Russia’s Nuclear Sites Worry Ecologists

March 16th, 2005 - by admin

Marina Latysheva / Moscow News – 2005-03-16 23:32:33

(March 9-15, 2005) — The environmental safety of Russia’s nuclear installations is a source of serious concern. Who is to blame for this? According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the independent ecologists.

The report about the upcoming inspections of Russian nuclear sites by US specialists triggered a real explosion of anti-American sentiments in Russia. The information posted on the RF President’s official website was immediately refuted. Yet almost all prominent patriotic-minded politicians had enough time to accuse the Americans of trying to uncover our strategic secrets.

Meanwhile, the real problem — the condition of Russia’s nuclear installations — is being carefully hushed up. Furthermore, all attempts by Russian environmental experts to study the safety of the so-called closed towns have been invariably blocked by the FSB, while environmentalists themselves are falling prey to provocation.

Mayak Off-Limits
Recently, Nadezhda Kutepova, a well-known ecologist in the Chelyabinsk region and head of the Planeta Nadezhd (Planet of Hopes) organization, read on the Ozersk city web site that she had been called in for questioning at the St. Petersburg FSB Directorate. Purportedly she met, at a seminar, an environmentalist from the United States who turned out to be a CIA agent. She discussed plutonium handling procedure at the Mayak plant with him.

Nadezhda Kutepova’s organization has for years been pushing to open up a closed administrative-territorial formation (ZATO) in Ozersk that is home to Mayak — a headache for the security services and a professional challenge for Russia’s environmentalists.

In an interview with this reporter, Nadezhda Kutepova said that media reports are inconsistent with reality:

“I have an official letter from the FSB: My organization is not a target of any investigative action. Rather, the security services are trying to block a comprehensive sociological survey in Ozersk that St. Petersburg experts were planning to conduct with our assistance.”

No Charges, but You’ve Got a Problem
The story began several years ago when Olga Tsepilova, from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociological Studies, got in touch with Ozersk environmentalists. Tsepilova proposed conducting a joint survey in Ozersk, titled “Russia’s Polluted Territories: A Sociological Analysis of Their Evolution, Development, and Social Consequences” (based on the study of closed administrative territorial formations).

Studies were to be conducted in two closed towns — Ozersk and Sosnovy Bor, in the Leningrad region, from 2002 through 2005.

In April 2003, Tsepilova submitted to the Ozersk city administration’s security department the paperwork for permission for a group of scientists to enter the city. Yet on May 13, the Ozersk deputy mayor called Tsepilova, asking her to send yet another letter to the Ozersk mayor, which she did. On May 20, however, the St. Petersburg FSB Directorate summoned Olga Tsepilova for questioning.

In addition to her survey plans, Tsepilova brought documents regulating her interaction with the Ozersk environmentalists, contracts, and other papers. State security officials were not interested in that, telling Olga Tsepilova that she would probably be charged with high treason in the form of espionage.

Apparently the city authorities and the FSB did not like the fact that the study was going to be funded with Western money: The project was sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Congress. However, it is an open secret that the bulk of research and production programs at Mayak itself has been funded from abroad. Nonetheless, the academic council at Olga Tsepilova’s institute decided to play along with the security services, dropping the Ozersk project from the institute’s 2004 research plan.

Soon it transpired, however, that the FSB was not pressing any espionage charges. Queried by Tsepilova’s lawyers, Yu.Yu. Ignashenkov, deputy head of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region FSB Directorate, said that in submitting the paperwork for permission to enter Ozersk, Tsepilova provided incorrect information and was therefore refused a pass. That was all there was to it: No one was going to open a criminal case against her.

Then, A.N. Ryabchenko, deputy head of the Chelyabinsk FSB Directorate, informed Nadezhda Kutepova that “the FSB directorate has no objections to your activities or the activities of your organization in conducting the aforementioned sociological survey.” Yet as a result of its questioning ploy, the FSB effectively managed to obstruct an environmental monitoring project in Ozersk.

Election Jitters
Nadezhda Kutepova commented on the situation in Ozersk.

To what do you attribute reports in the Chelyabinsk press that the FSB has once again taken an interest in you?

On March 20, there will be mayoral and regional parliamentary elections in Ozersk. The previous elections were won by people loyal to the Mayak management. Today, however, Mayak’s positions are extremely weak with the plant being investigated by the Prosecutor General’s Office. So the incumbent administration could lose the election. Some of its opponents incorporated our proposals into their election program. So there is hope that the situation in the city will change for the better. Of course the incumbent authorities would hate to see that happen. This, I believe, is the real reason behind the rumors about my being called in for questioning at the FSB — an echo of that “spy scare.”

Yet you’ve partially managed to carry out the research project that was strongly opposed by the ruling authorities.

