Canada and the World

NUCLEAR WASTE

Canada has squandered millions trying to rescue Russia’s dangerous reactors

TOM FENNELL,PAUL WEBSTER May 21 2001
Canada and the World

NUCLEAR WASTE

Canada has squandered millions trying to rescue Russia’s dangerous reactors

TOM FENNELL,PAUL WEBSTER May 21 2001

NUCLEAR WASTE

Canada has squandered millions trying to rescue Russia’s dangerous reactors

TOM FENNELL

PAUL WEBSTER

Canada and the World

In many ways the Cold War has never ended for Nadejda Kutepova. The brown-eyed,

29-year-old nurse lives in the closed Russian city of Ozersk, in the shadow of the Mayak reactor complex that once produced nearly all the plutonium used in the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. A secret place, this city of 80,000, some 1,400 km east of Moscow on the edge of Siberia, did not even appear on maps until 1991—as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Today, fences topped with razor wire still keep trespassers out; Russians from elsewhere hoping to visit relatives must apply weeks in advance.

The city has another distinction. Nearby Lake Karachai is so contaminated with nuclear waste that radiation will fatally bake the bones of anyone spending an afternoon on its shore. It is, experts say, the most radioactive place on earth.

Kutepova’s grandmother helped build the Mayak plant in the 1940s. After an explosion at one of the reactors in 1957 spewed radiation over a wide area, Kutepova’s father, Gayeva, was ordered home from university, where he was studying engineering, to help clean up contaminated rubble. He continued to work at the plant

until he died of cancer at 46. “Nobody told them about the dangers from radiation,” says Kutepova. “They had orders to obey.” The disease, which also killed Kutepova’s grandmother at 58, still haunts Ozersk, where workers often toiled without protective clothing. Following the collapse of communism, Kutepova hoped the reactors would finally be shut down. But the complex continues to function, and may in fact expand—ensuring that radioactive waste will continue to be dumped into Lake Karachai.

It is happening with Canadas help.

In the early 1990s, with Russia’s economy disintegrating, Canada and the other members of the G-7 group of major industrial nations agreed to pump hundreds of millions of dollars

into the former Soviet Unions dangerously rundown nuclear sector. With memories of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear complex still fresh, the goal was to prevent another disaster by shutting down as many decrepit reactors as possible, stabilizing others and establishing a responsible regulatory system. Over the last 10 years, Canada has put almost $90 million into the project. But Macleans has learned that much of that money has disappeared into the Russian bureaucracy, and in some cases was even used to expand an already dangerous industry without effecting new safeguards. Yet Canada, as part of an initiative with the other G-7 members, is now planning to give even more funds—as much as $300 million—to the Russian nuclear sector. In this case, the money will go to a proposed, and controversial, international program that will expand the Mayak complex. Under the plan, plutonium from nuclear weapons in Russia and the Soviet Unions former satellite countries will be shipped to the Mayak plant. There, it will be reprocessed into mixed oxides, or so-called MOX nuclear fuel. That fuel will

be used in 40 new reactors now in the planning stages across Russia—which would utilize 30-year-old technology considered unsafe by western countries.

The proposal has been condemned by some Russians. “The Canadian government wants to spend money on this dangerous plan, but pollution from the nuclear plants here will only increase,” Kutepova told Macleans. And before Canada extends Moscow any more money, Toronto Liberal MP Bill Graham, who chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, says Russia should be asked to account for the missing money and explain clearly what it intends to do with Canadian financial aid in the future. Graham’s committee, which grilled foreign affairs officials over the Russian debacle last week in Ottawa, will get a chance to put questions directly to Russian legislators when a delegation, headed by Gennady Seleznev, chairman of the Russian Duma, visits the Canadian capital on June 27. “The Russians say, ‘Give us the money,’ ” said

Graham. “But then you don’t know where the money goes.”

Have Canadian taxpayers been duped into financing the dangerous expansion of Russia’s nuclear program, and continued operation of Ozersk’s nuclear factories? Even top officials with the Canadian International Development Agency, the federal body that funnelled much of the money into the Russian program, admit it has largely been a failure. Some of the money has gone into the planned construction of the new reactors, considered unsafe by western experts. Or, instead of being used to shut down or refurbish decrepit Chernobyl-style Russian reactors, the funds have kept them running. It is a dangerous course. At Chernobyl in Ukraine, one of four reactors exploded on April 26, 1986, sending a massive radioactive cloud across Europe. More than

4.000 people who took part in the attempt to clean up the contaminated Chernobyl site have died, while another

40.000 are ill or disabled. And experts believe the threat of another such accident is very real.

During the communist era, Russia’s nuclear industry was shrouded in secrecy. With the fall of the Soviet Union, critics hoped for more accountability. It was not to be. In 1992, Minatom, the government department that operated Russia’s

nuclear plants, became a commercial operation. Minatom also signed deals to export reactors to Ukraine and Iran, which is believed to be developing nuclear weapons, and China and India, both of which possess them. Critics now claim Minatom is operating beyond the reach of the government as a self-regulating, and for all intents and purposes private, company. “What started as goodwill money to stabilize the mess left by the Soviets,” says Moscow-based nuclearindustry analyst Vladimir Sliyvak, “became subsidy money for Minatom to get into the business—Soviet-style, and with Soviet-style secrecy.”

