Nobody wants to have radioactive materials stored in their own backyard. But is shipping the waste from nuclear power plants all the way to Siberia a viable (or even ethical) solution?
Some 65 miles downstream from Lake Baikal, the city of Angarsk, Russia is shaping up to become the next battleground over how to dispose of nuclear waste. Activists in Angarsk are already engaged in a campaign to halt the expansion of a uranium enrichment plant. Now, they fear that government plans to enrich atomic fuel might lead to the massive importation of nuclear waste from countries around the globe. Environmentalists’ fears center on a proposed agreement between the Russian and American governments that could help set up Siberia as a permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuels. The unique ecosystem to the west of Lake Baikal, already abused by other heavy industries, faces a new threat.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Siberia is not a wasteland. With almost a quarter of all the liquid freshwater in the world, Lake Baikal – the planet’s deepest lake – is a global treasure. The lake is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which are found nowhere else. Local residents fear that an accident during transport or storage of nuclear waste could lead to radioactive contamination that would ruin this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nuclear power has been on the wane for a generation. One of the major reasons for this is that the industry has still not found a way to store the spent nuclear fuel that will remain dangerously radioactive for at least 10,000 year after use.
A large nuclear reactor produces about 25 tons of spent fuel each year. The US alone has amassed about 45,000 tons of spent fuel from its nuclear reactors, about a quarter of all the waste worldwide. And most of this radioactive material remains in temporary storage facilities – until, that is, it can find a more permanent home.
Siberia – isolated, impoverished – may appear to some as the ideal place to set up a permanent storage site for the world’s nuclear waste.
In May, US and Russian negotiators signed the US-Russia Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation that would allow for the shipment of nuclear fuel to Russia. Currently, it is against US law to ship to Russia any nuclear fuel of US origin. The new agreement would change that, and give other countries an opportunity to dispose of their nuclear waste in Russia as long as their fuel originally came from the US.
Some US policy makers see the new arrangement as a way to finally resolve the issue of spent radioactive waste while at the same time strengthening anti-weapons proliferation programs. Having a large global repository would supposedly be safer and cheaper, and guard against radioactive materials falling into the wrong hands. For the Russians – especially profiteers in Moscow – the plan is yet another way to make money off of the country’s vastness.
It is no secret that Russia has become the land of the oligarch, a place full of schemes to get rich quick. In the last decade, profits from Russia’s petroleum and natural gas industries have created a new class of nouveau riche who apparently have no qualms about auctioning off their country’s resources to the highest bidder. And now some in Moscow feel that it would be just as easy to sell the supposed “wastelands” of Siberia as a perfect place to dump the world’s nuclear wastes.
Expanding spent fuel storage at Lake Baikal would give a boost to the country’s own nuclear industry. Russia plans to expand the number of its own reactors from the 31 currently operating to 59. Offering to store wastes at Baikal could also prove a boon to Russia’s program of designing and building nuclear reactors for other countries, since the Russians will then be able to take spent fuel off their customers’ hands.
Communities living in the Lake Baikal region have reacted furiously to the proposal. Local environmentalists say that accidents during shipment or processing could do massive damage to the lake region. During Soviet times, there were several incidents where nuclear materials spilled into the environment as a result of train accidents. And since the proposal is to construct an international repository, the dangers are not limited to Russia: Any ocean transport of radioactive waste is also filled with risks.
Opponents also say that Russian technologies for enrichment and storage are certainly not superior to the processes used in other countries, and that therefore the danger to the environment – and the health of area residents – would be greater than at other proposed repository sites around the world. Opponents of the plan complain that even before the deal has been finalized, the Russian government is working on expanding the current facilities at Angarsk.
The environmentalists at Lake Baikal might be able to halt the expansion of the uranium enrichment and storage plant at Angarsk. Many of them are the same people who spearheaded the successful effort to redirect a major oil and gas pipeline out of the lake’s watershed.
There is little doubt, however, that these Siberian activists will need international support. In the last few months, the Russian government has clamped down on local environmentalists protesting against the expansion at Angarsk. They have harassed the families of these environmentalists, arrested several on trumped-up charges, and held them in jail without trial for months at a time. The opportunities for making a fortune by importing nuclear materials are just too tempting to allow some local folks to get in the way.
Still, locals remain staunchly opposed to these developments, despite empty promises that these nuclear facilities will provide more jobs to bolster the sagging economy. Reaction can be summed up by a local activist: “I guess our government thinks it can ignore the dangers to our lives here, and to the environment too. With this new agreement with America, I guess the whole world feels the same about Siberia. I mean, how would people in America like it if they built such a nuclear complex next to their city?”
– Gary Cook
As of press time, the US Congress had not yet voted on the agreement between Russia and the
US. If you think that the proposition of exporting nuclear materials to Russia is ill advised, please contact
your congressional representatives and ask them to oppose this US-Russia Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation
and support House Joint Resolution 85.
To learn more about efforts to protect Lake Baikal, please visit earthisland.org/baikal
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
For $20 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.