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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Groups Rally Against Nuclear Storage Plan

ST. PETERSBURG — As the Nuclear Power Ministry prepares to push for a new law to allow Russia to profit from the import of nuclear waste, 200 organizations are trying to force the government to hold a referendum on the subject.

To do so, the organizations — which include Greenpeace, the human rights group Citizen’s Watch, the St. Petersburg Center for Gender Studies and the Association of Environmental Journalists — are attempting to gather 2 million signatures from people across the country. But some of those out canvassing say the indifference of the population is greater than they expected.

Russian environmental law bans the import of spent nuclear fuel for storage or burial. It also forbids the disposal of imported waste at sea or in space.

But during the upcoming fall session of the State Duma, Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov plans to try to get the law amended so that Russia can import, store and reprocess other countries’ spent fuel as a way to bring in money.

At the moment, the law does allow spent-fuel reprocessing on Russian territory — which yields uranium and plutonium — but not the storage of the subsequent and highly radioactive waste product. Technically speaking, that waste has to be shipped back to its country of origin. Ministry figures mention the possibility of importing 20,000 tons of spent fuel over a period of 10 to 15 years, using prepayments to improve existing storage facilities and build new ones.

The Nuclear Power Ministry has said the amendment would bring as much as $21 billion to Russia. Dr. Claire Maden, spokeswoman for the Uranium Institute in London, said that countries such as the United States and Sweden have disposed entirely of their nuclear waste without reprocessing it, on the grounds that the by-products increased the risk of weapons proliferation.

"The space they have to store the spent fuel is running out, and this is probably where the Russian plan comes in," she said.

Activists want a national vote on the plan that officials say could bring $21 billion.

During a conference on nuclear issues in St. Petersburg in June, Vladimir Klimov, head of the Duma’s committee on power, industry and transport, said the scheme was the perfect solution to the nuclear sector’s financial problems.

But Natalya Mironova of the Chelyabinsk-based group For Nuclear Safety said Russia needs to improve its own record on handling nuclear materials before it can even think of dealing with those of other countries.

Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, former head of the now disbanded State Committee for the Environment, said there is no orderly system of storing nuclear waste in Russia. "We don’t have modern storage facilities that meet even the most basic safety requirements," he said.

The petition’s organizers also question the economic wisdom of the plan. "In France, storage sites have to be repaired fairly often to prevent leakages [of nuclear waste]," said Alexander Karpov of the St. Petersburg Natural Science Society. "To make storage safe, we would have to spend the lion’s share of revenue raised on repairs to our sites."

Russian law states that 2 million signatures have to be gathered in 61 of the 89 subjects of the federation before a referendum proposal can go to the Central Election Committee.

Karpov said signatures are now being gathered in 62 regions — including Moscow and St. Petersburg — which were chosen because they have the strongest environmental movements.

But college student Dmitry Bagamov, who volunteered to gather signatures in St. Petersburg, said most people signing are either youngsters or pensioners, with most others uninterested.

"Frankly, I expected more people to care about the environment," he said. "I have been stunned by such an indifferent attitude. It was particularly frustrating to find out that so many people refuse to give their passport details, being afraid that we will try to swindle them somehow."

The petition’s organizers said they have gathered only about 7,000 signatures in St. Petersburg so far. Nationwide numbers were not available.