Baikal Watch: Siberia Is Not a (Nuclear) Wasteland

Article excerpt

Nobody wants to have radioactive materials stored in their own backyard. But is shipping the waste from nuclear power plants all the way to Siberia a viable (or even ethical) solution?

Some 65 miles downstream from Lake Baikal, the city of Angarsk, Russia is shaping up to become the next battleground over how to dispose of nuclear waste. Activists in Angarsk are already engaged in a campaign to halt the expansion of a uranium enrichment plant. Now, they fear that government plans to enrich atomic fuel might lead to the massive importation of nuclear waste from countries around the globe. Environmentalists' fears center on a proposed agreement between the Russian and American governments that could help set up Siberia as a permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuels. The unique ecosystem to the west of Lake Baikal, already abused by other heavy industries, faces a new threat.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Siberia is not a wasteland. With almost a quarter of all the liquid freshwater in the world, Lake Baikal--the planet's deepest lake--is a global treasure. The lake is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which are found nowhere else. Local residents fear that an accident during transport or storage of nuclear waste could lead to radioactive contamination that would ruin this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dumping Ground

Nuclear power has been on the wane for a generation. One of the major reasons for this is that the industry has still not found a way to store the spent nuclear fuel that will remain dangerously radioactive for at least 10,000 year after use.

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A large nuclear reactor produces about 25 tons of spent fuel each year. The US alone has amassed about 45,000 tons of spent fuel from its nuclear reactors, about a quarter of all the waste worldwide. And most of this radioactive material remains in temporary storage facilities--until, that is, it can find a more permanent home.

Siberia--isolated, impoverished may appear to some as the ideal place to set up a permanent storage site for the world's nuclear waste.

In May, US and Russian negotiators signed the US-Russia Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation that would allow for the shipment of nuclear fuel to Russia. Currently, it is against US law to ship to Russia any nuclear fuel of US origin. The new agreement would change that, and give other countries an opportunity to dispose of their nuclear waste in Russia as long as their fuel originally came from the US.

Some US policy makers see the new arrangement as a way to finally resolve the issue of spent radioactive waste while at the same time strengthening anti-weapons proliferation programs. Having a large global repository would supposedly be safer and cheaper, and guard against radioactive materials falling into the wrong hands. For the Russians--especially profiteers in Moscow--the plan is yet another way to make money off of the country's vastness.

It is no secret that Russia has become the land of the oligarch, a place full of schemes to get rich quick. In the last decade, profits from Russia's petroleum and natural gas industries have created a new class of nouveau riche who apparently have no qualms about auctioning off their country's resources to the highest bidder. And now some in Moscow feel that it would be just as easy to sell the supposed "wastelands" of Siberia as a perfect place to dump the world's nuclear wastes. …