10,000 Tons Of Waste Headed for City

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Up to 10,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride are expected to travel through St. Petersburg in the next six months, according to the local branch of the international environmental pressure group Bellona. The next cargo is expected to arrive in town in early October.

Arriving by sea, the radioactive material will then be sent by rail to the town of Novouralsk in Siberia for reprocessing and storage. Most of the cargo arrives in Russia from the Netherlands and Germany but Russia has signed contracts with India, Pakistan and China — states that are rapidly bolstering their nuclear programs — and looks set to receive even more spent nuclear fuel and uranium hexafluoride for reprocessing.

"Alarmingly, the trains that carry the hazardous cargo originate at the Avtovo railway station, very near residential areas," said Rashid Alimov, head of Bellona's St. Petersburg branch, at an environmental conference on nuclear safety this week. "Worse, as our investigations have shown, most of the locals in the area have absolutely no idea about the risks that they are regularly being exposed to as a result of the dangerous transfers."

According to official sources, cargos containing depleted uranium hexafluoride arrive in the city on average ten times a month.

Alimov said radioactivity levels near the trains have significantly exceeded the norm on several occasions over the past year.

"For example, when we measured the levels in March 2008, our equipment showed 680 microroentgen per hour, which is a health- threatening level: the norm is less than ten percent of that amount," Alimov said.

The environmentalists described "a cloud of secrecy" surrounding nuclear transportation.

"We are especially worried by the fact that Russian environmental groups are constantly denied any opportunity of an independent control and monitoring of the traffic," Alimov said. "Despite numerous requests, officials have refused to inform us about rescue or clean-up plans that would be implemented should an accident happen."

The authorities insist they are in full control and do not welcome any help from ecological groups.

Speaking at the conference earlier this week, Oleg Muratov, head of the public council of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency, said there has not been a single road accident involving radioactive materials during the history of its transportation in the country.

"The nuclear industry is crucially important for Russia; our country provides nuclear fuel for every third nuclear reactor in the world," Muratov said. "This earns the state budget a tremendous amount of money: the export of nuclear fuel is Russia's third most profitable export, after the export of oil and gas."

Tatyana Minina, a spokeswoman for the Oktyabrskaya Railroads, said her company has invested over 100 billion rubles into enhancing the safety of trains — both passenger and cargo trains — over the past five years.

"We also have our own environmental monitoring service and provide a round-the-clock control over leaks, crashes or any other potentially dangerous situations," Minina said.

Alimov warns, however, that transport accidents are still very common in Russia, with trains sometimes colliding or going off the rails and even falling off bridges.

"Russia's transport system is not immune to accidents and if an accident involving radioactive material happens in St. Petersburg, the price that the city would pay would be much too high," Alimov said. "If a transport accident occurs that breaks the hermetic seal of a container which is loaded with spent nuclear fuel, it may result in lethal cases of radiation poisoning in a 32-kilometer radius from the site of the spill."

Igor Merkushev, a lawmaker with the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, said the parliament's Health Care and Environment Commission will investigate the details of the transport of nuclear materials. The deputy also said the assembly is working on a law on radiation safety and has discussed the possibility of persuading the federal authorities not to allow nuclear traffic to pass through St. Petersburg.

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