Ecologists Warn of Dangers to City of Nuclear Waste Cargo

Friday, January 25, 2008

By Galina Stolyarova, the St. Petersburg Times

As 2,000 tons of radioactive cargo arrived at St. Petersburg’s port from Germany on Thursday, environmental groups took to the streets to inform city residents about the growing imports of nuclear materials and the dangers the trade imposes.

The MV Schouwenbank cargo ship, carrying containers with a total of 2,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride, came from the Gronau uranium enrichment facility that belongs to Urenco Deutschland. The radioactive load on board the ship is due to be sent by rail to the town of Novouralsk in Siberia for reprocessing and storage.

The Russian ecologists — who gathered for a small demonstration on Malaya Konnyushennaya in downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday afternoon — learned about the cargo from their German counterparts who had organized eight protest events on the route of the nuclear load. The Russians have complained about the secrecy surrounding the transportation of spent nuclear fuel and other types of nuclear cargo.

For security reasons, any information about the transfer is difficult to obtain from officials in Russia, with their main concern being that the release of such information would spark panic among members of the public.

Olga Tsepilova, deputy head of the environmental faction of liberal party Yabloko and an environmental scientist with the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Russia has signed contracts with India, Pakistan and China — states rapidly bolstering their nuclear programs — to receive spent nuclear fuel and uranium hexafluoride for reprocessing.

Tsepilova said the independent safety monitoring of Russia’s nuclear facilities is being made complicated by the country’s security services. In 2004 the scientist herself faced espionage charges as she tried to collect materials for a dissertation on Russia’s nuclear cities.

Although Tsepilova was a scientist working legally on her dissertation, she was denied access to a nuclear facility at Ozersk, a town in the Urals.

“The nuclear industry in Russia is highly corrupt but tracing misappropriation of money is very complicated bearing in mind that external control is restricted,” Tsepilova said. “Outsiders can just compare the slow tempos of construction of new nuclear facilities and record speed with which the nuclear bosses are building luxurious mansions for themselves and their families.”

In June 1999, the Nuclear Power Ministry and the U.S.-based Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT), signed a letter of intent, according to which Russia would accept at least 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Switzerland, South Korea and Taiwan for reprocessing and storage for at least 40 years. For its services, Russia would charge between $1,000 and $2,000 per kilogram of spent fuel — much cheaper than other countries that store and reprocess foreign nuclear fuel.

Although the advocates of the move had argued that the money raised through reprocessing would help in building new storage facilities for Russia’s own fuel and help boost its nuclear industry, environmentalists say the results have been discouraging.

“What we have seen is just an ever-increasing proportion of foreign nuclear waste,” Tsepilova said.

Russia currently boasts 700,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, with 100,000 tons coming from abroad.

Environmentalists argue that the safety of nuclear transportation in Russia leaves much to be desired, with inadequate guarding and monitoring. As Rashid Alimov, the Malaya Konnyushennaya meeting’s principle organizer and editor of environmental website, pointed out, the risks are high.

“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 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.”

“Transport accidents of all sorts are very common in Russia; trains often collide, go off the rails or fall from bridges,” the ecologist added. “In November 2007 we learned about an accident at a local enterprise when a vehicle containing radioactive was overturned.”

Oleg Bodrov, chairman of environmental group Green World, which is located in the town of Sosnovy Bor and monitors the nearby Leningrad Nuclear Power Station (LAES), called for greater international responsibility in handling radioactive material.

“The solution of sending the spent nuclear fuel to Russia seems convenient, but in reality it conceals many dangerous pitfalls,” he said. “Lax safety procedures and St. Petersburg’s location on the Baltic coast make for a dangerous combination. If a leak or any other accident occurs, the other countries on the coast would suffer. It is high time to stop looking at the Baltic Sea purely as a convenient transportation route for all kinds of cargo.”

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