Valery Fyodorovich Menshchikov is a physicist, a member of the Council of the Center for Environmental Policy of Russia (CEPR), and a member of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Program of the Social-Ecological Union (jointly with CEPR). From 1990 to 1993, he was a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation and vice president of the Committee on the Environment, where he was in charge of issues involving nuclear and radiation safety. Later, he worked on the staff of the Russian Federation’s Security Council as the secretary of the Interdepartmental Commission on Environmental Safety.
In recent years, he has been occupied with questions of the legal regulation of problems of nuclear and radiation safety, the analysis of risk in the nuclear sector, and the problems of dealing with radioactive waste.
Question: Do you know of any states that import radioactive wastes from other countries and bury them on their own territory?
Answer: I do not know of any such countries — no civilized countries, anyway. This is, of course an arbitrary concept—the “civilized country”; nevertheless, such a general name exists for countries that care, above all for their people, their health, etc.—it’s a sign of civilization, all the same. The national legislatures of the major powers, especially the “nuclear five,” forbid the import of radioactive waste from other countries. In addition, let’s remember the Basel Convention of 1989 for the control of transboundary transportation of hazardous wastes and their removal, according to which transboundary transportation of hazardous industrial wastes and their storage are forbidden at the international level. Radioactive waste obviously falls under the category of hazardous wastes. I do not know about Kazakhstan, but Russia ratified this convention in 1994.
Question: What problems might the Republic of Kazakhstan encounter, if the decision to import and bury radioactive waste is adopted nevertheless?
Answer: I would like to answer first as a physicist. A wide range of substances with various levels of activity falls into the category of radioactive waste. In general, in the world and in our country, they are classified according to their level of activity: low-level, mid-level, and high-level. They can exist in various states: liquid, solid (we don’t take gaseous materials — you can’t transport them). From the beginning of the development of nuclear power, radioactive wastes created at various enterprises, as well as in the use of nuclear materials in industry, medicine, etc., represent the most serious problem for the further development of this sector. For example, the volume of radioactive waste in the countries of the European Economic Community from working reactors and their subsequent dismantling will total 1.7 million tons. More than 95 % of this volume is low-level waste. All of this radioactive inheritance must be stored for many years within the limits of the national territories under strict control. In Kazakhstan, the people belonging to the nuclear industry are competent and well-educated experts, and what they are talking about is probably the desire to provide services for the storage and burial of low- and lid-level wastes. What state will they arrive in — iquid or solid? Will they be encased in any kind of a (concrete, bitumen, etc.)? What will be the level of heat transfer in their transportation and storage? What radioactive gases will arise in dealing with the waste? There are dozens of questions in the area of radiation safety. The storage of radioactive waste is a very complex and specific process, a special industry, which must operate and supervise storage facilities for many decades (sometimes centuries). For example, in Germany, in licensing storage facilities the same requirements as for other nuclear installations, as well as requirements usually applied to mining facilities, are imposed.
One more problem is the problem of setting norms. Many countries from which radioactive waste might come have their own classifications for these wastes. The International Atomic Energy Commission has one, Russia another, and America has another one altogether, different from ours. Therefore, these scales might shift, and there might be a mismatch. Let’s say that according to the classification “mid-level waste” you’re prepared for one situation, but suddenly it turns out, in fact to be more threatening, and you don’t have a prepared container, protective barrier, etc. Therefore, thus far there are more questions than answers. Obviously, Kazatomprom [Kazakhstan’s state nuclear power company] is obligated to present for examination and to the public at large a detailed program for dealing with radioactive waste (both its own and that proposed for importing).
The financial side. If low-level waste can be stored without significant expenditures and large resources, for mid-level waste reliably protected and expensive storage facilities are already necessary. In the case of importing radioactive waste into the Republic of Kazakhstan, as I understand, nobody will take back the waste brought there. It would be naive to think that someone will say, “We’re only importing it for temporary storage.” Hence, it is necessary to solve the problem of a final burial place for the waste. In Sweden, according to its program for dealing with radioactive waste, for final removal of low- and mid-level waste a storage site located a kilometer from the coastline, under a layer of seawater, and sunk 60 meters into a crystalline rock formation on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, was created. The cost of building and operating such a storage facility runs into the millions of dollars. We are told that in Kazakhstan there are already many sites allegedly adapted for the storage of radioactive waste. But if it’s a pit or a mining site for the production of uranium ore, then at the given site the hydrography, geology, and any other natural environmental conditions are disrupted. Thus, the migration of radionuclides along underground horizons, hit them in underground waters, and their spread over a considerable territory is possible. When in the USSR industrial nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes were carried out, they were preceded by the extensive and scrupulous study of the geology at the blast sites. However, decades later it turned out that the geological picture was incomplete and inexact, and that radionuclides are now penetrating, together with groundwater, into drilling sites for oil, gas, and so on.
