from various incidents since the 1950s.”

In 1957, Mayak was the site of a major accident related to military nuclear activity when a non-nuclear explosion caused a release of radioactivity, the so-called Kyshtym disaster, the Soviet Union’s younger brother to Chernobyl in 1986.

Hundreds and thousands of people were evacuated from the area and continue to be. But many have ben forced to remain behind in what several environmentalists have charged are ongoing experiments of radiation impact on humans.

“Today’s reference values were clearly and repeatedly exceeded so that large areas are contaminated for the long term, resulting in impairment and damage to man and the environment,” continued Axpo’s statement.

Axpo went on in its release to say that processed for storing fuel at both Mayak and Seversk “would not be allowed in European operations,” and that company investigations revealed that, “it proved impossible to establish either in the area surrounding Mayak or in Seversk that the current production processes were resulting in limit violations and therefore in inadmissible additional contamination of man and the environment.”

Mayak’s press office refused Tuesday to comment on Axpo’s complaints when contacted by Bellona.

What is Mayak hiding?

At the heart of Axpo’s withdrawal of business from the nuclear site often termed “the most radioactively contaminated place on earth” is, according to Bøhmer, a question of what Russia wishes to hide.

“The fact that Axpo was denied access to Mayak raises the question as to what Mayal’s management is trying to hide,” said Bøhmer. “ Has the situation at the site become so serious, that Mayak’s management is afraid of showing potential customers the real situation?”

Bøhmer further said that concrete information on the situation is nearly impossible to come by, and has only become more so in recent years.

Nikitin saw the move by Axpo as a way to choke Mayak’s income stream and force the controversial facility’s closure – if not the disclosure of a few unpleasant facts.

Nikitin saw the move by Axpo as a way to choke Mayak’s income stream and force the controversial facility’s closure – if not the disclosure of a few unpleasant facts.

“Here we see a positive tendency that consists of a company that pollutes the environment and is not transparent for public control and which much be squeezed out of the international market,” said Nikitin.

“Of course, the refusal of one company to buy uranium will not lead to the bankruptcy of Mayak, but if other companies follow this example, then Mayak and Rosatom will be forced to review their standards,” he said.

Axpo said in its statement that it would continue to monitor the situation at Mayak and Seversk together with Russian operators and authorities, as well as by exchanging information with international experts and environmental organisations to ensure that any new developments are detected “in good time.”

In particular the company is calling for further independent measurements of the radiological situation in the Techa river – which has been clogged by liquid radioactive waste from Mayak for decades – to be carried out.