Everything is changing at the top of Russia’s Minatom. A change of leadership, a change of policy,and accusations of corruption against the previous administration makes for interesting times.
President Vladimir Putin has replaced the nuclear power minister Yevgeny Adamov, to the complete surprise of officials at Minatom, who had believed that Adamov’s position was unshakable since his policies had both government and presidential support. However, he had been coming under mounting pressure for alleged corruption, abuse of office and a controversial plan to import spent nuclear fuel for storage, and reportedly asked to be relieved of his post. His successor was another surprise – career scientist Alexander Rumyantsev, executive director of the Moscow-based Kurchatov Institute.
Legislators and environmental activists welcomed the change of face, although it seems unlikely that it will herald any significant change in Minatom’s policies. Announcing Adamov’s resignation, Putin said he “did a lot to strengthen the industry” and that is “a fact”. However, he remains the subject of an investigation into whether he used his ministerial post to boost the USA-based consulting and trading company, Omeka, in which he holds a stake. The State Duma’s anti-corruption commission issued a 20-page report at the beginning of this month questioning Adamov’s ties to Omeka and his purchase of houses in Switzerland and the USA. The report also accused him of dismissing Minatom experts and replacing them with business partners incompetent in the field. The Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating the allegations and its “work is still going on,” according to spokeswoman Natalya Vishnyakova.
Adamov’s lobbying for the Duma to pass bills allowing the import of spent nuclear fuel had also angered environmentalists. Minatom hopes to earn $20 billion over 12 years by accepting 20,000 tonnes of spent fuel for processing and storage. However, anti-nuclear protests caused lawmakers to postpone a second hearing on the bills to allow for further discussion.
Sergei Mitrokhin, a Duma deputy with the Yabloko faction opposed to the project, was unsure how Adamov’s departure would affect it. He did not know Rumantsyev’s position on scheme but said: “I know that his reputation is very good, and this is the most important thing that distinguishes him from Adamov.” Vladimir Slivyak, co-founder of the Ecodefense environmental organisation, believes Rumyantsev supports the import plan, noting that last year the Kurchatov Institute and Minatom had drawn up a plan to take nuclear waste from Thailand for storage near Sakhalin island in the Far East.
The consensus seems to be that policies will remain the same but their implementation may be slower. Vladimir Kuznetsov, formerly with the nuclear inspectorate Gosatomnadzor and current director of the Russian Green Cross programme for nuclear safety, said he did not expect any change, but he also questioned Rumyantsev’s management skills. “He has failed to raise money to dispose of radioactive waste on his territory,” he said. “He has 2,000 tonnes of radioactive waste and 900 rods with spent liquid nuclear fuel that are kept in mostly unsafe conditions on the two hectares of area that the institute controls. Some of the storage facilities are just large pits in the ground!” Rumyantsev has said little about his plans apart from stressing the need to develop the nuclear industry. In his first public statements as nuclear minister, he said the nuclear industry has made great progress over the last few years “and this is precisely what we must preserve. I don’t want to jeopardise this,” he insisted. “My first steps will be to study the situation. I have been working in the industry for 32 years. It is like a home to me, but all the same I must find out everything that is going on.” He said he thought the import plan was “expedient” but added, “we must thoroughly discuss the exact way in which it could be implemented”. He believes there is a great need to explode the myth that anything nuclear is dangerous or to be feared. Only then can the industry can develop dynamically.
During his first days as minister, Rumyantsev stayed in his old office at the Kurchatov Institute leaving Minatom in the hands of two first deputy ministers – Vladimir Vinogradov and Valentin Ivanov. His Kurchatov colleagues have welcomed his appointment. Kurchatov vice president Nikolai Ponomaryov-Stepnoi insists that Rumyantsev is “a very organised person who always makes intelligent and balanced decisions”. He said Minatom should be headed by a “unique person”, especially as it functions as “a state within a state” with its own closed cities, electric power stations, industrial production and scientific centres. He believes Rumyantsev will continue to seek permission to import spent fuel.
Kurchatov president Yevgeny Velikhov said the new minister faced many tasks. “The top priority task is to maintain the entire nuclear defence complex. Americans spend some $60 billion a year for this purpose. Our expenses are, of course, much lower, but the tasks we have to tackle are no less complex.
“The fact that nuclear power engineering is on the rise in the whole world now, since it gives the cheapest electricity, is no less important. In our country, too, nuclear power engineering helps to maintain economic stability. But there are also prospects connected with the Russian president’s initiatives as regards the non-proliferation of nuclear military technologies and international cooperation in developing fast natural safety reactors. Most of the nuclear ministry’s problems are of a nationwide character and the new minister will have to shoulder all of them.” Kurchatov employees say their director is ‘a work-horse’ who keeps the institute afloat. He is both a skillful administrator and a good scientist. “They demand from him heat, reagents, and salaries paid on time. He also has a crowd of students, and sometimes he carries out experiments himself.” Washington will be watching developments closely, according to senior officials. “We think that the atomic energy ministry has been tolerating if not supporting the transfer of sensitive technologies to Iran,” one official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity. “Whether the change in leadership stops that or not we’ll have to see ... it’s hard to say, but we’ll be obviously watching carefully because we think that ministry has not been acting consistently with the kind of assurances that we’ve been getting from Putin.”
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