Environmental organisations oppose Russian waste imports

30 October 2000

Russia’s nuclear fuel storage and reprocessing problems will worsen under the present government and the country must look abroad for help, claims environmentalist and former navy officer Aleksandr Nikitin.

Speaking recently at the American Chemicals Society’s meeting in Washington, DC, US, Nikitin described his fears over the waste arising from Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet.

“The problem of nuclear waste is that it has transcended borders and become international,” said Nikitin, and he said that no other region can compete with Northern Russia for the scale of its nuclear inventory. With 270 nuclear reactors, it represents some 18% of the global total.

Russian’s northern fleet has 50 nuclear submarines in active service, and a further 110 submarines due for decommissioning, 72 of which still contain nuclear fuel. Nikitin claims that submarine design engineers estimate that a vessel with fuel on board can stay afloat for only five years without representing an enironmental hazard, but he says some submarines in Russia remain afloat for 10-15 years.

“Scrapping of these subs is a very slow process,” he explains. “In 1999, under a US-financed programme, six submarines were scrapped, and another eight were due to be scrapped in 2000 under the same programme.” However, this finance is only for missile-firing submarines and not other types. In all, Nikitin has calculated that in the Northern and Pacific fleets there is currently 60t of fuel to dispose of. In addition there is 150t of existing spent nuclear fuel awaiting disposal.

“Under a closed fuel cycle,” he says, “this should be reprocessed into fresh fuel.” This would involve shipping the cargo by train to a reprocessing centre. However, Russia has a problem transporting fuel. ”There is only one train available to transport this fuel, and it can carry two to three nuclear cores - but there are some 370 cores waiting to be transported,” says Nikitin. If present rates are maintained, it could take 15-18 years to shift it all.

In fact, Nikitin said, the Bellona foundation, of which he is an active member, is against transporting spent fuel, and believes it should be placed in storage facilities in the north and far east. “But the problem is that there is no storage up to international safety standards available. There is no facility for storing spent fuel and no facility for processing liquid waste.” The situation presents a great danger to environmental health, and environmentalists trying to solve the problems are persecuted and prosecuted in Russia, Nikitin claims. Last year, he said, the government ordered re-registration of all non-governmental organisations, and half disbanded as a result. ”Environmental activists, journalists and scientists are prosecuted by police and FSB security services [the former KGB],” says Nikitin. “Letters from the government to NGOs say that environmentalists damage the economy by spreading such information - [consequently] it is now difficult to get hold of such information, as all information regarding nuclear power plants, waste and fuel is classified.” Nikitin is also concerned that the Russian government under new president Vladimir Putin has disbanded the environmental protection agency and other organisations, and at the same time is open to accepting spent fuel and nuclear waste from overseas. Nikitin has spent time lobbying US ministers against the issue.”The position of [Russian] ministers is that the vast land of Russia can accept waste without detriment to health. We disagree, and are asking for help of the people, but we need both Russia and foreigners on our side.” As the bulk of fuel potentially to be transported to Russia comes from USA, Nikitin says ‘During my last trip to the US I visited the White House and I relayed that the US should not agree to sign that part of the agreement. I appeal to US scientists to support our position,’ he added.

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