No more poison

Russia gets cracking on laws relating to the import of toxic waste into the country

By Sujata Rao
Published: Friday 15 November 1996

russia's Supreme Court recently overturned parts of a presidential decree that gave a Russian metallurgical plant carte blanche to import and store spent nucleur fuel. Though Russia's constitution prohibits the import of nuclear waste for storage and disposal, President Boris Yeltsin's ukase , signed in 1992, gave the Gorno-Khimichesky combine in Zheleznogorsk permission to import spent nuclear fuel from all over the world for "temporary storage and reprocessing".

The plant which earlier produced weapons grade plutonium, is now desperate for hard currency. Protests against the decree was reinforced by revelations that about four million cubic metres of radioactive waste are already buried at the site. The court's decision states that from now Russia will take in fuel only from Soviet-made reactors functioning in former East bloc coun tries like Ukraine, Hungary and Bulgaria.

Russia's problems related to import of hazardous waste are not limited to radioactive materials alone --1369 thousand tonnes of toxic substances were imported into Russia in 1994, most of them under the pretext of 'reprocessing'. Only 19 thousand tonnes of reprocessed waste were subsequently re-exported from the country.

Strict environmental laws in the West, coupled with high costs of water disposal prompted a rush to unload a terrifying variety of industrial, nuclear and pharmaceutical wastes on foreign territories. Targets of the international trade in waste have traditionally been the poorer nations of Africa, Asia and South America. But outrage against waste dumping led to negotiating a treaty under the United Nations -- the Basel convention. In 1994, the convention finally voted to ban waste exports from the 24 most developed countries to the rest of the world effective from January 1, 1998. The bad news is that it is still to be ratified by at least 66 nations to gain force. Russia is yet to ratify the amendment.

As it gets tougher to unload waste in a particular country, offending nations have two options before them. They may either look around for other countries still willing to take in the waste or to export incinerators and other waste disposal technologies. The situation in Russia shows that of late both these factors have come into play.

According to Oganes Targulyan, coordinator for Greenpeace-Russia's campaign against the trade in toxic substances, a major impediment to laws banning import of toxics is the presence of a powerful industrial lobby to which the trade is extremely profitable.

Greenpeace officials believe that as stricter laws are passed in Russia, the process of sending waste to impoverished Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh is likely to escalate.

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