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Russia: Environmentalists Fight Import Of Nuclear Waste

A Russian government project to import spent nuclear fuel had led to a clash with environmentalists that could be decided by a national referendum. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 11 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials say the only way of cleaning up the country's nuclear waste mess is to import more of it.

According to calculations by Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry, importing 20,000 tons of waste from the West and Asia could add as much as $21 billion to the cash-strapped Russian budget. The ministry says that spent fuel would be reprocessed to isolate uranium and plutonium for future use, and the leftover waste put into protective storage.

Russian environmentalists challenge the ministry's logic. They say that Russia does not even have enough secure storage space for its own nuclear waste, not to mention imports.

But Atomic Energy Minister Evgeny Adamov rejects all criticism of the project. He told a Moscow conference today that Russia does have sufficient storage space for its own waste and that at least one container is standing empty. He said that reprocessing foreign waste was completely safe, and dismissed the environmentalists, whose cause, he says, "depends on the amount of money [they were] offered."

Adamov said that the environmentalists' use of the words "radioactive" and "waste" were actually incorrect.

"We do not plan to import radioactive waste. [Rather,] nuclear fuel [which] is the most valuable energy and strategic raw material, because there will be less and less other fuel available. Whoever calls it 'waste' either has a bad memory or mixes things up on purpose."

Article 50 in the country's law on the "protection of the environment" clearly prohibits the import of dangerous waste material. But last month, the State Duma's ecological committee approved amendments to the article that in effect would overturn an absolute prohibition on importing nuclear waste.

The full Duma is expected to vote on the issue next month.

Two days ago (Oct 9), Greenpeace Russia and local environmental groups from radioactivity-contaminated districts in the Urals -- like the village of Muslumovo, infamous for its high number of cancers and birth defects -- poured contaminated soil onto the Duma steps in protest. In a statement released by Greenpeace, Gosman Kaboriv -- a 43-year-old teacher with radiation sickness -- said: "We are already living on a nuclear waste dump that is giving us cancer. It's crazy to send [us] even more nuclear waste."

Aleksei Yablokov, one of Russia's most respected specialists on the ecological effects of nuclear energy and an adviser to former President Boris Yeltsin, recently told RFE/RL that he strongly disagrees with the idea of Russia importing nuclear waste. He said that the long-term effects of radioactive waste have not been sufficiently studied.

"Officially, they talk about [storing the waste in Russia] for 40 years, but who will take it back after 40 years? We [environmentalists] say that we shouldn't do that, that we don't have the right to leave such enormous problems for future generations to solve. No one knows what to do with radioactive waste -- it's an unresolved problem. We bury it several hundred meters deep, but what will happen in the future is not clear."

Yablokov also says that reprocessing nuclear fuel to isolate plutonium and uranium itself generates new waste. He says the government's main aim is to make a lot of money and to use the plutonium in an ambitious program to expand the use of nuclear energy.

The possibility of Article 50 being amended by a Kremlin-friendly Duma has led to a new counterattack by environmentalists, who are now seeking to organize a national referendum to block the government's project.

The Russian Constitution and a 1995 constitutional law allows for a group of more than 1,000 citizens to initiate a referendum by collecting at least 2 million signatures in support of a clearly stated question. For the past three months, eight environmental organizations -- including Greenpeace Russia, the World Wildlife Fund and ecological groups from Siberia -- have collected 2 million signatures. They are hoping to collect another half-million signatures by the October 25 deadline.

If the Russia's Central Electoral Committee and the constitutional court then agree, the referendum would go ahead.

Russian citizens would be asked to answer a simple question: Are you in favor of importing nuclear waste? If the result of the referendum is 'no,' then it -- rather than a Duma-passed amendment -- would have the power of law.

At his press conference today, Adamov called the referendum an attempt to "manipulate public opinion." It would, he said, "make dummies out of Russian citizens."