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Russia: EU Commissioner Showcases Environment

By Jeremy BranstenJeremy BranstenJeremy Bransten

EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom is in Moscow to discuss environmental and nuclear safety issues, as well as prospects for Russia-EU cooperation in the energy field. The EU is especially keen to reach an agreement with Moscow on helping Russia scrap its old nuclear submarines. It is also concerned about continuing high levels of pollution in the Baltic Sea. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 10 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pollution does not recognize political boundaries, but it has taken European governments many years to act on this simple fact.

Sweden, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is emphasizing the environment during its chairmanship -- especially ways in which more prosperous EU states can cooperate with their non-EU neighbors to tackle ecological hazards.

Stockholm has been an especially strong backer of a policy initiative called the "Northern Dimension," which aims to increase links between EU states and their northeastern neighbors -- including Russia.

EU Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, as both a Swede and the Union's top environmental official, is stressing the two priorities during her three-day trip to Moscow this week. Wallstrom's visit comes a week before Russia and the EU are due to hold a summit in the Russian capital.

Two regional environmental problems in Russia concern the EU and its Nordic members most of all: Baltic Sea pollution and the radioactive threat posed by Moscow's decaying nuclear submarines in the Arctic Kola Peninsula.

Four EU members -- Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark -- border the Baltic Sea. Four other nations bordering the sea -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland -- are likely to join the Union in the next few years.

Efforts to rid the sea of pollutants met with some success in the 1970s and '80s, but have stalled over the past decade. Wytze van der Naald, a campaigner against toxic pollutants at the environmental group Greenpeace, explains:

"It's very clear that levels of -- for instance -- PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxins have not decreased in the '90s. So after an initial decrease in the '70s and '80s, they are now stable and still at very high and critical levels for many organisms. Beyond that, there are also quite a lot of new compounds that are found in the Baltic, and even at increasing levels. So the overall picture is that the Baltic Sea is very heavily polluted."

The former Soviet Union was not a party to earlier attempts at reducing Baltic pollution and, as van der Naald notes, Russia today continues to be the region's major polluter. It discharges thousands of tons of raw pollutants into the Baltic every year.

"What we see right now is that although many states -- especially the Scandinavian countries -- did take some measures to reduce their input, in Russia such measures are still lacking."

Paper mills -- especially Russian ones -- are large contributors to Baltic pollution. Van der Naald:

"One type of industry that plays a very big role in the pollution is the pulp and paper industry. About 60 percent of the European paper production comes from the Baltic [region]. What we see, for instance, is that in Russia, in Kaliningrad, there are still three pulp and paper mills using chlorine for the bleaching process while all the other plants around the Baltic Sea already have moved away from chlorine, because it creates a lot of pollution, including dioxins and other organo-chlorines."

Russia has pledged to sign an international treaty later this month in Stockholm which will ban the use of PCBs and other organic pollutants that can be found in everything from coolants and lubricants in electrical transformers to anti-rust paint on ship hulls.

Van der Naald says Russia will need some financial aid from the EU to comply with the treaty's provisions. But what is more important, he stresses, is to encourage Russia to act responsibly by integrating it into a broader European community of nations.

"What is really needed now is, of course, financial and technical assistance from the EU to Russia and some of the Baltic states. But the other thing that is needed is that the Russian authorities and companies actually take responsibility for cleaning up their industries. One example with the pulp and paper industry is that those plants in Russia, they have the money to convert to chlorine-free processes. It's not that expensive. They can do it, but there's no incentive -- there's no pressure from their own government to do so."

The issue of Russia's decaying nuclear submarine fleet, while relatively distant geographically from much of Europe, is even more urgent.

More than 70 aging nuclear-powered submarine await decommissioning on Russia's Arctic Kola Peninsula. Decommissioning a submarine involves cutting out the ship's nuclear reactor, draining it of fuel and storing both the spent fuel and reactor in safe locations.

Russia currently has the capacity to decommission 10 submarines a year but it has no suitable facility to house the drained reactors, which are simply kept afloat in seawater in a sheltered bay. Its lone storage site for spent nuclear fuel -- 40 km from the Norwegian border -- is in danger of falling apart. Igor Kudrin studies the issue for Norway's Bellona Foundation -- which has helped focus the world's attention on Russia's nuclear waste hazard. He explains:

"When you decommission a submarine you get radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. You have to do something with that and there is no infrastructure in place to manage the waste you get when you decommission those submarines."

The United States, through its Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, has already helped Russia decommission 10 submarines. But the program, which comes under the START 1 nuclear arms treaty, is only focused on newer submarines carrying ballistic missiles. Kudrin says:

"They are not taking care of the older submarines -- the first-generation submarines -- which are not ballistic missile submarines. And those old submarines present the major risk. What we've been working for in Bellona is to get the European Union to take care of those old submarines."

Wallstrom has expressed hope that a multilateral treaty with Russia on helping it scrap all of its decommissioned submarines can be agreed on as a result of her visit and the EU-Russia summit. Ideally, the treaty would involve building the infrastructure needed to process the reactors' waste products.

Bellona's Kudrin says the major holdups to a treaty are bureaucratic and financial -- involving customs duties and legal liability. If those issues can be ironed out this month, a treaty could be in the offing.

"The trouble is that when foreign equipment is shipped over the Russian border, then there are some custom taxes which can be up to 40 percent of the equipment's cost. The donor countries are not so eager to pay that 40 percent. When it comes to nuclear liability, internationally -- in Europe at least -- it is regulated by international conventions. This means that if a company delivers equipment to Russia and something happens to that equipment then the company is not held responsible for that accident."

At present, foreign companies could be held liable by Russia for any mishaps -- so no projects involving private enterprise can be expected until the barrier is cleared.

As with Baltic Sea pollution, ensuring the safe elimination of Russia's nuclear hazard on the Kola Peninsula will depend on the EU's ability to have Russia accept European environmental and legal standards and make Moscow see the benefits of close cooperation. It is a tall order to fill but if it happens, then Sweden's term at the helm of the EU will be judged a success.