There are also political questions. I treat Kazakhstan with huge respect, and I consider it to be a truly civilized country, but this will be a unique and very dangerous precedent. For the first time, a country of this rank will accept dangerous industrial wastes on its own territory. It’s probably not necessary to offend African or other underdeveloped countries, but it reminds me of the situation when firms took dangerous poisonous substances their in barrels. It was at the level of deals with any corrupt African government. I would very much not like to make even approximate analogies, but I repeat: it is a very dangerous precedent, in my view, undermining the country’s authority and creating a negative attitude toward it in the rest of the civilized world. The opinion might be created that in Central Asia, too, there is a state similar to the African ones, ready to accept the dirtiest and most dangerous wastes from all over the world.
Question: Is the import and burial of radioactive waste on the territory of Kazakhstan the country’s own internal affair?
Answer: To discuss this question is, of course, the internal business of Kazakhstan. To make a decision, undoubtedly touching major questions of the safety of the population and territory of the adjoining countries—of course, it is better to have consulted with them. Even at the preliminary stage, consultations are desirable. I believe that our non-governmental organizations in Russia and Kazakhstan should collectively discuss topics that concern the interests of these friendly neighboring states. At the departmental level, as I understand, consultations of this kind between Minatom [the Ministry of Atomic Energy] of Russia and Kazatomprom necessarily take place. Obviously, there is a certain mutual understanding between them, and Minatom of Russia may be ready to offer technical assistance. However, we have precedents, when Minatom of Russia, from our point of view, also made incorrect decisions, announcing completely fantastic plans, and each time saying that it was for the sake of resolving environmental problems.
One example involves the delivery to Russia of foreign enriched nuclear fuel (ENF). The magic 20 billion dollars, which should ostensibly enter Russia’s state budget, Minatom’s budget, and the budget of territories that must be rehabilitated, do not exist. And in the coming years, as the minister of atomic energy, Mr. Rumyantsev, recently confirmed in a meeting with ecologists, even further contracts are not expected: there is no market, or it is blocked by the competitors. Hence, we notice a completely different turn of events. Many deputies of our parliament voted to permit the import of ENF to Russia, assuming that huge sums of money would appear and part of them really would go toward solving environmental problems. I think, that the figures announced in Kazakhstan are also unreal. This is visible, for instance, in the case of the immeasurably more powerful Minatom of Russia, which the world treats with much more attention and respect on many issues, because here there are nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, this ministry could not realize its financial and budget ideas, its fantasies, either. People that understand the situation warned immediately that there will be no 20 billion dollars, that, God willing, there might be some small deliveries, but all this was not heard. Today it is a real fact. Therefore, I can tell you beforehand that 2 billion, and 20 billion, and 40 billion, are a fantasy.
Question: Does it seem to you that the amendments to Russian legislation that have been passed, and the campaign unleashed by Kazatomprom for the adoption of similar amendments, are parts of a single goal?
Answer: I think that it’s impossible to say that they are parts of a single goal; it is simply an identical search for a way out of the dead end in which both our countries have found themselves. There is an enormous inheritance from the [Soviet] nuclear programs, above all those of the military. This is characteristic of Russia. Ninety percent of all the radiation problems that have accumulated in the past are the heritage of military programs. It was necessary to create a bomb in an insanely short amount of time, and later the arms race began; in the Urals and Siberia three secret enterprises for processing weapons-grade plutonium and uranium were constructed. Back then the main priority was time. Therefore, nobody paid attention to the environment or to people, even the workers themselves. You see, in the early years they didn’t know how radiation affects the body. As a result, the cold war ended without glory, and the next generation has received the world’s largest inheritance of radiation. Thus, today’s attempts to find money to clean up these radioactive dumps are a normal human reaction, which in Russia finds understanding among the members of Parliament. It’s a normal desire, but we have already become convinced that they are trying to solve it while looking after their own departmental interests. And departmental interests are becoming increasingly dominant, swallowing up the social side, pulling in into the shadow of “non-transparency,” since in Russia this department to date has also been engaged in military development. It is, as they say, “the guys’ secret.” Therefore even the parliament of Russia, not to mention the public, cannot verify the distribution of money within our nuclear department. Here there are obvious contradictions between noble thoughts and their realization.
