fbpx

Grigory Pasko: A Deal with Some Unanswered Questions

A Deal with Some Unanswered Questions By Grigory Pasko, journalist Today the 31 units of 10 Russian nuclear power stations account for approximately 16% of the country’s electricity production. Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency of the Russian Federation (“RosAtom”) that the proportion of electricity produced by nuclear plants be increased to 25% by 2030. This means that two new units are going to have to be built every year for there to be 42 new units in operation by 2030. These ambitious plans have already raised a storm of indignation on the part of environmentalists in Russia. First and foremost because Russia is doing practically nothing for the development of alternative power sources, but is following a path of least resistance and one of imperial desire to develop an industry that will be useful for military purposes as well.

billiton1103.jpg

The offices of Australia’s BHP Billiton

Meanwhile, the press has already reported that economically viable reserves of uranium in Russia itself are enough to last only until 2015. (Annual production of uranium in Russia is enough to provide for something on the order of 50% of the needs of its nuclear power plants; the difference is covered by stockpiled reserves of various raw materials and from secondary sources.) In other words, Russia needs to buy uranium for its nuclear plants. This despite the fact that there are agreements in place for to ship uranium from Russia to the countries of the Baltic, Eastern Europe, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the countries of the Asiatic region. In order to fulfill the plans for these shipments and to supply its own nuclear plants with fuel, Russia has to buy uranium in other countries – Kazakhstan, for example.OAO “Atomenergoprom”, the state atomic holding company, was founded in Russia in July of this year. Wholly owned by the state, “Atomenergoprom” will by 2008 unite all the enterprises of the civilian nuclear industry under its umbrella. It will mine uranium, produce nuclear fuel and generate electricity, and build nuclear power stations in Russia and abroad. In such a manner, “Atomenergoprom” is going to vertically integrate (ever since Putin came to power, everything in Russia is being vertically integrated) the entire nuclear technological chain in the country, with the exception – as state officials are quick to point out – of the nuclear weapons complex, for which a special programme is being prepared.The founders of the new holding company do not rule out partnering with western investors for the development of uranium deposits in Russia. In their opinion, it is possible that companies such as Japan’s Mitsubishi, Canada’s Cameco, and Australia’s BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto may eventually become minority shareholders in “Atomenergoprom”.Vladimir Smirnov, the head of “Tekhsnabexport”, the nuclear import-export company that forms a part of “Atomenergoprom”, has already reported to the press on negotiations with the Australians. He said that preliminary meetings were held during the course of a visit by a “Tekhsnabexport” delegation to Australia on 13-20 October of last year.Mr. Smirnov underscored that there is great interest on the part of Australian companies in working with Russia.A working group has been created in Australia under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard to conduct an analysis of the situation and prepare a report on the prospects of developing nuclear energy in Australia.On Russia’s part, a proposal was made to Australia to take part in the work of the International Centre for the Enrichment of Uranium in the Siberian city of Angarsk, the first participant in which, along with Russia, is Kazakhstan.And so, Australian intends to sell uranium for the Russian nuclear power industry. In the words of Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, the countries have already “achieved a certain progress in negotiations”.How should we react to such agreements? If we look at them strictly from the business aspect, then our reaction should no doubt be positive. After all, Australia possesses one of the richest deposits of radioactive minerals in the world, but doesn’t have its own nuclear power plants. And besides, a 1990 Treaty allows for the possibility of enriching Australian uranium in Russia (true, only on behalf of third countries).But throughout all of this we can not allow ourselves to forget that Australia is dealing with not just any country, but with Putinite Russia. In a recent address to PM John Howard, Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne expressed concern about the human rights situation in Russia, among other things. “Russia has already beaten a hasty retreat from democracy, human rights and open political processes”, she says in her address.

