Radioactive Money

RAO+The question of the importation and burial of radioactive waste from other countries on the territory of Kazakhstan first attracted the attention of the general public and the national population after the state-run company Kazatomprom “attempted, through a group of parliamentary deputies, to initiate a law on the import of low and mid-level radioactive substances” (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, October 10, 2001).

The need to amend existing legislation was based on the possibility “of using extra-budgetary sources to finance a series of measures for normalizing the situation with regard to radiation,” which, in turn, would lead to “an improvement in socioeconomic conditions” in the country.

From 1991 through 1997, despite the fact that Kazakhstan’s economic situation was worse than now, the question of obtaining money by such means was never raised on an official level. In 1992, the resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers “On Urgent Measures to Improve Radiation Conditions in the Republic of Kazakhstan” (no. 1103, December 31, 1992) was issued, which stated, “The State Committee on the Economy and the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in developing their annual forecasting and budget plans, shall stipulate the allocation of full financing for environmental protection work concerning radio-ecology.”

In 1997, the laws “On the Use of Atomic Energy” and “On Environmental Protection” were adopted, which prohibited the import of radioactive waste from foreign countries (Article 3, point 1, and Article 57, respectively). The law “On Environmental Protection” largely repeated Article 42 of the 1991 “Law on Environmental Protection in the Kazakh SSR.”

At the present time, when the economy is improving (“On the State of the Nation…”) and long-awaited revenues from the extraction of oil have begun to arrive, the position of Kazakhstan’s ruling circles regarding the import and storage of radioactive waste from other countries on the territory of Kazakhstan has completely reversed itself. In order to solve the nation’s problems, whose severity was already recognized at the beginning of the 1990s, the government suddenly and urgently requires money, which, in the opinion of some parliamentary deputies and the leadership of Kazatomprom, must be earned at any cost. Is this not evidence that the government’s 1992 resolution and other, earlier legal acts, are simply not being fulfilled? As a result, new doubts arise: will the money obtained from the import and storage of radioactive waste from foreign countries in fact be used to improve radioactive conditions in Kazakhstan?

Environmental and Economic Policy

What on earth can explain such frequent shifts in direction?

In the last ten years, no environmental policy confirmed by Parliament has been developed in Kazakhstan. At the same time, the economic policy pursued—one increasingly aimed at various means of exploiting the country’s natural resources—has exacerbated, and will continue to exacerbate, the distortions in Kazakhstan’s economic development. Therefore, the government’s changed opinion with regard to the problem of importing and storing radioactive waste from other countries on Kazakhstan’s territory, as with a number of other important environmental problems, is explained by the immediate interests of specific ministries, agencies, and commercial structures.

However, one “unexpected” obstacle on the path to unlimited exploitation of natural resources has proven to be…national legislation. In order to overcome this obstacle, various ministries, agencies, commercial structures, and transnational corporations have begun to put pressure on legislators with the goal of adapting the law to meet their immediate needs.

It is for these reasons that the 1997 law “On the Environment” was amended four times, and now has been proposed for amending a fifth time. The removal of “uncomfortable” statements from environmental legislation is no exception; other laws have been changed in a similar fashion. This negative tendency was noted by the Constitutional Council in its address to Parliament on March 16, 2001, in which it stated that “…legislation is not always developed systematically…,” “…the stability of the law is not guaranteed successfully.” “Many problems have accumulated with regard to the quality of laws: contradiction of norms, frequent and unjustified amendments…” (p. 9).

As a result of the amendments introduced into environmental legislation over the past four years, the economic mechanism for the rational use of natural resources and protection of the environment created in the first years of independence has been destroyed:

– The Fund for the Protection of Nature has been liquidated, which confirms once again the corrected of the World Bank’s conclusions that the effectiveness of the work of environmental funds “depends on capable administration of the funds and opportunities for state regulation of legal enforcement” (“Draft…,” point 121);

– The new Tax Code legalizes accelerated amortization for resource-extracting industries, creating a hidden form of subsidies for commercial companies, and above all for the oil industry (Article 110), and effectively stimulating the exploitation of natural resources; previously, in accordance with the 1991 “Law of the Kazakh SSR on Protection of the Natural Environment in the Kazakh SSR” (Article 32), accelerated amortization was used to stimulate environmental protection activities, but this article was removed from the 197 law “On Environmental Protection”;

