Sunday, March 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Importing Nuclear Wastes Threatens Russians’ Health, Ecologists Warn

Paul Goble

Baku, March 24 – Flaunting both its own laws prohibiting the practice and the health and well-being of its people, Russia is the only country whose government continues to import the highly radioactive byproducts from the processing of uranium into fuel for reactors, according to the Bellona Ecological Organization of St. Petersburg.
Indeed, its activists say, ships carrying this radioactive waste arrive in the northern capital every month, where it is transferred to trains that pass through populated areas. Last week, they found, that the background radiation in one district was 30 times normal as a result (
According to the Bellona group, which earlier attracted notice when Captain Vladimir Nikitin exposed Soviet and Russian nuclear dumping in the Barents Sea, Russian officials and Russian businessmen are quite prepared to continue this illegal practice because radioactive wastes, like the money they bring, “do not smell.”
Rosatom, the Russian government agency that oversees nuclear issues, insists that what it is doing is entirely legal because it is importing this waste for reprocessing rather than burial, something for which, its officials say, Moscow possessed “a unique technology and personnel qualified” to do so.
But the Bellona ecologists and other experts with whom the news agency spoke say that Rosatom “uses nuclear wastes from other countries also because the latter pay” Moscow well for taking them off its hands. Moreover, the experts say, other countries have the same technology Moscow has but choose not to use it.
And the Bellona group adds that according to its calculations, “part of the imported ‘tailings’ [as this kind of nuclear waste is known] are not subjected to any further processing but simply kept at Russian enterprises under the open sky,” an invitation for radiation leaks and contamination.
Last year, Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko implicitly admitted that the charges against his agency in this area were true when he said that it would not extend any future contracts. But despite that, the ships continue to arrive, and Bellona estimates that there are now 700,000 tons of such foreign nuclear wastes in Russia.
Rashid Alimov, a Bellona ecologist, says that moving so much material around is dangerous. Containers can crack and radioactivity can be released in densely populated areas through which Russian trains passing from the St. Petersburg ports through Moscow proceed.
And when these wastes do get to where they are now stored in places like Novouralsk in Sverdlovsk oblast, Angarsk in Irkutsk oblast, Seversk in Tomsk oblast, and Zelenogorsk in Krasnoyarsk kray, he added, they are typically kept under the open sky where the elements can degrade the containers in which these materials are kept. Another Russian agency, Rostekhnadzor, agrees with Bellona that the practice is dangerous – in its reports for 2004-2006, it found heightened levels of radiation-related illness among children near these storage facilities -- but Rosatom refused to discuss the matter, invoking secrecy and insisting that everything it does is legal and safe.
Consequently, while other countries – like the United States – have blocked the import and storage of such wastes produced outside their borders and others – like Germany – have pledged to get all such wastes out of their countries by 2011, Russian leaders are going ahead, happy to take money from those who want to be safe.
The Russian parliament, as first deputy chairman of the Duma ecology committee Petr Romanov acknowledged in comments to, has not exercised tight oversight, accepting instead the reassurances and promises of Rosatom and the agency’s pointed observation that its operations are highly profitable.
But the new Bellona report and polls showing that most Russian citizens oppose such imports because of the health risks involved could change that. If in fact they don’t, then that outcome will be just one more indication of the contempt the Kremlin has for its own people as its leaders continue to pursue their own personal enrichment.

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