Third quarter of 2002

Basic Safety Requirements Jeopardize Russian International Nuclear Waste Dump Program

Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom) program to build an international repository for foreign nuclear wastes in the Mayak area are jeopardized by a letter written by Yuriy Vishnevskiy, head of Gosatomnadzor, the federal regulatory body of Russia for nuclear and radiation safety. In this letter, the head of Russian safety authority rejects the idea of such a repository on basic safety grounds.

WISE-Paris, 27June 2002

[Posted 01/07/2002]

Yuriy Vishnevskiy’s letter to Minatom’s head Alexander Rumyantsev, translated and published by Greenpeace International on 21 June 2002, reveals that Gosatomnadzor analysis of the project proposal, called “Analysis of the organisation and effectiveness of measures in order to fulfill the current international agreements of the Russian Federation, in the context of the import, storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) of foreign nuclear reactors”, will lead the Russian safety authority not to agree the project. Because of “a wrong conclusion […] made on the existence in the Russian Federation of the necessary administrative and technical possibilities as well as sufficient regulatory basis(1), Gosatomnadzor underlines that “the profit from acceptance of SNF [i.e. spent nuclear fuel from foreign nuclear reactor] is calculated incorrectly”. In fact, when President Vladimir Putin pushed forward the project in September 1999, it was expected that the importation of around 20,000 t of spent nuclear fuel from potential clients such as Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea and China would worth up to $21 billion to Russia.

The project was then discussed in the Russian parliament. The importation plan required that the 1992 Law on Environment Protection be amended, as it explicitly forbid, in its Article 50, the import of foreign nuclear materials such as spent fuel or waste –except from the former Eastern Bloc nations with existing contracts. On December 2000, the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, at the end of the first of three readings, approved the change in the law with an overwhelming vote of 319 to 38 (with eight abstentions). Finally the bill passed the two more readings in January and June 2001 in the lower house –although the votes were much closer–, as well as the Federation Council vote (the upper house of the Russian parliament) and was endorsed early July 2001 with President Putin’s signature.

The process did not take into account the gathering of 2.5 million people signatures to demand a referendum on the issue. The Russian Constitution imposes that a referendum be organized when 2 million sign to demand it, but the Duma rejected the petition against importation on the basis that 700,000 signatures were considered to be invalid. (2)

Opponents to the importation plan raised concern on safety as well as economic issues. In his letter, Yuriy Vishnevskiy reminds that in the sight of the reprocessing of the imported foreign spent nuclear fuels, the appropriate management of radioactive waste arising from reprocessing could not be guaranteed. He confirms “the impossibility of the acceptance of foreign SNF for reprocessing” because of “the absence of the necessary equipment for the reprocessing and vitrification of the radioactive waste”. In fact, the operation of the totally obsolete RT-1 industrial reprocessing plant at the Mayak complex without any license from the nuclear regulatory body, led to waste management aberrations such as “liquid radioactive waste dumping into the shallow waters of the water system”, as Vishnevskiy recalls. Finally, he points out that the safety of transporting the foreign nuclear fuels had not been correctly evaluated as all of the transport containers had not been tested to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements.

The economic issue which is the core of the project is also jeopardized by the Gosatomnadzor analysis, because the project did not take into account either the costs of the necessary modernization of the RT-1 plant to operate reprocessing of foreign spent fuels or even the required waste management installations. Moreover, Vishnevskiy considers that some preliminary work is still needed to implement “in the regular way”, a number of federal rules to regulate the safety, transport storage and reprocessing of the foreign spent fuels.


  1. Letter from Yuriy Vishnevskiy (Gosatomnadzor) to Alexander Rumyantsev (Minatom), undated, published by Greenpeace International, 21 June 2002
  2. For more information on the process: Greenpeace International, “Russian Parliament Votes to Become the World’s Nuclear Dump Site”, 21 December 2000; Environment News Service, “Russia Close to Accepting World’s Nuclear Waste”, 22 December 2000; CNN, “Russia Backs Nuclear Waste Imports”, 6 June 2001

Back to contents