– Payments for the protection and restoration of natural resources were not included in the new Tax Code (Article 62);

– The question of repairing environmental damage inflicted by previous activity failed to receive due clarification in the 1997 law “On Environmental Protection” (Article 51, point 3);

– The role of public environmental expert analysis was effectively reduced to zero in 1997; according to the law “On Environmental Protection” passed in that year, “the conclusions of expert analysis are intended to provide information and recommendations”;

– “Unclear ownership rights,” including the right to ownership of natural resources, have thus far presented a serious obstacle on the path to the formation of a market economy. This fact is noted in the World Bank’s draft environmental strategy for Europe and Central Asia. In particular, the Bank’s draft states that “increased ‘transparency’ of the legal and regulatory base, particularly with regard to changes in property rights, the price of natural resources, export-import licenses, waiving of fines for pollution, and so forth” (point 65).

All of the amendments list above, as well as unsatisfactory observance of the law, have led to a redistribution of monetary flows, which explains the lack of funds needed to finance environmental protection activities. It has been proposed that this “deficit” be compensated using the planned revenues obtained from the import, storage, and burial of radioactive waste. Our republic’s natural environment and resources have become small change in the battle to compete on the international markets, one of the ways to attract foreign investment. The concept of “environmental policy” has been erased from Kazakhstan’s political lexicon.

Such deliberate destruction of the economic mechanism for the rational use of natural resources and protection of the environment clearly demonstrates how a one-sided focus on economic priorities, without taking into account their interrelationship with environmental ones, engenders new and even more difficult problems.

Dubious Priorities

In describing their future plans for the country’s development, the ruling elite has staked their hopes on Kazakhstan’s rich natural resources, although it would be more correct to speak of the country’s rich mineral resources. Not a single sensible-minded politician can be found who would not admit that Kazakhstan faces a plethora of severe environmental problems: soil degradation, insufficient water resources, chemical pollution, desertification, and others. The national leadership’s decision to count on Kazakhstan’s rich natural resources as a means for economic development has thus long raised doubts among specialists.

In the opinion of experts from the World Bank: “Despite Kazakhstan’s wealth of natural resources, environmental problems may limit the country’s existing potential for economic growth” (Kazakhstan: Priority Directions…, p. iii). “Even such resource-rich countries as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan may become the victims of instability, which will arise if revenues from the use of those resources are not directed toward social development,” United Nations Development Program researchers assert (Verkhailen et al., p. 8).

It would seem as though such critical evaluations should be taken into account, and the fact that even the environmental space of the ninth largest country in the world is not unlimited should be seriously considered. An environment beneficial for life has become an increasing rarity in our republic, shrinking like wet leather. Alas, however, no attention is paid to the critics, and we have become witnesses to a new and more refined approach to land use in Kazakhstan: the development of a plan for burying foreign waste on its territory. Are there really no “better” places on earth for burying foreign radioactive waste than in Kazakhstan!?

Human Rights

Finally, human rights are no longer an obstacle to the adoption of such fateful decisions. Many parliamentary deputies, members of government, officials, entrepreneurs, and specialists, as before, consider socioeconomic and environmental problems without paying attention to human rights. At the same time, the acknowledgement, observance, and defense of human rights are a necessary condition for the development of democracy.

The international legal aspect of the problem does not bother our leaders either. The “softening” of laws and the “removal of formal limitations existing in current legislation” proposed by a group of deputies mean that Kazakhstan’s acceptance of international obligations in the sphere of human rights in no more than a formality. The 8th, 11th, 14th, and 15th principles of the Rio Declaration, which call, in particular, for states to pass effective legislation with regard to the environment and implement broad measures for its protection, are ignored. The fact that all of this is occurring at the same time as Kazakhstan’s preparations to take part in the UN’s “Rio 92+10” conference on sustainable development (Johannesburg, 2002) is highly significant.

On October 23, 2000, Kazakhstan ratified the Aarhus Convention on access to information, participation by the public in decision-making, and access to legal proceedings on environmental questions. Joining this convention further obligates the country’s leadership to decide whether or not to import and store foreign radioactive waste only with the wide participation of the public in the process. At the same time, the population and public should receive all information needed “for making decisions” in a form “useful for decision-making” (Agenda 21, Article 40). Any other method of decision-making violates Articles 6 and 7 of the Aarhus Convention and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, which states that “environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens…”

Finally, it must not be forgotten that Kazakhstan signed the Charter for European Security, adopted by the OSCE in Istanbul in 1999. In doing so, Kazakhstan took upon itself the obligation “to counter such threats to security as violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” (Article 19).

