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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Bill Debate Heats Up

As parliament prepares to vote on a bitterly disputed bill on importing spent nuclear fuel, a top nuclear safety expert warned Tuesday that funds raised from the shipments could end up being spent on upgrading nuclear weapons and building new ones.

The $20 billion that the Nuclear Power Ministry intends to earn from the import of spent fuel could be spent on arms because the package of amendments set to be passed Thursday allows those funds to be placed in an account closed to public scrutiny, said Vladimir Kuznetsov, a State Duma official and former head of the government nuclear safety watchdog.

The Nuclear Power Ministry, which is lobbying to get the bill passed on a second — and perhaps an immediate third — reading this week, denied the allegations Tuesday.

The bill sailed through the Duma on its first reading in December. After a third reading it goes to the Federation Council and then to President Vladimir Putin for approval.

Kuznetsov told a news conference that any denials are meaningless because Nuclear Power Ministry deals are typically cloaked with secrecy.

"I personally believe that the money raised from the imports will be spent on the creation of new types of nuclear weapons and the modernization of existing ones," said Kuznetsov, a member of the environmental advisory council in the Duma and an assistant to Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin.

"Sergei Sergeyevich [Mitrokhin] and I wrote many requests to the Nuclear Power Ministry demanding financial details about different nuclear programs. … Similar requests have been written by other deputies. But there have never been any replies," Kuznetsov said.

What the ministry has provided parliament are broad proposals for how the money raised by shipments will be spent, he said. The ministry says $7 billion will be used to build new storage sites for spent fuel and radioactive waste and an equal amount will be spent on environmental programs. In addition, it intends to pay $3.5 billion in taxes to the government and sink the remaining $2.5 billion into the upgrade of nuclear facilities.

Yury Vishnevsky, who heads the nuclear safety watchdog Gosatomnadzor once led by Kuznetsov, said last weekend that he also doubts the ministry would spend its earnings as earmarked.

"Some cash will be paid as taxes, some to build new transportation systems, some to build new [reprocessing] facilities and some to maintain them and pay the staff. There will be no cash to spent on ecological programs," he told the "Itogi" program on NTV.

But the Nuclear Power Ministry will never be held accountable if it gets its way in opening a special fund in which to place cash from the nuclear program, said Kuznetsov and Deputy Mitrokhin.

Provision for such a fund is among the package of nuclear bills to be considered Thursday, they said.

"Only a tiny group of selected deputies have access to the closed parts of the budget," Mitrokhin said. "There is no Duma or public control over them. And if we allow the ministry to collect all the revenues from those imports in their own fund, we will never know where the money went."

The Nuclear Power Ministry rejected the allegations as "rubbish."

"This is all rubbish," said ministry spokesman Yury Bespalko. "The fund will be open and transparent. The public and the Duma will control it.

"And the allegation that we are going to make weapons is just ridiculous. I don't even want to talk about it."

However, the Nuclear Power Ministry's current fund — which is part of the federal budget — is not fully open even now, said Galina Anisimova, adviser to the State Duma's budget committee.

She said the fund is slated to hold 13.9 billion rubles ($485.3 million) in 2001 and has "open and closed parts."

She would not reveal any details about the closed parts of the fund.