Miln1103.jpg

Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne

In other words, those politicians and businessmen who want to have dealings with today’s Russia need to always remember that they are working with a country in which human rights are being trampled on and the principles of democracy are being violated. If this doesn’t faze the Australian gentlemen, then I suppose they have the right to do their business with anyone they please, even with the devil himself.But let us return to some other arguments. One argument being heard in favour of a possible deal between Australia and Russia is that Russia has split up its military and civilian nuclear programmes, as well as having placed the peaceful nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring. According to Mr. Downer, this became the decisive factor influencing Australia’s decision to conduct new negotiations with Moscow.Let us start with the fact that in order for this deal to go through, amendments will need to be made to the existing intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Australia in the section concerning cooperation in the area of nuclear energy. Current law prohibits the shipment of uranium from Australia into Russia.

rio-tinto1103.jpg

Rio Tinto’s Australia offices

Next, a few words about all that separation between military and civilian nuclear programmes. Who is able to verify this on the ground, not in mere words, and how? Or do you just take Russia at its word, without checking the facts about the real state of affairs?Australian law prohibits the sale of uranium if it can be used for military purposes. Is Australia’s government absolutely sure – can it be absolutely sure – that Russia will not use Australian uranium in its weapons programmes?RosAtom press secretary Sergei Novikov once noted that “Russian enterprises had a dual designation” and added: “When the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex became a totally civilian facility, it was inspected by the IAEA, and this problem was removed. Now Russia can buy uranium and process it, use it both in its own power generation and sell it onwards for export.”I, for one, have some very grave doubts about Angarsk being “totally civilian”. At any rate, journalists are not allowed there, just like before. I tried to arrange a visit to this “open” enterprise through “Tekhsnabexport”, but got nothing beyond promises from them. Even when I actually travelled to Angarsk, I was not allowed beyond a “Prohibited” sign on the road well before the entry gate to the plant.With the arrival of Putin, the list of dual-use technologies in Russia has nearly tripled – this is one of the reasons for the sudden increase in the number of “spies” amongst Russian scientists: in various regions, the FSB “catches” someone and opens a criminal case against them as often as every three months.It is highly unlikely that even an IAEA delegation will be allowed to conduct a truly thorough inspection of the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex, at which the International Centre for the Enrichment of Uranium may be created.Besides, the Angarsk Complex has been of grave concern to environmentalists for a long time already. It is known that a company by the name of Urenco Deutschland GmbH has been shipping nuclear waste to Russia. (True, both the company and the Russian side have been labelling this nuclear waste as something else). In the words of Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the group “Ekozashchita!” [Envirodefense!], before 2009, when the contract between Urenco and the Russian company “Tekhsnabexport” is due to expire, it is planned to ship another 20 thousand metric tons to Russia. The radioactive waste is sent to Novouralsk in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Seversk in Tomsk Oblast, Angarsk in Irkutsk Oblast, and Zelenogorsk in Krasnoyarsk Kray.And speaking of nuclear waste, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the understandings between Russia and Australia relative to the uranium deal do not include an environmental component. Just one question, for example: how exactly is the radioactive waste going to be processed and disposed of?Furthermore, it was not for nothing that RosAtom’s Mr. Novikov said that “Russia can buy uranium and … sell it onwards for export”. In other words, Russia is telling us loud and clear that Australian uranium may easily find its way into, just an example, Iran’s hands. Where is the guarantee that Russia will not sell the uranium to Iran? Nowhere. Instead we have a statement by RosAtom deputy head Nikolai Spassky about how Iran “has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes”. Here is his quote: “Any country, according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, can develop potential in the realm of the peaceful atom. Iran, after settling the problems with the IAEA and answering all questions, also has this right”.And after all this, Australian politicians and government officials are still not concerned about the imminent deal with Russia?Of course I understand the desire of Australian PM John Howard to make an appropriate response to the challenge of global climate change and, in connection with this, to seek the repeal of laws prohibiting the creation of nuclear industry enterprises in the country. But what I can not understand is why all this has to be done while ignoring certain aspects of the problem. For example, those I have reflected upon here.