We’ve implemented the rights-protection component of the Tsepilova survey in four closed administrative territorial formations, including Ozersk, asking the residents of these towns to appraise the local situation. It must be said that as we prepared questionnaires and were going to conduct door-to-door polling, we received threats and warnings not to go ahead with our plan. As a result, we had to conduct the poll by telephone – in August and September 2004.

Will you help the sociologists should a full-fledged survey be allowed after all?

We certainly will. Especially considering that what we’ve done so far is probably one-fiftieth of what Tsepilova wanted to do.

“Are There Any Informers Here?”
Vladimir Slivyak, chairman of the Ekozashchita environmental organization, comments on how the FSB “looks after” the environmental movement in Russia:

I can only cite the example of Ekozashchita to show how the system works. We have chapters in Voronezh, Kaliningrad, Moscow, and Yekaterinburg. This enables us to conduct local environmental conservation campaigns. Thus, we prevented an uranium-carrying vessel from calling at the Kaliningrad port. Then, assisted by local parliamentarians, we drafted a regional law on radiation security, which considerably improved the situation. Another form of action practiced by Russian ecologists are protest camps set up in close proximity to some hazardous site or installation.

Of course these camps irk the authorities: After all, a small protest can always develop into a mass protest action. All of our camps are visited by both the police and local FSB agencies. Sometimes they do not leave until the action is over. Thus, in 2002, in Krasnoyarsk, we were virtually encircled by the police. There were about 100 activists and about 70 policemen on the first day of the action; later, about 20 officers were always on standby around our camp. Local FSB Directorate officials constantly visited the camp to talk to us. The police’s main task is to prevent us from doing something “dangerous”: They are not really interested in what we are or what we stand for. The FSB are different of course. They would without fail record the particulars of all those present in the camp, presumably sending the information on to the central office.

The central office?

I believe that the system operates on a centralized basis. For instance, when we set up a camp in Polyarnye Zori, we were visited by officers from the St. Petersburg FSB Directorate even though the Murmansk Directorate was much closer to the site.

Now, do federal security services, say, in the United States also watch environmentalists?

They do. But there are laws exposing security service operations to public oversight and control. For example, when some action is being planned in such a camp where the discussion may be taped by secret services, one of the activists will stand up and ask: Are there any FBI officers here? If an FBI agent does not make his presence known he has no right to use the record in a court of law. There is no question that we also have FSB informers in the environmental movement, but not among its leadership.

MN File
The Mayak plant, producing nuclear fuel assembly for the Soviet atomic energy industry, was launched in the Chelyabinsk region in 1949. A closed town called Chelyabinsk-40 was built around it, later renamed Chelyabinsk-65; since 1990, Ozersk.

The Mayak Production Association, known informally as Mayak, fabricates plutonium and HEU pits and produces tritium for the Russian nuclear weapons program. It is also the only Russian facility that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from nuclear submarines, icebreakers, and from Russian and Soviet-made nuclear power reactors.

Mayak facilities include plutonium and tritium production reactors; fuel reprocessing facilities; a plutonium processing, finishing, and component manufacturing plant; mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plants; and nuclear waste treatment and storage facilities.

Mayak is also one of the two principal storage sites for HEU and plutonium recovered from dismantled weapons. Mayak is involved in the oxidation and purification of HEU from dismantled nuclear warheads under the US-Russia HEU Agreement. Mayak is one of the few enterprises that is allowed to produce and sell radioisotopes. Mayak activities also include conversion of weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel.

In the early 1990s, a joint Russian-US project was launched here to build a weapons-grade plutonium storage facility. According to some sources, the project is worth a total of $1.2 billion, $400 million of which will come from the Russian federal budget, the rest coming from the US side.

Environmentalists say that from 1948 until 1992, Mayak produced 3MT of plutonium-238 with a large amount of medium- and highly-active liquid radioactive waste dumped into the Techa River in 1949 through 1956. After November 1951, highly radioactive liquid waste began to be dumped into Lake Karachai. There were several serious accidents at the plant, exposing people to high doses of radiation. The largest accident occurred in 1957, when a huge radioactive waste container exploded, leaving a radioactive trail in the East Ural region stretching for nearly 400 kilometers – all the way from Chelyabinsk to Tyumen.

Today Mayak has accumulated approx. 400 million Ci of liquid waste and 13 million Ci of solid waste. Radiation levels at its waste storage facilities are 100 times the normal level, while Lake Karachai is in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most radioactive polluted lake. In early 2005, the RF Prosecutor General’s Office took an interest in Mayak, ordering an investigation at the production association. The prosecutors are principally interested in the way that budget funds provided for environmental security programs have been spent in the past 10 years.

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