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Grigory Pasko: Different Approaches to Nuclear Waste

Who Needs Radioactive Waste? By Grigory Pasko, journalist In Angarsk Early this year, I spent some time in Angarsk, a small Siberian town just west of Lake Baikal, about 60 kilometers down the Angara River from Irkutsk. I was interested in the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex (АЭХК), on the territory of which the leadership of the country and Rosatom had decided to build an International Uranium Enrichment Center. Inasmuch as 3% of the territory of Russia is contaminated with radiation (that’s an area equivalent to France in size), I was interested in the question: how is АЭХК planning to store the radioactive waste that remains after the uranium has been enriched? And a second question: in what state is that waste which is already being stored on site at АЭХК? In order to visit the facility, I contacted the Rosatom press service. The long negotiations ended with low-level Rosatom officials assuring me that I just had to go there, and I would be met and shown the facility. When I arrived in Angarsk, I was told that the enterprise’s management was not in, and that the question of my visit could not be resolved in their absence. Obviously I knew that they had been lying to me from the very beginning, as they do quite often at Rosatom. In Angarsk, accompanied by journalist colleagues from Irkutsk, I took a drive to АЭХК. About a kilometer before we got there, we saw an international no-entry road sign with the words “Except departmental transport”. “Departmental transport” frequently drove past us – mostly buses with people. We could see a barrier gate and armed security guards further down the road. Without permission, there was no point in driving any further than this sign.

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Photo of no-entry sign on the road to АЭХК by Grigory Pasko.

Back in the town, we had a chance to chat with some of the local inhabitants. Elena, a mother of two children, said that she doesn’t want to live in a radioactive town and intends to move someplace else. Representatives of АЭХК, whom we met at an amateur choir rehearsal at the local palace of culture, were strongly in favor of the creation of a uranium enrichment center at their enterprise. Then, the explained, they would definitely have work and get paid. Radiation doesn’t scare them. They somehow don’t seem to give much thought to the danger of radiation contamination of a huge territory, including the pristine waters of Lake Baikal, in the event of an accident. At the same time, local ecologists spoke quite a bit about precisely this threat to Baikal at a rally that took place the day before in Irkutsk. (I recalled the words of one girl from Rosatom about how “those environmentalists” were, to put it mildly, “not all there”. Or, to put it more bluntly, they were idiots, the only proper place for whom was a psychiatric hospital.) There were a lot of police at this rally, and then a bus filled with АЭХК employees arrived on the scene. They carried posters saying that the environmentalists were working off money they’d received from the west. I tried to talk to these new arrivals, but they refused to answer any questions. But one young man did hand me a leaflet, in which the safe functioning of the center in Angarsk was promised in the words of the head of Rosatom, Sergey Kiriyenko. In Germany In the opinion of the leading independent European expert on the uranium industry, Peter Diehl, if earlier the company Urenco had sent its radioactive waste to Russia with the aim of re-enrichment, getting back uranium, then now the this practice, from all appearances, has stopped. At the present time, the quantity of uranium in the waste of the company Urenco is so low that re-enrichment no longer makes any sense. And this signifies that the European atomic workers are sending radioactive waste to Russia exclusively with the aim of storage. “We demand a stop to subjecting the population in zones of transit of nucular wastes to mortal danger. And storage of waste produced in Germany on the territory of Russia is nucular colonialism, which it is necessary to stop” – thus declared Matthias Eickhoff of the Aktionsbündnis Münsterland gegen Atomanlagen (Münster) during the time of a recent manifestation of ecologists during the time of the movement of a train with uranic materials from Gronau to Rotterdam. According to the information of the group «Ekozashchita!» [Ecoprotection!], the plant in Gronau (the German unit of the corporation URENCO) has been sending waste from the uranium enrichment process (so-called depleted uranium hexafluoride or “uranium tails”) to Russia. Since 1996. Up to 90% of the waste brought in remains at Russian enterprises for long-term storage, which is carried out for free for European companies. The overall quantity of radioactive waste that has entered into Russia over the past decade is close to 100 thsd. tons. On 26 April, the anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, I spent some time with German environmentalists near URENCO enterprises at Almelo in The Netherlands and Gronau in Germany. In Almelo, it didn’t take more than five minutes for the security guards of the enterprise to come running out to us. Having learned that the assembly had been sanctioned and that there were journalists among those gathered, the security guards ran back. As became clear later, they called the police on the telephone. The police showed up five minutes later. Having checked our documents, they smiled and left, having shaken hands with everyone in parting. “We” consisted of the German ecologists Udo Buchholz and Georg Bütefur, as well as a scientist from the Netherlands, Jacob Visser. We spent more than an hour by the URENCO complex in Almelo. In this time, we were able to discern that repairs (or a reconstruction) were in full swing at the enterprise. Then we came to Gronau. Inasmuch as the action of picketing the enterprise was sanctioned, the police were already in place. I chatted with the commander of the police unit. He said that the environmental activists can do anything they want, as long as it was within the law. It turned out that he was already acquainted with Udo Buchholz. And in general, it seemed to me that the senior policeman was positively inclined in relation to the environmental activists. I asked him: how, in his opinion, good is URENCO doing by sending radioactive waste to Russia? The policeman said that being an official person, he would not answer this question. So I suggested he imagine that he and I are sitting someplace having a beer and talking about life in general. And that I’m asking the same question of him as an ordinary civilian, not an official. The policeman thought a moment and said: “The fact that I don’t want to answer your question directly probably is my answer.”

