Après nous, le déluge
— Marquise de Pompadour (attributed), 1757
One can hardly think of a better example of authoritarian short-termism than turning one’s country into a nuclear waste dump in return for a quick profit. In June 2001 Vladimir Putin’s Unity party rammed through the Duma a bill allowing the importation of foreign nuclear waste for storage in Russia. The law was passed over the vehement protests of the (then still existent) parliamentary opposition by a vote of 243 to 125. Opponents of the bill, chiefly from the liberal Yabloko and SPSparties, argued that it is criminal to turn parts of the country into a radioactive wasteland. Supporters, both in the Kremlin and on the pro-government benches in the Duma, pointed to an estimated $20 billion that exporters of nuclear waste would pay into Russia’s coffers.
The United States was supposed to be one of the chief exporters. But the lucrative deal fell through because of the absence of a bilateral civilian nuclear agreement (the so-called “123 Agreement,” named after Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act). The accord was finally signed in Moscow on May 6, 2008. Article 7 provides for the transport of US nuclear materials (including spent nuclear fuel) into Russia for storage. The document was withdrawn from Congress by the Bush administration in September 2008 in protest of Russia’s war with Georgia, but was resubmitted by the Obama administration this May, in the spirit of its “reset” with the Kremlin. The fate of the accord now rests with Capitol Hill.
Last week a group of prominent Russian NGOs issued an open letter urging US legislators to amend or block “123” to spare Russia from becoming “an international radioactive garbage dump”: “If the US Congress ratifies this agreement, dozens of tons of American spent nuclear fuel (SNF) located in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, and other countries could be transported into Russia,” activists warned, “Our countries, as well as the whole world, have already faced environmental consequences of the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, which results in a huge increase in the amount of long-life radioactive waste in the environment. We can prevent such catastrophic pollution only by abandoning the reprocessing of SNF, which in turn means abandoning the transfer of SNF from one country to another.” Among the several dozen signatories of the letter were Academician Alexei Yablokov, former adviser to President Yeltsin on environmental issues, and ecologist Alexander Nikitin of the Bellona Center.
The US Congress has no obligation to look after Russia’s national interests. But with the absence of a real parliament, the freedom of debate and, increasingly, the freedom of street protests in Russia itself, only Washington can stop this floodgate of radioactive waste. This is not only an environmental, but a political question. More than 90 percent of Russian citizens, according to opinion polls, object to the importation of foreign nuclear waste. If the US wants to “reset” its relations not just with the Kremlin, but with Russian society as a whole, blocking the nuclear waste provision would be a good place to start.