Russian nuke Whistleblower files for asylum in Finland

Publish date: November 3, 2005

Sergei Kharitonov, who worked at the Leningrad Nuclear power plant (LNPP) for 27 years and was sacked for whistleblowing after exposing numerous hazards at the power station and a long legal battle to have his firing declared illegal, has applied for asylum in Finland.

Kharitonov is one of Russia’s most famous environmentalists. He worked as an operator at the spent nuclear fuel storage facility at the LNPP in Sosnovy Bor before getting the sack for more than a decade’s worth of environmental activities to draw attention to the plant’s problems. The scathing information he provided to journalists and environmental organisations at home and abroad made him a pariah in Russia, where he said he now can no longer find employment.

“I understand this step, although I cannot accept it,” Oleg Bodrov of the Sosnovy Bor organisation Green World told Bellona Web about Kharitonov’s petition for asylum. Green World came to Kharitonov’s assistance when Kharitonov blew the whistle on violations at the LNPP.

“I think that his application for political asylum is a desperate step. In my opinion, regardless of all the obstacles, the environmental movement in Russia can fight.”

Kharitonov told Interfax news agency that the decision to emigrate was “brought on by disillusionment with the possibilities of stopping the environmental anarchy in Russia,” as well as a “lack in the country of a genuinely strong and effective environmental defence.”

In 1986, Kharitonov was part of the team that cleaned up after the Chernobyl disaster. For his environmental activities, Kharitonov was threatened by LNPP brass with firing five ties, fined seven times, and often denied his salary.

For more than two years beginning in November 1997, Kharitonov was forced to spend his working hours in a cloakroom of less than 4 square meters. This work station was revenge from the LNPP management for the conflict, he said at the time. Management was unable to sack him, so they stopped allowing this worker who trumpeted infringements in print any further than the locker room.

The LNPP management first tried to fire Kharitonov in 1998, in an attempt ruled illegal by the courts. He was fired for a second time in 2000, when documents against him were prepared more thoroughly by management. With the help of lawyers from Bellona Environmental Rights Centre (ERC), Kharitonov tried to protest against this management decision. However, the Sosnovy Bor and Leningrad Region courts turned down his appeal.

In 2004, Bellona published Kharitonov’s report “The Leningrad NPP as a Mirror of the Russian Atomic Energy Industry,” in which he set out in detail many cases in which safety regulations had been breached at the LNPP. In addition to this report, Kharitonov undertook an independent investigation of corruption at the plant.

“The collapse of Bellona’s ‘Sergei Kharitonov case’, and Green World’s ineffective PR campaign lead to the collapse of the whole defence of whistleblowers at Russian nuclear facilities,” Interfax quoted Kharitonov as saying.

Alexei Pavlov, Bellona’s lawyer for Kharitonov, cited the difficulties of succeeding in such cases.

“Such court cases are very difficult, because, as a rule, they are based on evidence presented by the employer,” Pavlov said. “Firms can fire people at will, especially as LNPP’s desire to get rid of Kharitonov was very great.”

According to Pavlov, whistleblower cases in Russia are extremely varied, making it difficult to talk about general defence techniques.

In the United States whistleblowers are protected by two federal laws and a number of articles in the Corporate Reform Act. There is also an NGO that defends the rights of those willing to step forward with damning information about their workplaces—the Government Accountability Project. In Britain, the similar Public Interest Disclosure Act came into force in 1999 in the wake of a scandal that engulfed the nation’s health service and led to the deaths of dozens of people.

Russia has no such laws to date. Therefore, in each case, a whistleblower’s fate depends on the particular circumstances. In particular, Bellona ERC President Alexander Nikitin said that international scrutiny can play a large role. Nikitin himself, who blew the whistle on the nuclear threat presented by the Northern Fleet, was accused by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of espionage and cleared only after a five year legal battle by the Presidium of Russia’s Supreme Court in 2000.

“In my case, international opinion and public support played a very important role,” Nikitin said. “In the case of Grigory Pasko—who worked at the Pacific Fleet’s newspaper and blew the whistle on dumping of radioactive waste by the fleet—it did as well, although the support was less strong in this case. There was even less interest in Kharitonov’s labour dispute. But although we were unable to show that the management had fired him after falsifying the results of internal documents governing plant qualifications, we are certain that his firing was illegal.”

Formulating internal documents is regulated by LNPP internal bureaucratic rules.

“Our organisation also runs into infringements of workers rights at the Mayak nuclear facility,” said Nadezhda Kutepova of the Ozersk-based organisation Planet of Hopes.

“Workers are often, for example, forced to sign declarations that they are familiar with documents that in fact they have not seen,” Kutepova said. “Those who are unhappy are threatened with getting the sack. Now, with a criminal case launched against the Mayak plant regarding dumping of nuclear waste, these workers are forbidden from communicating with my organisation.”

Andrei Ozharovsky of the Russian environmental NGO Ekozashchita! said that: “In recent years, environmentalists have been able to halt imports of radioactive waste from Hungary to Mayak, and to close or at least block the appearance of several dangerous facilities,”

“Despite the difficulties,” Ozharovsky said, ”we consider that environmental action in Russia can be effective. Nevertheless, I hope that the Finns will take Kharitonov’s arguments into account, as he has made outspoken comments about criminality at the LNPP.”

In 2002, Green World’s Bodrov was attacked. He was hospitalised in the local hospital and diagnosed with concussion. Unknown attackers dealt Bodrov several blows to the head from behind.