Russia as Nuclear Garbageman? ; on Feb. 22, Duma Considers Plan to Allow Import of Radioactive Waste for Profit, as Public Objects

Article excerpt

It's a dirty job, but the country could get rich doing it, say supporters of a draft law that could turn Russia into the world's biggest importer of nuclear waste.

It's a catastrophe in the making, counter environmentalists and other critics, who say the idea of taking in other countries' radioactive garbage is just a scheme to turn a quick profit and could lead to nuclear accidents.

At issue is legislation, facing a second reading in the Duma on Feb. 22, that would legalize the import of spent fuel from foreign nuclear reactors to be treated and stored in Russian facilities. The proposal appears to be on the fast track to approval, after passing its first reading in December by 319 to 38 votes. Bills require three readings in the Duma, the lower house, before being taken up by the Federation Council.

The Ministry of Atomic Energy, known as MinAtom, claims the plan could reap $21 billion over the next decade, vault Russia into first place in the burgeoning global nuclear-services industry, and provide cash to clean up radioactive hot spots - ecological disaster zones from the Soviet era.

"Our aim is to make Russia competitive in one of the most lucrative high- tech industries," says Yury Bespalko, spokesman for MinAtom, a vast empire that controls Russia's 29 civilian atomic power reactors, most nuclear-related scientific work and also many aspects of military research and weapons production. "We have the technology and the necessary facilities, but we need fresh sources of income."

Mr. Bespalko says he expects the legislation to be passed and importation to begin before year's end.

MinAtom has recently sold Russian atomic power stations to Iran and India, and is eagerly eyeing the Chinese market, where plans call for building up to 20 nuclear power stations at a cost of $50 billion in coming decades. "Russia must be able to provide the full service to prospective customers in this highly competitive field, including storage and reprocessing of spent fuel," says Alexander Kosarikov, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin Unity party. "And why not? Russian nuclear products are reliable, safe, popular and comparatively cheap."

Grass-roots opposition

Environmental critics of the proposed law tell a very different story. They say the Kremlin has used political pressure and outright chicanery to bulldoze the law through, despite widespread popular opposition. Last year, in one of Russia's first-ever mass grass-roots advocacy campaigns, a coalition of ecological groups gathered 2.5 million signatures on a petition calling for a public referendum on the proposal.

Under Russian law, a vote must be held if 2 million citizens demand it. …