St. Petersburg Times, 1 December 2000 By Anna Badkhen
Moscow – The Central Elections Commission on Wednesday dealt a blow to environmentalists’ hopes of blocking the import of spent nuclear fuel into the country, turning down the 2.5 million signatures they collected in support of a national referendum. Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov has been aggressively lobbying for a change in the federal law that states that Russia cannot accept foreign spent nuclear fuel for long-term storage. He argues that by changing the law, Russia could earn billions of dollars that could be put to good use. Environmentalists, including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, fear this would turn Russia into a nuclear dump and turned to a referendum to prevent the law from being changed.
The referendum would have asked whether voters opposed the importation of radioactive materials for storage, reprocessing or burying. But citing numerous technical inaccuracies, the Central Elections Commission on Monday struck off more than a fifth of the 2.5 million signatures collected across the country this fall, leaving the environmentalists with just over 1.8 million signatures – 200,000 short of the 2 million needed to force a referendum.
A bill introduced by Adamov that would amend the law is tentatively scheduled for hearings in the State Duma on Dec. 19. Had the CEC agreed to accept at least 2 million of the collected signatures, the hearing would have had to have been canceled, as stipulated by the referendum law. But now, environmentalists say, there is nothing to stop the Duma from passing Adamov’s bill, which would allow his ministry to go ahead with a deal to accept up to 20,000 tons of spent fuel from 14 countries in Asia and Europe for 50 years of storage. “The authorities do not allow people to use democratic means to prevent Russia from being turned into a radioactive dump,” said Vladimir Slivyak, a leader of the Moscow-based Ecodefense! group, one of the groups behind the referendum drive.
A CEC spokesman said its experts disqualified the 600,000-plus signatures because of numerous violations: missing signatures, wrongly stated passport numbers, and so on. But Slivyak and other activists said the real reason was that the election commission was ordered to block the referendum by the government. “[CEC Chairman Alexander] Veshnyakov did as he was told [by the Kremlin],” said Thomas Nilsen, a researcher at the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which supported the referendum drive. Igor Farafontov of Greenpeace and Alexei Yablokov, former President Boris Yeltsin’s environmental adviser, said they will challenge the CEC’s decision in court. “Of course, we will not get back all the signatures we need, but it will draw attention to the issue,” Yablokov said. “It would be simply stupid for the Duma, for the government, to ignore the people’s wish to keep their country clean of nuclear junk.” But according to Nilsen, chances of the Duma passing the bill next month “are very high.” “There are no more obstacles for the bill to be passed,” he said in a telephone interview from Oslo.
The Nuclear Power Ministry could not be reached for comment.
By amending the federal law, Adamov would nail down a spent fuel import deal he has been nursing for over a year with U.S.-based Non-Proliferation Trust. None of the spent fuel, however, would come from the United States. The deal, Adamov says, would raise tens of billions of dollars, which could be spent on anything from cleaning up the sites of nuclear catastrophes to paying off the International Monetary Fund. And under the deal, after 50 years the fuel is to be sent back to its country of origin. Speaking with foreign journalists on Tuesday, Adamov denied that Russia intended to import nuclear fuel for disposal. Environmentalists, though, are skeptical that the spent fuel will ever be sent back. They have only to look to Kozloduy – a Bulgarian power plant that struck a deal with Adamov’s ministry to have its spent fuel stored in Russia earlier this fall – that said in October that its fuel will never be returned to Bulgaria. Reprocessing makes the fuel less dangerous but still produces uranium, plutonium and huge quantities of radioactive wastewater.
The referendum would also have asked voters whether they supported the existence of a separate state environmental protection agency and of a state forestry service. In May, President Vladimir Putin by presidential decree closed the State Environmental Committee and the State Forestry Committee, handing their affairs over to the Natural Resources Ministry – the body that licenses oil drilling and metals mining, and which the green movement says is itself one of the major environmental violators.