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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Town Is Stuck With Dangerous Cargo

Customs officials said Friday that 346 tons of radioactive material imported from Japan has been stuck in warehouses in the Far Eastern port of Nakhodka since mid-December and local authorities are powerless to expedite the consignment's removal.

"We cannot pressure the exporters or threaten them with any legal sanctions," Polina Stetsorenko, spokeswoman for the Far Eastern customs service, said by telephone from Vladivostok. "We do not have the necessary treaties with Japan. It's a legal blank spot."

Stetsorenko said the consignment was described in shipping documents as airplane engines and spare parts traveling via Russia en route to China "and, indeed, they looked like engines." But customs officials detected radiation levels between 2,000 and 3,000 microrem per hour -- 100 to 150 times higher than the maximum amount considered safe by the Health Ministry.

Stetsorenko said law enforcement agencies ordered the Russian middleman, shipping and logistic company Petra-Vostochny, to return the radioactive shipment to the Japanese company that sent it. She declined to give details about the company.

While the Japanese exporter agreed to accept the consignment, the company insisted that Petra-Vostochny pack the 54 engines in special metal containers but provided such containers for only 24 engines. Now Petra-Vostochny and the regional customs service are waiting for 30 more, Stetsorenko said. It was not clear who would pay for the return shipment.

The Japanese Embassy in Moscow said Friday that it could not give immediate comments on the situation.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov began an official visit to Japan on Friday, but his ministry's press office said the issue of radioactive materials was not on the agenda.

Stetsorenko said she believed the consignment of engines was part of a Japanese effort to saddle Russia with its radioactive waste. She said 21 shipments from Japan containing radioactive materials were seized by Far Eastern customs officials in 2001. It was not immediately clear, however, what had been done with those shipments.

Vladimir Chuprov, a campaigner for Greenpeace Russia, said criminal proceedings could be instituted against Japanese exporters of radioactive materials under Russian legislation on contraband.

"Such shipments can be made only within the framework of international treaties and, as there is no such treaty with Japan, this consignment in Nakhodka is contraband," he said. "The Russian Criminal Code provides for up to two years of imprisonment for this."

Chuprov said the radiation levels detected by Nakhodka officials could cause serious damage to the human immune and lymphatic systems if exposure were to last for several hours. He added that he suspected the volumes of radioactive materials imported to Russia from various countries are much higher than those registered by customs officials.

"Very often customs offices lack the necessary technical equipment to examine all shipments entering Russia and the officers are not well trained to detect radiation," he said.