Moscow, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's lower house of parliament today gave preliminary approval to a controversial three-bill package that would allow Russia to import and store nuclear waste from other countries.
The State Duma passed the three-bill package on the second of three readings. The Duma is to consider the package in a third reading before passing it on to the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, for consideration.
The plan has the support of both the Kremlin and the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, which says the country could earn up to $20 billion by importing and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
Critics point to Russia's poor nuclear-safety standards and say the plan could be disastrous for the environment and human health.
Duma deputy Grigory Yavlinsky, whose liberal Yabloko faction openly opposed the plan, calls the vote a step in the wrong direction:
"According to us, today another step was taken toward a mistake -- which cannot be undone in the future -- to allow the import of nuclear waste to Russia."
The vote came just three weeks after a government reshuffle ousted the plan's author and prime supporter, Yevgeny Adamov, from the top post at the Atomic Energy Ministry. Adamov had come under criticism after a Duma report accused him of corrupt business activities.
Observers had hoped his replacement, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, would temper enthusiasm for the proposal, but Rumyantsev defended the plan at a news conference Monday (April 16). He described the world's spent-fuel market as a rich opportunity that Russia should seize before its foreign reprocessing competitors -- like France's Cogema or Britain's BNFL -- do the same:
"To tell the truth, none of these companies has declared so far that they're competing with Russian reprocessing firms. At present there are around 200,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in the world. Our project is to take 10 percent of this and import it for storage and reprocessing."
Rumyantsev says taking in spent fuel is the only way for Russia to finance repairs to its existing nuclear infrastructure.
But Aleksei Yablokov, the head of environmental affairs under former President Boris Yeltsin, said at a news conference yesterday that Russia's safety standards are insufficient for taking on such a potentially risky project:
"It's the most polluting type of technology. The dirtiest part of the radioactive cycle is the reprocessing. We store it underground, and then it ends up in the Arctic Ocean somewhere."
Environmentalists and independent experts argue that Russia's two existing nuclear storage facilities are already almost full. They have also said the reprocessing itself, which isolates plutonium, puts Russia at danger of nuclear theft and potential terrorism.
Independent nuclear expert Vladimir Kuznetsov told RFE/RL earlier this year he doubted any of the money would finance environmental programs as provided in the bill package. He said most of the revenue would either be gobbled up by costly preparations to transport, store and reprocess the spent fuel, or disappear into Russia's secretive nuclear and defense sectors.
Yavlinsky suggests that Duma deputies who voted in favor of the plan put their own personal interests ahead of the country's welfare:
"The parliamentary factions supporting the atomic energy ministry proved once again that they consciously agreed to the import of nuclear waste to Russia in exchange for money, benefits and privileges, which they will obviously receive."
Attempts to block the import plan through a national referendum failed last year when electoral authorities invalidated some of the nearly 2 million signatures collected to support the vote.