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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greenpeace Takes Nuclear Waste Debate to Court

For MTState Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin posing at the Krasnoyarsk plant, where a consignment of spent nuclear fuel is being stored.
The controversy surrounding a consignment of spent nuclear fuel imported from Bulgaria last year is set to hit the courts, with environmentalists accusing the company that imported the fuel of exploiting a loophole in the law to bypass new safety requirements.

Greenpeace Russia has filed suit in a Moscow district court saying that the import of some 41 tons of spent nuclear fuel in November from the Kozlodui nuclear plant in Bulgaria is illegal and demanding that it be sent back. The consignment is currently being stored at the Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Plant in western Siberia.

Greenpeace said the state-owned Tekhsnabexport company, which was responsible for the deal, did not submit its plans to ecological experts as is required under a new law on importing spent nuclear fuel.

The new law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in July, allows the import of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and storage but stipulates that nuclear importers must present their plans for examination by the ecological department of the Natural Resources Ministry.

"The federal law demands that such industrial and business ventures undergo ecological examination before being implemented," said Vladimir Chuprov, a Greenpeace campaigner and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "Neither the contract nor the project were examined by ecologists, although Gosatomnadzor [the state nuclear safety watchdog] demanded this in November."

The Natural Resources Ministry's ecological department confirmed Tekhsnabexport had not submitted its import plan. "Nothing of that kind ever appeared here," said the department's deputy head, Marianna Novikova. "Well, there was a call from the Nuclear Power Ministry a month ago asking us to conduct an examination of the project, but nobody came and brought it to us."

But Alexei Lebedev, the head of Tekhsnabexport's project department, said that because the import deal was cut between Tekhsnabexport and the Kozlodui power station in 2000, the new law did not apply to the project.

At the time that the deal was struck, the import of spent nuclear fuel was illegal in Russia, but Tekhsnabexport went ahead with it expecting that a law allowing nuclear imports would be passed in 2001. So now to claim that the new law does not apply appears to undermine the logic of the earlier decision to go ahead with the deal.

Lebedev said the Kozlodui deal falls under a treaty on nuclear imports that Russia signed with Bulgaria in 1995. This treaty cannot be overruled by subsequent legal innovations, he said. "We cannot tell the Bulgarians to pay for the ecological examination because there wasn't anything about it in the original agreement," he said this week. "And the import contract for Kozlodui was signed in 2000, when legislation did not demand the ecological examination of the venture."

Lebedev added that according to the Civil Code, if a newly adopted law does not provide for changes to earlier signed contracts, the contracts retain their legal validity. And the new legislation on nuclear imports does not demand such changes, he said.

The Nuclear Power Ministry also insisted that the spent nuclear fuel was imported legally. The Kozlodui contract was signed before the new law was introduced, and because the new law is not retroactive, it does not block old contracts, said Nikolai Shingaryov, the ministry's spokesman. "There was a special procedure for the import of spent nuclear fuel to Russia that was worked out in 1995," Shingaryov said. "Until the new procedure is introduced, we will follow the older one in our work."

The delay in updating safety procedures for importing nuclear fuel has left the new law in limbo, critics say.

Gosatomnadzor, which ordered Tekhsnabexport to undergo an ecological examination of the Kozlodui project, said the temporary legal loophole allows nuclear importers not to follow its orders. When Putin signed the new law in July, he ordered a committee to be formed to make recommendations on updating nuclear safety procedures. However, this committee has yet to be set up, said Sergei Shcherbakov, the adviser to the head of Gosatomnadzor.

Sergei Mitrokhin, a State Duma deputy from the liberal Yabloko faction who is to serve on the presidential committee, said last week the committee cannot start its work because the Federation Council is late in appointing representatives to it.

Shingaryov said the committee is expected to start working in March and will submit its recommendations to the government in April.

Lebedev said he expected the new procedures to be worked out by October. In the meantime, Tekhsnabexport would apply to the Justice Ministry with a request to clarify nuclear import procedures, he said.

The issue of nuclear safety was put back in the spotlight last week when Yabloko's Mitrokhin, along with two Greenpeace activists and three NTV cameramen, broke into the Krasnoyarsk plant where the spent nuclear fuel from Bulgaria is being stored. The break-in, broadcast in an NTV special report, was designed to show that the country's system of nuclear safety is not just poor but "nonexistent," Mitrokhin said.

Advocates of spent nuclear fuel imports argue that Russia could earn $20 billion over the next decade by importing some 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. But opponents, spearheaded by Greenpeace, have protested the plan, saying the environmental damage caused by the imports will outweigh the financial benefits.