Russian lower house of parliament passes bills to import nuclear waste
MOSCOW (AP) – In a landmark vote, Russian lawmakers defied broad public opposition and passed a law Wednesday allowing nuclear waste to be imported and stored indefinitely. Critics said the move will turn Russia into the world’s nuclear waste dump.
Proponents say the measure will create jobs and bring in billions of dollars to needy government coffers. They vow to use some of the riches to clean up radioactive swathes of the world’s largest country that have been scarred by decades of Soviet nuclear development.
Opponents question whether the money will be really used as promised, and whether Russia is equipped to safely handle the expected quantities of spent foreign nuclear fuel.
Russia’s safety record is spotty at its underfunded nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities. Corruption among officials is rife. And some prominent scientists say the cost of building or upgrading waste reprocessing facilities would outstrip potential profits.
”Our citizens are against turning Russia into an outhouse,” Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal Yabloko faction said during Wednesday’s debate in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma.
Nonetheless, the 450-member house approved the three-bill package after a 20-minute debate on votes of 266-117, 243-125, and 250-125. For passage, 226 votes were needed on each bill.
The measure must pass the upper house, the Federation Council, and be signed by President Vladimir Putin in order to become law.
Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev said the bill would likely pass the upper house, but only after some ”corrections,” ITAR-Tass reported. ”First, it is necessary to create guarantees that this decision will not cause any trouble for future generations,” he said, without elaborating.
Putin did not comment publicly on the bill Wednesday, but its relatively smooth passage in the Duma suggested it had backing from the Kremlin.
While opinion polls show most Russians oppose the idea, there is little sign that the issue will prompt mass public protest in a country where most people are more worried about pocketbooks than ecological woes.
The Atomic Energy Ministry claims it could earn up to $20 billion by importing 22,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel over 10 years.
”I am voting for this bill because I don’t want places in my country remaining dead zones, contaminated by radiation,” said Deputy Yegor Ligachev, a Communist and a former member of the Soviet Union’s ruling Politburo.
Even if there is money to spare for the cleanup, the task is overwhelming.
Russian towns, rivers and permafrost were exposed to radioactive pollution during the secretive development of the Soviet nuclear industry, and environmentalists say they remain dangerously polluted.
Dmitry Ayatskov, a Federation Council member and governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, home of a huge nuclear research center, said he would oppose the bill. ”We have our own waste to deal with. I have firsthand knowledge of nuclear safety problems,” he said.
The environmental group Greenpeace, which has campaigned intensively against the bill, urged President Bush to veto shipments of spent nuclear fuel to Russia.
The group said 92.5 percent of the radioactive waste produced by Russia’s potential client nations is under U.S. control. The United States has built reactors for and exported fuel to countries around the world under deals requiring U.S. approval for any transfer of spent nuclear fuel.
”U.S. permission for the export of spent nuclear fuel to Russia would be a clear contradiction of the most fundamental U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy,” Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Tobias Muenchmeyer said.
Without U.S. approval, Muenchmeyer said, potential waste exporters would be China, Eastern Europe and former Soviet states that have Soviet-built nuclear plants. But Russia already accepts spent fuel rods from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary under Soviet-era contracts, and they pay far less than Western nations could.
Norway has expressed concern that the waste could be transported by ship near its Arctic coast. Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Gry Haaheim said Wednesday that Norway plans to work actively to get other countries not to send waste.
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