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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Minister Ousted

President Vladimir Putin sacked Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov at a time when the minister was coming under mounting pressure for alleged corruption, abuse of office and a controversial plan to import spent nuclear fuel for storage.

As his replacenment, Putin plucked career nuclear official Alexander Rumyantsev from his post as head of the Moscow-based Kurchatov Institute, Russia's oldest nuclear research center.

Lawmakers and environmental activists hailed the ouster of Adamov as a positive step but questioned whether the appointment of Rumyantsev would bring any changes to the policies of the Nuclear Power Ministry.

Rumyantsev himself was vague about his plans Wednesday. He said that developing the nuclear industry would be a priority.

"My first steps will be to study the situation," Rumyantsev was quoted by Interfax as saying. "I have been working in the industry for 32 years. It is like a home to me, but all the same I must find out everything about what is going on."

Adamov's import plan — which envisions Russia raising $20 billion over 12 years by accepting 20,000 tons of spent fuel — would also have to be examined, he said.

"[The project] is expedient … but we must thoroughly discuss the exact way in which it could be implemented," Rumyantsev told ORT television Wednesday night.

Adamov made no comment about his ouster Wednesday.

Putin praised Adamov at the same Cabinet meeting at which he announced his dismissal. "[Adamov] did a lot to strengthen the industry" and that is "a fact," Putin said.

But Adamov remains at the center of an investigation into whether he used his post as nuclear power minister to boost the business of the consulting and trading company Omeka, a U.S.-based firm in which he also owns a stake. The State Duma's anti-corruption commission issued a 20-page report at the beginning of this month questioning Adamov's ties to Omeka after his appointment as minister and his purchase of houses in Switzerland and the United States.

Adamov last week denied any inappropriate conduct in his dealings with Omeka.

The Duma report also accused Adamov of firing a number of experts from the Nuclear Power Ministry and replacing them with business partners incompetent in the field.

The Prosecutor General's Office is investigating the allegations in the report and its "work is still going on," prosecutor's office spokeswoman Natalya Vishnyakova said Wednesday.

But Adamov's lobbying for the Duma to pass bills allowing the import of spent nuclear fuel sparked the loudest outcries. Environmentalists and nuclear experts accused the minister of having no intention of safely storing the radioactive material but of looking for an easy way to earn much-needed cash for the nuclear industry.

As anti-nuclear protesters rallied outside the Duma last week, lawmakers agreed to postpone a second hearing on the bills to further examine the feasibility of the project.

Sergei Mitrokhin, a Duma deputy with the Yabloko faction and a fierce opponent of Adamov's spent fuel project, said the resignation was "very positive."

He said, however, that he was waiting to see what would happen to Adamov's project.

"Whether the project will go ahead very much depends on his [Rumyantsev's] position," Mitrokhin said in a telephone interview. "But I don't know his stance. What I know about him is that his reputation is very good, and this is the most important thing that distinguishes him from Adamov."

But Vladimir Slivyak, a co-founder of the Ecodefense environmental organization, said Rumyantsev has already flirted with the idea of importing nuclear waste. Last year, he said, the Kurchatov Institute teamed up with the Nuclear Power Ministry to draw up a plan to import nuclear waste from Thailand for storage near Sakhalin island in the Far East.

"We found out about these plans and spoiled the deal," Slivyak said.

Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former high-ranking official at the nuclear safety watchdog Gosatomnadzor and current director of the Russian Green Cross program for nuclear safety, said he doubted that Rumyantsev would take any major steps to change Adamov's policies.

"They are both from the same team," he said. "They [the ministry and Kurchatov Institute] are only separated formally — it is easier to earn money that way."

Kuznetsov added that he believed Rumyantsev lacks strong management skills.

"He has failed to raise money to dispose of radioactive waste on his territory," he said. "Look, he has 2,000 tons of radioactive waste and 900 rods with spent liquid nuclear fuel that are kept in mostly unsafe conditions on the two hectares of area that the institute controls. Some of the storage facilities are just large pits in the ground!"

Kurchatov vice president Nikolai Ponomaryov-Stepnoi disagreed.

"[Rumyantsev] is a very organized person who always makes intelligent and balanced decisions," Ponomaryov-Stepnoi told Interfax.

Alisa Nikulina, a coordinator of the anti-nuclear campaign of the Social-Ecological Union, added: "If Rumyantsev openly supports the import of nuclear waste into Russia, then that would be a clear signal that the Cabinet and the president also support it."