Russia’s Minatom is not simply one building, where the officials sit. It is an entire government infrastructure, with closed cities, nuclear complexes, a huge number of people, and dozens of research institutes. Here in Moscow, we have more than ten of them. One alone, the Kurchatov Institute, works on a wide range of subjects, including nuclear physics, the programs of nuclear power stations, rehabilitation of territories, and many other problems. It is clear that without this scientific potential, for Kazakhstan it will be very difficult. Of course, Kazakhstan has its own nuclear center, and it, too, is not simply a group of managers who operate something. Therefore, consultations naturally take place, and mutual enrichment through the exchange of ideas occurs. I think that it’s a normal process, which doesn’t disturb anything. Only in this sense is it possible to talk about “parts of a single goal.” However, from my point of view, there are differences as well. In Russian society, including among the experts at Minatom and Gosatomnadzor [the State Atomic Inspection Agency], there is a completely negative attitude toward importing radioactive waste onto our territory. Even in parliament, when the laws on importing enriched nuclear fuel were discussed, there were attempts to remove the words “enriched nuclear fuel,” because society does not accept it, does not understand it, and will not understand it in the near future. Today, Russia’s position is precisely reflected in the new law “On Environmental Protection” (passed in 2002), in which the ban on importing radioactive waste from other states was confirmed.
Question: To whom is the inclusion in the legislation of the amendments on the import of radioactive waste beneficial, apart from Kazatomprom itself?
Answer: I can answer this question only by our own example, although I always emphasize, that our states are birds from the same nest: the political or social situations that arise are very similar.
When the laws on importing enriched fuel were discussed, it turned out that for dealing with public opinion and with the deputies, the top management of Minatom of Russia put forward some very noble ideas. Two of them were as follows: “Most of the money will go toward rehabilitation of the damaged territories,” and “We support the development of advanced technologies.”
However I emphasize, that in the next 20-25 years we cannot process the enriched nuclear fuel, if it comes to us at all, and not from Russian reactors. And that means that for the life of one generation, we will only be storing it. We have plans for storage facilities; there is a half-filled store site near Krasnoyarsk at the Mining and Chemical Combine, housing enriched piles from VVER-1000 reactors. A start has been made, but we can’t talk about any kind of processing. It is a kind of fiction, a kind of screen, that we possess high technology, that we’re an advanced superpower, that the Americans have lagged behind us in this area. Hence, in “pushing” for the laws on importing enriched nuclear fuel, the representatives of Minatom of Russia committed the same error as the deputies in talking about advanced technologies. They really exist, but in other areas. Those that we have in the sphere of processing enriched nuclear fuel are the dirtiest technological processes, from an environmental standpoint, developed with the sole purpose of producing fissionable components for a nuclear weapon. That is, Minatom’s interests were draped in noble intentions, by which part of the body of deputies were “bought.”
The lobbyists’ activity was obvious; it was seen and recorded. And these were not physicists, and above all, not experts from Minatom. Therefore, a naпve questions arises: “Why is it that you guys, with such fuss and bother, not sleeping, not resting, lobby for Minatom’s program? Something here is not clear.” This means that they are, in fact, interested in it. It is possible to create different hypotheses, but I know well enough what a powerful PR structure Minatom of Russia possesses for dealing with the public. It has unlimited access to the mass media, a modern television studio, publication of very expensive magazines for the general public, newspapers, etc. Minatom’s resources can’t be compared to the resources of the critics of its position. It has a lot of money, in order to present its point of view on TV and hold large-scale events. It has enough means to individually explain its position to each worried deputy or fraction. I think that the same situation applies to Kazakhstan. There can be a difference only in one thing: for the last ten years in Russia, another point of view—the point of view of non-governmental environmental organizations and some political parties—was formed all the same, and the public has heard the representatives of these organizations and parties.
One example of this is the preparations for the All-Russia Referendum on Nature Protection, which demonstrated the previously unknown unanimity of the population on this issue. The initiative group gathered about 2.5 million signatures. More than 80 % of the respondents, to the question “Are you for or against the importing of enriched nuclear fuel?”, answered “Against.” Such a result in the Russian Federation never occurred in the discussion of other serious issues. This means that despite Minatom’s enormous resources, the ministry has not proved to the community the validity and financial transparency of its plans. The community hasn’t believed it. It has already become competent enough to sort through the issue, and it understands that the nuclear department has not provided convincing arguments in terms of safety for people and the environment.
Interview conducted by Sergey Solyanik, member of the Environmental Society Green Salvation.
Prepared for print June 5, 2002
Translated July 15, 2002