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Russia Passes Plan to Accept Nuclear Waste
Country Would Be Paid $20 Billion

By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2001; 12:59 PM

MOSCOW, June 6 – The lower house of Russia's parliament today gave final approval to a controversial plan to import thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel in exchange for a possible $20 billion cash windfall, voting despite widespread public criticism of an effort that environmental activists say will turn the country into the world's "nuclear waste dump."

Public opinion polls have shown more than 90 percent of the Russian public against the plan and more than 2 million Russians signed on to a failed referendum to block it. But the State Duma gave easy approval to the measure today in its third and final vote on the matter, 243-125.

"There is nothing to be afraid of," said Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev. "And as for the stories about us turning Russia into a dump, let it remain on the storytellers' conscience." Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Atomic Energy Ministry that has pushed the plan as a financial boon for a cash-strapped country, personally lobbied deputies not to believe that "we are going to import nuclear wastes and turn Russia into a nuclear dump. We are going to do nothing of the sort."

Rumyantsev's ministry says it hopes to enter a lucrative world market, bringing in as much as 20,000 tons of used fuel from nuclear reactors in Germany, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, Taiwan, South Korea and China in exchange for hefty payments. The waste would be put in "temporary" storage, according to the vague details released by the ministry, for at least 10 years, then reprocessed into fuel that could be re-used.

Outside Russia's parliament today, protesters chained themselves to the Duma's doors in hopes of blocking the vote, but inside only two reformist factions voted against the measure.

"One hundred million people in Russia are against this decision and only 500 politicians and bureaucrats in Moscow are pushing it," said Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party, in an interview after the vote. "This is the best example that we have no real democracy in Russia today, only a kind of imitation democracy."

Yavlinsky today announced plans for a new national referendum campaign to block the measure. But meantime, environmental groups are already turning to a new tactic: lobbying the United States to stop the imports.

Much of the world's spent nuclear fuel – more than 90 percent of Russia's potential market, according to a new study by a U.S. expert – originated at U.S.-designed nuclear reactors, and so Washington retains final say over its disposition. The environmental group Greenpeace today called on President Bush to block the Russian plan.

"Without U.S. approval, the whole scheme cannot go forward," said Tobias Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace International. In a State Department meeting last month, Muenchmeyer said he was told that the United States has several conditions that Russia is unlikely to agree to, including halting nuclear cooperation with Iran and India and no reprocessing of the spent fuel, since it can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium.

The law itself has few hurdles left inside Russia. It must next be considered by the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, and then signed by President Vladimir Putin. It is widely expected to pass the council, which is dominated by pro-Putin forces and has rarely rebuffed an initiative coming from Putin's appointees.

But Yegor Stroyev, the council speaker, today suggested that it will at least be a real debate in his chamber. "One should not think this law will pass easily and quickly," he said. "It won't." Earlier this year, Stroyev called the idea of importing the world's nuclear leftovers "insane."

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