Russia: Nuclear Dustbin of the World

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia: Nuclear Dustbin of the World


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


RUSSIA is proposing to become the nuclear dustbin of the industrialized world - for a price. Part of that price would have to be borne by the unconsulted Russian public.

All over the industrialized world, atomic power plant construction is significantly slowing down because of unresolved safety considerations dramatically illustrated by recent nuclear power accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union, and Three Mile Island in the United States. Additional difficulties have stemmed from mankind's failure to develop a safe, permanent means of disposing long-lived nuclear waste. Russia now is volunteering to store such wastes under a questionable safety regime.

The risks are appallingly high. They are generated, among other things, by industrial inefficiency and corruption as well as organized criminals and political terrorists attracted by materials capable of mass destruction. On 13 September President Yeltsin moved swiftly to increase security at nuclear facilities after a series of Islamic terrorist bombings at Moscow apartment buildings.

Moscow intends to import nuclear wastes from Switzerland and several countries of the European Union (EU) in addition to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere.

If the public disquiet provoked by an agreement to resume nuclear waste shipments by rail between Germany and France is any indication, the venture will prove highly controversial. France has introduced a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants and Germany intends to phase out 19 plants yielding a third of its current electric energy consumption.

Russia has already taken steps to tighten international multi-modal freight transport standards in order to improve security essential for its projected wastes import business.

The first secret outline accord committing Russia to the non-returnable import of 2,000 tonnes of highly radioactive nuclear waste over the next 30 years for roughly $2bn has just been clinched by a group of Swiss electricity companies. The Swiss argue that the money would enable Russia to deal with its colossal domestic nuclear pollution.

Environment protection groups fear that, to the contrary, the deal may well swell the secret bank accounts of the Russian mafia in countries like Switzerland while exacerbating the dangers inherent in the obsolete nuclear power industry, both civilian and military, left behind by the former Soviet Union.

Russia's extensive railway network has emerged as the major player in the developing nuclear freight transport business for the following reasons:

* the logistics imposed on the inland transport industry by Russia's geographical constraints;

* the multiplicity of exporting countries in the East and West which are to despatch nuclear cargoes to Russia; and

* the need to site the first projected nuclear waste storage or reprocessing facilities devoted to the service at a remote location - such as Krasnoyarsk in Siberia where the construction of a reprocessing plant suspended in 1989 due to lack of investment may now be resumed.

The Russian railways - which carried 1,100bn tonne/km of freight in 1997 (five times the volume attained by the combined railway system of the EU) - are relatively well prepared for the challenge. But the Russia public, which is deeply suspicious of the safety standards of the domestic nuclear power and transport industry as well as the corruptibility of its public officials, is not.

Igor Forofontov of the increasingly vocal Greenpeace Moscow organization says the freight transport proposition would pose simply unacceptable risks to environmental safety. Many also fear that Western income raised by the notoriously crime-infested Russian transport and energy industries through the nuclear waste business could fuel the accelerating and economically ruinous capital flight from Russia which has now reached $17bn a year, according to the Institute of Economics, Russian Academy of Sciences. …

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