Even though there were growing concerns over the lack of government control of Minatom’s operations, money continued to flow in from foreign governments, including Canada’s. And instead of accountability, Minatom officials have refused to answer formal letters from Canada and other G-7 countries, over exacdy what safeguards will be put in place to ensure Minatom builds and operates safe reactors. None of this would have been possible, says Sliyvak, without help from Canada’s taxpayers. And the fact that more financial aid from Canada is about to be swallowed up in Ozersk, he says, should set alarm bells off in Ottawa. “The Canadian gov-

ernment’s support for the plan to send millions more to expand secret operations in Ozersk,” said Sliyvak, “needs to be completely rethought.”

In fact, little has changed in Russia’s nuclear sector since the Soviet era, Sliyvak maintains. He points out there are still numerous Chernobyl-type reactors operating without basic safety systems in Russia and neighbouring Ukraine. (Only the three reactors that survived the blast at the Chernobyl complex have been closed.) In exchange for western financial aid, both Russia and Ukraine promised to bolster safety regulations at their nuclear plants. But Ukraine has stripped its

While stopping short of saying the money has been wasted, one Canadian official calls the outcome of the program 'disappointing’

independent nuclear regulators of power, while the Russian Duma is now considering similar legislation.

That situation deeply troubles CIDA officials. Doris Jalbert, the agency’s Ottawabased program manager for the Russian and Ukraine nuclear division, told Macleans CIDA’s $27.2-million effort in the two countries to help close the most dangerous plants, along with a $ 10-million push to strengthen public safety programs under the direction of nuclear regulators, have produced dismal results. While stopping

short of saying the money had been wasted, Jalbert admitted the “spirit of our co-operation” was based on the hope the plants would be shut down. “It is,” she said, “indeed disappointing.”

In some instances the money simply seems to have disappeared. A case in point is the $12 million CIDA gave over the last five years to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Mississauga, Ont.-based Crown corporation that builds and markets Canadian-designed CANDU reactors. The money was intended to finance a program to increase the operating safety at Russian nuclear plants. In particular, the Canadians wanted to clean up the Leningrad

Power Station, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, near St. Petersburg. It has Chernobyl-style reactors, which western experts unanimously condemn as high risk. But the Leningrad plant and others continue to operate.

CIDA also gave $500,000 to Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency, GAN. But legislation currently before the Russian parliament will transfer GAN’s licensing powers to Minatom. In effect, Minatom would become a self-regulating company beyond the reach of government. And Jalbert acknowledges that CIDA’s efforts will largely be negated if GAN is stripped of its most important powers. “This concerns us quite a bit,” said Jalbert. “We strongly believe a nuclear regulatory authority should be independent.”

Canadian Alliance MP and CIDA critic Deepak Obhrai places much of the blame for the funding debacle on Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. While the Prime

Minister’s Office refused to comment, Obhrai says the decision to aid the Russians followed the election of Boris Yeltsin as president in 1991. Soon after, Yeltsin asked members of the G-7 for money to shore up Russia’s failing nuclear sector. Both former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Chrétien, who was elected in 1993, agreed. CIDA was subsequently ordered to provide Canada’s contribution. Obhrai says the agency is stretched too thin to properly monitor where the money has gone. Given that essential weakness, he wonders, what was there to keep the Russians following “the CIDA guide-

lines in the first place?” CIDA money also found its way into Ukraine’s nuclear program. Some $13 million in Canadian funds went to help finance the closure of the surviving Chernobyl reactors. But

Yuri Urbansky, a nuclear researcher with Ukraine’s National Ecological Centre in Kiev, claims this was the result of a Faustian bargain with the Ukrainian government. Kiev only agreed to close the remaining Chernobyl reactors, he said, after winning financing from Canada and other western countries that allowed it to finish building two other Soviet-vintage reactors—which would also not meet western standards.

In Ozersk, under the proposed international plan, the Minatom-owned nuclear facility will be expanded to produce MOX fuel. Canada has been deeply involved in the scheme from the outset: CIDA gave a $ 1.75-million grant to AECL in 1996 to study the feasibility of manufacturing MOX fuel at the complex. If the project goes ahead after a review this summer, western nations, including Canada, would be expected to spend up to $2.5 billion to develop the expanded facility. Canada would contribute hundreds of millions of dollars, but Graham warns that the plan should not proceed without strict oversight. “There is no question about it,” the MP said. “We should not go into one of these things without complete and total monitoring and controls.”

Objections to the program appear to be spreading in Canada. Foreign affairs spokesman Carl Schwenger said the department has already received more than 100 letters of concern. But he said the western countries want to help the Russian nuclear industry so it can effectively reprocess thousands of warheads, in this case, into nuclear fuel. “Our position,” said Schwenger, “is that when the program is implemented in Russia there will need to be credible assurance that nuclear safety and environmental protection will receive the highest priority.” Easy to say. CIDA officials may be wondering if Russia will ever live up to its nuclear promises. El