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East: Britain Calls For World Summit On Soviet Nuclear Waste

  • Ben Partridge

London, 23 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians from Britain's ruling Labor Party have called for a world environmental summit to agree on international action for dealing with the problem of nuclear waste from the former Soviet Union.

Their call follows a blitz of media publicity given to the British decision to accept a shipment of weapons-grade nuclear fuel from the Caucasus nation of Georgia for safe reprocessing in Scotland.

The Soviet-era nuclear waste is to be transported by the U.S. air force from a 40-year-old defunct research reactor outside Tbilisi to the Dounreay nuclear complex in northern Scotland.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday he agreed to accept the five kilos of enriched uranium and "spent" nuclear waste to avoid any threat of the material falling into the hands of rebels in Georgia.

The Caucasus region has been one of the most volatile in the world since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, with separatist wars, ethnic conflict, hostage-taking and assassinations.

In the House of Commons (lower house of parliament) yesterday, Blair stressed the role the U.S. and European countries are playing in dealing with nuclear waste from the former Soviet Union.

But Alan Simpson, a leader of the ruling Labor Party's left-wing Campaign Group, said he believes stronger action is needed to deal with what he called the "nuclear nightmare" of 17 Soviet-era nuclear reactors in the East-West corridor along Europe's borders.

The reactors are reported to be located in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine (including Chernobyl), Armenia and Georgia.

Simpson urged Blair to call an environmental summit, modeled on the talks in Kyoto, Japan, to agree on international action to deal with the threat posed by the plants, and to handle their waste.

The Soviet-era nuclear industry prompts concern for several reasons. First, weapons-grade material might fall into the hands of would-be nuclear states, such as Iran, Libya or Iraq, enabling them to build a bomb. Second, thousands of highly-qualified but ill-paid nuclear technicians might sell their services to these states.

There are two other fears: that the huge amounts of nuclear waste lying around northern Russia might cause an ecological catastrophe; and that the ill-maintained reactors across the former Soviet Union might run out of control, causing another Chernobyl.

What one analyst calls "anarchy" in the Soviet-era nuclear industry is made worse by its gigantic size. The London Independent newspaper reports today that there are 36 similar "research reactors" to the one now being decommissioned outside Tbilisi by U.S. experts, dotted all over the former Soviet Union.

The report says while diplomats worry that their radioactive uranium fuel rods might be stolen or smuggled to the Middle East, the risk may actually be greater to the nearby population.

Nuclear experts are quoted as saying there are research reactors in Belarus (1), Georgia (1), Kazakhstan (4), Latvia (1), Russia (27), Ukraine (2) and Uzbekistan (1). They vary in size, with potential output varying from a few hundred watts up to 60 kilowatts.

The 37 research reactors are additional to the RBMK reactors still in use across the former Soviet Union, and most are still operational. The Independent says only those in Belarus and Georgia, and seven of those in Russia, have been shut down or decommissioned.

Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, is quoted today as saying that civilian research facilities, such as the one near Tbilisi, are probably the weakest link in the former Soviet Union's fragile nuclear chain.

He said the academic-run institutions pose a far greater danger than the military ones or civilian power plants because the control over them is weaker and there are few resources to support them.

While the debate goes on, Britain's government is under fire from environmentalists for accepting the nuclear fuel from Georgia. But the government says that if the weapons-grade material had ended up in a Middle East nuclear missile, radioactive fall-out would pose an infinitely greater threat to the environment.