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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Russia Wants Waste

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Last month the State Duma voted overwhelmingly to approve a government-backed law that will amend current legislation and allow Russia to import highly radioactive waste from foreign countries. While this was not the final reading of the bill, its eventual approval seems virtually inevitable.

This result seems strange at first glance since all polls show that the Russian public is unequivocally opposed to such imports. Last fall environmental activists collected more than 2.5 million signatures calling for a national referendum on the issue. But the Central Elections Commission rejected this petition on a technicality, and now Duma deputies have shown no difficulty voting against the clearly expressed will of their constituencies.

Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov has predicted Russia will earn up to $20 billion over the next 10 to 15 years by importing foreign waste. Adamov and other officials have stressed that spent nuclear fuel is not "waste," but a valuable commodity. After reprocessing, they maintain, plutonium and uranium may be extracted and recycled. They also try to make the idea more palatable by saying that proceeds from these imports will be used to clean up existing contaminated zones.

It is certainly true that many areas of the country are radioactively contaminated: The worst zone is in the Urals, in the region around Chelyabinsk. However, there are simply no effective means of "cleaning" large-scale radioactive contamination.

When relatively small radioactive spills occur, the contaminated earth is put into steel barrels and buried somewhere. Hard surfaces are washed with water and detergent. These methods are obviously not practical when hundreds of square kilometers are contaminated. After the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, there were initial attempts to wash down roads and buildings with detergent, but they were soon abandoned and everything was just left to decompose naturally.

The claim that imported waste will be "reprocessed" is also a sham. After all, Russia does not have enough capacity to reprocess the spent nuclear fuel that it produces itself. More importantly, reprocessing spent nuclear fuel does not make economic sense. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States have been dismantling their nuclear arsenals and many Western countries have been scaling back their civilian nuclear power programs. As a result, the world is awash with cheap uranium and there is simply no realistic market for recycled plutonium.

So why, then, do the Duma and the Kremlin support such a dangerous and doubtful plan? It can hardly be for the money. After all, last year Russia had a trade surplus of about $50 billion. A few hundred million in revenues from importing waste simply won’t make much of a difference.

The explanation for the extraordinary unanimity of the political elite on the waste imports issue is the typical one: defense considerations. In April 1999, the Security Council (President Vladimir Putin was the secretary of the Security Council at that time) ordered the Nuclear Power Ministry to speed up the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, including so-called "penetrators." These weapons are designed to burrow down tens of meters underground before exploding. The Security Council also ordered the development of a new generation of very low-yield tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons.

Immediately after Putin announced the Security Council decision, Adamov began to clamor for foreign nuclear waste and a bill was introduced in the Duma. In May 1999, Adamov told a conference: "They told us to accelerate military nuclear programs, but said we should do that using our own sources of revenue." In effect that meant the only way Russia can develop a new generation of weapons is if the West is willing to pay for it by dumping its nuclear waste here.

The gist of the Adamov plan — to make the West pay for a new generation of nukes that may be eventually used against it — has clearly captured the imagination of the Russian elite. During the Duma debate last month, leading Communist deputy and former Politburo member Anatoly Lukyanov said that anyone opposing the nuclear waste bill must be an "American agent."

In fact, the U.S. government has already endorsed Russia’s initiative to import nuclear waste. But true Russian patriots will not be fooled by such tricks. Foreign radioactive waste will soon be on its way in.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.