At a Crossroads — Again

Discussion of plans for the import, storage, and burial of radioactive waste on the territory of Kazakhstan once more demonstrates the conflict between the supporters of two contrasting models for the republic’s socioeconomic development.

The first model can be defined as “market extremism.” Its essence lies in the following characteristics:

– an orientation toward short-term economic benefits;

– an economy aimed at obtaining profit at any cost (through the import and storage of foreign radioactive waste, for instance);

– the use of natural riches as bargaining chips in the competitive battle for the international market (for example, Kazakhstan possesses a large territory, on which foreign radioactive waste can be safely buried);

– disregard for human rights, observance of the law, international obligations, and the country’s international prestige (for example, national legislation is “a formal limitation,” and no more than that).

The second model is aimed at the creation of a law-guided state, based on observance of human rights and legality, fulfillment of international obligations, and use of the market mechanism to achieve sustainable development.

Officially, our republic has proclaimed its devotion to the idea of a state guided by the law. In fact, however, a battle is underway between the supporters of the two aforementioned models for development.

On October 19-20, 2001, a conference entitled “The Import and Burial of Radioactive Waste in the Republic of Kazakhstan: A Dialogue Between Government and Civil Society” took place in Almaty. The conference was organized by the OSCE, the state nuclear power company Kazatomprom, and the Tabighat (Nature) Ecological Union.

The conference participants unanimously acknowledged that Kazakhstan has enough money for the burial of its own radioactive waste. However, neither Parliament, nor the government, nor Kazatomprom can control the monetary flows — a fact that, incidentally, is a secret to no one. Government officials present at the conference listed corruption, the shadow economy, and the flawed tax system as reasons for the current situation. Rather than take radical measures to solve the problem, however, they proposed earning money another way. Easier to import waste than remove corruption! The acknowledgement of this fact was the main result of the conference.

The high level of corruption in Kazakhstan is confirmed by the research of the international organization Transparency International, carried out the start of 2001. As a result of Transparency International’s study, a list of 91 countries was compiled. Countries appearing on the list were ranked according to an “index of perception of corruption.” The first three places were occupied by Finland, Denmark, and New Zealand, possessing minimal corruption. Kazakhstan shared the 71st slot with India, Honduras, and Uzbekistan (“Transparency Kazakhstan Presents…”). In addition, in the course of the research it was established that the higher the level of corruption within a country, the more significant the level of pollution and environmental destruction there (Panorama, February 9, 20001).

Thus, a discussion of the question of importing and burying radioactive waste clearly shows that this issue, which at first glance may seem a private one, is in fact connected to an entire series of crucial and unresolved political, socioeconomic, and environmental problems of our republic. Efforts by government officials to present the problem as a purely technical one, and to solve it by means of “insignificant” changes to existing legislation, are only one more proof of the failure to respect the people’s right to live in a beneficial environment, and their right of access to natural resources, information, and the making of environmentally significant decisions in Kazakhstan.

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References (in Russian):

Verkhaien, T., Sirotkin, S., and Kozakov, A., “Democracy’s Offspring in Conflict with Soviet Heritage and Local Traditions”, State Administration in Transitional Economies, June 2001, pp. 1-17.

Kazakhstan: Priority Directions for Development and a Proposed Propgram for Action, Dept. for Central Asian Countries, World Bank, 2001.

“‘On the State of the Nation and the Main Directions of Domestic and Foreign Policy in 2002’: Annual Address of the President of the Republic to the People of Kazakhstan”, Kazakhstanskaya pravda, Sept. 4, 2001.

Address of the Constitutional Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the State of Constitutional Legality in the Republic”, Astana, 2001.

Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Kazakhstan no. 1103, “On Urgent Measures for Improving Radiation Conditions in the Republic of Kazakhstan”, December 31, 1992.

“Draft Environmental Strategy of the World Bank for the Region of Europe and Central Asia”, Aug. 15, 2000.

“Transparency Kazakhstan Presents the Index of Perception of Corruption for 2001”, For a Society Without Corruption, no. 1 (6), pp. 4-7.

Sergei Kuratov
Ecological Society Green Salvation

December 22, 2001

Translated from the Russian by Glenn Kempf