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Photo of demonstrators outside URENCO gates in Gronau, Germany by Grigory Pasko

There is a multitude of such people as this policeman embedded in the system of international atomic relations. Some blindly carry out their duty; others, like the teacher Georg Bütefur, protest against nuclear colonialism and the moving out of waste in their free time from work. In this time, the atomic world mafia is doing its dirty (in the direct sense of this word, considering the level of radiation contamination of different territories) little radioactive deeds, pushing through decisions and laws through unprincipled politicians. I saw how the people live in Angarsk – they live bad. And I think that the people live just as bad in other cities of Russia where waste is going to be shipped: in Novouralsk of Sverdlovsk Oblast, Seversk of Tomsk Oblast, Zelenogorsk in Krasnoyarsk Kray… And I doubt they’re going to start living better just because someone else’s radioactive waste is going to start accumulating somewhere right nearby them. In Angarsk The political decision about the creation of the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk has been adopted. That’s exactly what the leaflet I was given by АЭХК employees spoke about. Like Rosatom press secretary Sergey Novikov said, “Russia in such a manner is making a huge contribution towards strengthening the non-proliferation regime”. At the same time, it is known that the center in Angarsk is being created at the initiative of president Putin. Ecologists are speaking out against the construction of the center, asserting that the interested countries will get nuclear fuel, while Russia will get the waste from the uranium enrichment process. “The International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk will become a direct environmental threat for our region”, considers the head of the «Baikal ecological wave» movement, Marina Rikhvanova. She likewise noted that representatives of Rosatom had promised that if the population and the local administration will be against, the center will not be created. I recall how Rosatom head Sergey Kiriyenko had given an analogous promise in the summer of 2006 concerning the construction of new atomic power stations. However, this promise didn’t stop the government of Russia from approving a federal program for the construction of 40 (forty) new nuclear reactors throughout the whole country.

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Photo of the city of Angarsk, still watched over by Lenin, by Grigory Pasko

It is known that since 1996, from 130 to 290 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride has been shipped annually to АЭХК for enrichment under contracts with the Dutch/German/British company Urenco and the French company Eurodif SA. Ecologists assert that “enrichment of uranium tails” is just a covert method for bringing nuclear waste into Russia: after enrichment, only 10% of the nuclear material is returned to Europe, while 90% remains essentially stored for free in Russia. Around 500 thousand tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride is currently being stored on the territory of АЭХК. The waste is situated in warehouses and on open-air pads and represents a great danger. In the opinion of «Ekozashchita!» activists, if a hermetically sealed container of uranium hexafluoride were to break, this would result in a lethal outcome for any living thing within a radius of 32 kilometers [20 miles], and if such an accident were to occur in windy weather, the radioactive cloud would get to Irkutsk (with a population of over half a million) in 1.5–2 hours. While the people are protesting in Russia and Germany against the plans of the politicians and the atomic kingpins, the waste continues to take its dangerous journey from one country to the other.