"Over 15 per cent of Russia is ecologically unsafe"

Professor Alexei Yablokov is head of the inter-departmental commission for ecological security under Russia's National Security Council. He recently resigned as advisor (on environmental and health problems) to President Boris Yeltsin. Yablokov, 62, has always been an outspoken champion for environmental issues. In 1964, he received a doctorate in population biology from the Institute of Genetics and Cytology in Novosibirsk, Siberia.Yablokov was one of the few people who spoke out against "ecological crimes". He chastised Yuri Ovchinnikov, vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences for advocating largescale pesticide use. Even Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov took a thrashing from him for having deprived the local authorities of their power to close down enterprises on environmental exigencies. Today, his main target is the last remains of the military industrial complex and, in particular, the nuclear industry. Recently, he took time off from his crusade to speak to Judith Perera in Moscow

Published: Monday 31 July 1995

What are the most serious environmental problems facing Russia at present?
More than 15 per cent of Russia's territory is ecologically unsafe. The poor quality of drinking water and radiation are the main problems, along with air and chemical pollution. Some 75 per cent of Russia's waterbodies are highly contaminated and the full extent of radioactive contamination is not known. Measuring devices, such as Geiger counters, will not detect plutonium or strontium. Even in Moscow, there are over 500 sites where radiation is at dangerous levels and 50 to 60 such new sites are being identified in the city every year.

What, in your opinion, is the main cause of this radioactive contamination?
The main problem is the accumulation of wastes. At many of the sites in the Pacific and Far East, spent nuclear fuel from decommissioned nuclear submarines is simply piled up on the ground, with no storage facilities. There is only 1 facility which can reprocess this type of fuel. But worse than that, there are only 4 railway carriages which are capable of carrying this dangerous material to that facility. It would take us 150 years to remove all the spent fuel from the Vladivostok and Murmansk areas to the facility in Ozersk (with that kind of lack of facilities).

What about other industrial wastes?
The dumping of toxic waste by the West is a serious problem. In my opinion, we may soon become the dust heap of the industrialised countries. Information which I have received from different sources, including the intelligence services, shows that increasing attempts are being made to dump industrial waste in Russia. The treatment of 1 tonne of toxic waste costs US $3,000 on an average in the West. In our country, a tonne of such waste can be buried or dumped anywhere for $10 to $15. Enormous profits can be made by transporting hazardous waste to Russia. No customs posts will help stop it because we can't station a policeman under every tree.

Russia has made heavy use of pesticides in agriculture. Is this causing any problems?
The build up of pesticides in the food chain is a health hazard. Over 30 per cent of the food has dangerous levels of ddt and organophosphorus pesticides. Dairy products are especially bad with 72 per cent of all butter highly contaminated and 42 per cent of milk products for children. The only good news is that air pollution is going down because of the reduced production by the military-industrial complex. But this is being countered by increasing levels of pollution from the growing number of cars. What are the overall effects of all this on people's health?
The average life expectancy in Russia is now 58 years and as low as 45 in some regions. In 1993-1994 it was 18 to 24 months below the retirement age (55 years for women and 60 for men). In other words, babies born today have little chance of living to a pensionable age. Environmental contamination is the main cause behind this and this is most evident from the rising rate of birth defects. Statistics show that congenital defect rates have been growing faster than the rates of other diseases. Over the past few years we have observed a 1-3 per cent annual increase of congenital pathologies.

How can the West help to solve these problems?
Russia does not needs money from the West to solve all these problems. So far, Western aid has had zero effect. It is all used to provide work for the Western companies. Every month $1 billion goes from Russia to Western banks -- we are a rich country! We don't need money but we need your advice on how to keep our money in Russia! We need the Western experience and advice. The West must help us to understand our situation and get involved in our transition.

How effective do you think your inter-departmental commission can be in tackling these problems?
I will only continue in my post if I can be effective. I will resign the moment I see that my security council membership is pointless. The only reason I am on the council is that it gives me a chance to solve at least some of the ecological problems. Otherwise I will join the Green movement and bring pressure to bear on the government that way. So far, the administration has given solid support to the recommendations of this inter-departmental commission. In addition, the government has decided to convene a national congress on nature protection which will be preceded by eighty 9 conferences in the republics, regions and territories of the Federation to discuss Russia's transition to a model of sustainable development.

Are you optimistic about the future?
Russia is now in a situation similar to that of Germany and Japan after the Second World War. Those countries made a spectacular breakthrough because they built a new high-tech industry on the ruins of their destroyed economies. Now we are starting from scratch, and we can learn from the West and build a society of which others are only dreaming. It is clear that we will not build communism -- we have already tried this. But we should not simply copy Western capitalism.

How do you view Russia's nuclear power programme, one the biggest in the world?
problem of nuclear power is very complicated. It is not just a technological problem but a political one. The Atomic Energy Ministry is a state within a state and has always been so. Even the President cannot enter this state freely. It has its own aims and tasks and controls a very powerful political lobby which enables it to take decisions only in its own interest. One such decision was to build new nuclear power plants.

We don't need energy produced by nuclear plants. We should be reducing our energy consumption, not increasing it. We can reduce the consumption of energy by at least 30 per cent by more efficient use and by cutting down military production. Nuclear power accounts for only 11 per cent of Russia's electricity output. We can substitute gas for atomic energy -- it would cost 10 times less than bringing our nuclear plants up to Western safety standards.

Isn't the West helping to improve Russia's nuclear safety?
The Western companies are interested in Russia's problems for 2 reasons. First, if Russia winds up its nuclear industry it will effect the development of the nuclear industry elsewhere in the world. Second, when Western countries allocate large sums for safety improvements in Russia, most of this is intended to go to the Western companies.

Neither I, nor my colleagues who oppose this, are against the use of nuclear power in principle, but we are against its unsafe use. Our calculations show that 50 per cent of accidents are due to operator errors. This increases to 75 per cent if you include the nuclear submarines used by our navy. Even if Western assistance could eliminate the risk from faulty technology or equipment, nothing can change the human factor.

I do not believe that the new reactor designs now being produced in Russia are very much safer than the old ones. We have been told for 10 years that the designs of the reactors we have are fool proof. Twenty years ago, when they designed the RBMK (Chernobyl-type) reactor they said to was so safe it could be built in the Red Square. (It is not so) Both my parents and my first wife died of cancer. I do not want my children to die of it too.

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