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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Waste Bill Goes for Key Vote

Scores of demonstrators planned to rally Thursday morning outside the State Duma as lawmakers vote on whether to allow Russia to import spent nuclear fuel and, opponents say, become the world's nuclear waste dump.

At the same hour that Duma deputies take up the controversial legislation, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal from environmentalists on a nationwide referendum on the import of nuclear waste.

At issue are amendments to three laws that would open the door to the import of 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and storage over 12 years.

The Nuclear Power Ministry is fiercely lobbying for the legislation, which it says will bring in $20 billion in desperately needed revenues to build and modernize nuclear power plants and clean up contaminated areas.

Opponents say the ministry has no intention of putting the cash to environmental use and fear the proceeds will be embezzled or used to make new nuclear weapons.

Representatives from both camps intend to picket the Duma on Thursday.

"We can only call the things that are taking place in the Duma a farce," Sergei Mitrokhin, a Duma deputy with the Yabloko faction, told a news conference Wednesday morning. "Ninety percent of the Russian public is against this bill, but the Duma — with maniacal stubbornness spawned by the Nuclear Power Ministry's lobbying — is going to approve them."

"Thursday will be a test of the relationship between the ruling powers and society in our county," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki human rights group. "If this bill is passed, then it will mean that we aren't voters, taxpayers or citizens — we are just scum to them."

One by one, lawmakers and environmentalists told reporters at the news conference that the Nuclear Power Ministry could not be taken for its word and that Russia already has so many polluted areas that it cannot afford to take new risks.

"We have seen clear efforts [by the ministry] to hide all possible evidence that we are polluting areas and this, unfortunately, is state policy," Deputy Sergei Adamov said.

The Nuclear Power Ministry, he said, has long covered up the fact that the nuclear submarine fleet polluted large parts of the Far North and the Mayak nuclear reprocessing plant poisoned the Chelyabinsk region.

Just hours after the opponents' news conference, Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov held one of his own in which he assured that Russia would not be turned into a toxic dump.

The spent nuclear fuel is not nuclear waste but should be viewed as "precious national property" and "a strategic resource," Adamov said.

His ministry has sent the Duma a proposal under which $7 billion of the cash earned from nuclear imports would spent on nuclear power plants and an equal amount on radioactive cleanup. The remaining funds would be split between taxes and the construction of storage and reprocessing sites.

Opponents said Tuesday that the proposal is broad and gives the ministry plenty of room to divert the funds for other uses.

Adamov retorted Wednesday that the figures presented to the Duma were merely preliminary and based on the assumption that Russia would be able to get 10 percent of the world's spent fuel market.

Playing down concerns that Russia would not be able to safely handle the imports, the minister said Russia had the second safest nuclear record in the world after Japan. He said 684 people had contracted radioactive-related diseases and only 56 have died over the past 50 years.

His estimates stand in contrast to the Emergency Situations Ministry's figures, which have been reported to indicate that at least 55,000 people have died from radiation after the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Meanwhile, speculation was swirling Wednesday in parliament that the Nuclear Power Ministry had cut deals with lawmakers to support the nuclear bill.

The legislation garnered an overwhelming 319 votes in the 450-member Duma in first reading in December.

Yevgeny Ishchenko, a People's Deputy lawmaker from Volgograd, said that "rumors are widespread in the Duma that Communist faction received $15 million for their vote in December."

"I don't have any proof of that, but the way Communists voted is the best proof," Ishchenko said.

A Communist Party spokesman denied that his faction, which almost unanimously voted in favor of the bill in December, had accepted any money.

Although eyes will be trained Thursday on the Duma vote, the hearing at the Supreme Court could also have a significant impact on the nuclear bill.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on a petition from environmental activists, who want a national referendum on the import of nuclear waste.

Environmentalists collected 2.5 million signatures calling for a referendum last fall and submitted the petition to the Central Elections Commission. But the commission rejected the petition, saying a number of technical irregularities had been found.

The activists want the court to validate the petition.

But opponents of the nuclear bill are not holding their breath that the issue will be resolved any time soon.

"I'm pessimistic," Deputy Mitrokhin said.

"But I am more optimistic about the vote in the Federation Council," he added, referring to a recently published interview by Speaker Yegor Stroyev who slammed the nuclear project as unsafe.

"I think the council will take the people's opinion into account more closely than the Duma deputies'."