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Russia: Controversial Nuke-Import Plan To Become Law

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's controversial plan to lift its ban on importing spent nuclear fuel hit a minor stumbling block this week when legislators postponed the proposal's second reading in the Duma -- the country's lower house of parliament -- until next month. Still, as RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports, many of the plan's opponents say it is only a matter of time before the Kremlin-sponsored proposal becomes law.

Moscow, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian legislators this week put off a decision on whether the country should open its borders to other countries' spent nuclear fuel. The second Duma reading of the controversial proposal, initially scheduled for yesterday, has been put off until mid-March.

The delay came at the request of the 11-member Duma Ecological Committee, who made the recommendation after a preliminary hearing on 19 February to sort through the hundreds of amendments to the plan proposed since its first successful reading in December.

The committee -- whose members hail almost exclusively from pro-government Duma factions -- recommended rejecting a pair of amendments that would place budgetary and legislative restrictions on the waste-import plan.

Igor Artemyev, a deputy with the liberal Yabloko faction, said the rejected amendments were "key" to providing the parliament a measure of control over the proposed import procedure:

"The 'nuclear lobby' (the Ecological Committee) in the Duma rejected an amendment to provide independent parliamentary control over the [import] contracts. Obviously, the nuclear lobby doesn't want any parliamentary control. The second amendment was a proposal by legislators to create a special budget fund by which it would be possible to see how, where, and through what accounts the money [earned from import contracts] is transferred -- whether it goes through the state coffers, and to what projects and programs."

The plan authored by the government with input from the Atomic Energy Ministry, proposes amending an article in Russia's existing law on environmental protection that bans the import of nuclear waste. The plan packages the proposed amendment with two additional bills outlining the conditions under which nuclear materials could be brought into the country for reprocessing or temporary storage.

The plan has been championed by Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, who claims the project could bring in as much as $20 billion -- money he says could be spent, in part, to build a new generation of Russian nuclear reactors and help bolster the safety conditions of those already in existence.

The plan's critics, however, argue that the country's poor nuclear safety record and aging facilities make the proposal a dangerous gamble for Russia.

A number of regional parliaments have protested the plan, with opposition registering especially high in Siberia, where the proposed waste imports would be stored and reprocessed. Many have questioned whether Russia has the resources and technology available to provide safe and reliable storage of nuclear waste for periods of up to 40 years, as the plan envisions.

Environmentalists have added that leaky transport containers and the poor condition of Russian railroads increase the risk of serious accidents during the long trip from Europe to Siberia. But a nationwide referendum on the issue was shot down last December when the Central Elections Commission declared invalid a portion of the more than 2.5 million signatures gathered.

The proposal is predicted to see a relatively smooth ride through the Duma, where the influential pro-government Unity faction holds more than 80 seats. Ecological Committee member Anatoly Greshnevikov -- one of the few members to openly criticize the proposal -- says the waste-import issue is an example of how the Kremlin's strong presence has effectively broken resistance in the parliament's lower chamber:

"It's all very sad. It's very bad that parliament has withdrawn from the control it should be using over such ecologically dangerous draft laws and deals. It's sad that the government is so actively insistent on earning these $20 billion. And since [the authorities] have the Unity faction and have talked other deputies into going along, there's no hope that the process can be stopped."

What some environmentalists and deputies find most disturbing about the plan is the Atomic Energy Ministry's apparent willingness to store the world's spent nuclear waste on a permanent basis. Greshnevikov explains:

"It's said that the temporary storage will last 40 years, but no one knows what will happen in 20, 30, 40 years. There is no guarantee in this law that the country -- for example, Thailand or Japan -- that brought the spent fuel in for reprocessing will then take it back out in 40 years..."

The Norwegian Bellona environmental association echoes similar concerns, reporting in their newsletter that Russia's tentative proposal to reprocess the imported fuel could be a violation of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, since it entails the extraction of depleted uranium that could then be used for military purposes. For that reason, Bellona says, Russia may only be able to attract customers in one way: by offering permanent disposal.