Monday, June 06, 2005

Significance of Russia's recent acceptance of world-wide radwaste ocean dumping prohibition

The boat on this old Soviet stamp is the "Lenin" atomic icebreaker. It was the pride of the Soviet nuclear establishment, until it was revealed in the early 1990s that when one of its atomic reactors underwent a meltdown, the crew received order to dump it with its spent nuclear fuel underwater in the Kara Sea, in the vicinity of the island of Novaya Zemlya, a Soviet nuclear test site at the time.

The Russian Federation has only just announced that they are accepting the world-wide ban on ocean dumping of radioactive wastes, accepted by the rest of the international community in 1993. Twelve years on, it is a relief, and a source of pride for those of us who were instrumental in making it happen, to know that the world-wide permanent prohibition on the dumping of radioactive waste is legally-binding universally; for the 81 Contracting Parties to the London Convention, as well as for the 148 Parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For the whole world, that is.

The environmental movement lacks success stories. That's why I like to share with you this one.

And also because -- if someone wants to take them on -- it represents a wonderful opportunity to kill the planned operation of floating nuclear reactors by Russia.

As a campaigner with Greenpeace at the time, I was closely involved in uncovering the former Soviet radwaste dumping operations in the early 1990s. At that time, Greenpeace was pretty much the only international NGO operating in the former Soviet Union, in the midst of Gorby's Perestroika. And of course, between 1978 and 1998, I was also deeply involved in promoting a world-wide ban on waste dumping at sea.

In 1989, Greenpeace sent one of its boats to the Soviet nuclear test site on the island of Novaya Zemlya, and on the way in Murmansk, the crew was told by a well informed local person that nuclear dumping at sea had taken place and that it was perhaps still taking place.

The Grenpeace team in Murmansk asked me for advice (I had, at the time been representing Greenpeace for a decade at the intergovernmental negotiations held to consider a ban on radioactive waste dumping at sea; as a result I was very well informed on ocean dumping practice and policy). So, upon his return one of the activists who was on the boat, John Sprange, caught me in the bar outside the Greenpeace office in Amsterdam, and asked me if I thought the rumour Soviet dump was useful and plausible information.

Useful? For sure, I said. Because since ocean dumping dumping had stopped temporarily in Western Europe in 1983, it had been an uphill battle to keep like-minded countries (the Nordics, Spain, the Pacific and Carribbean Island States, and Western African countries) alert and mobilised whilst intergovernmental negotiations on whether a voluntary moratorium should be turned into a permanent ban were taking years. If we could prove that the voluntary moratorium in place at the time was insufficient (that Russia was violating it and that no-one had any recourse) , that would give a kick to our proposal to ban ocean dumping permanently.

Plausible? Well, the USSR (that's how it was called, then) always reported that they had never dumped radwastes at sea; I didn't know if it was plausible, but it would be extraordinary to prove otherwise. As long as we had the facts right!

To make a long story short, we were able to put together an amazing (albeit a bit crazy) team of people who ran all across the Soviet Union (soon to become the Russian Federation), from the Kremlin to Vladivostok, from Novaya Zemlya to Archangelsk, Murmansk and Leningrad (soon to be called St Petersburg).

It was all very chaotic, very much like everything in the Soviet Union at the time, but it was "Greenpeace at its best"; it all worked out amazingly well.

A few weeks before the Parties to the London Convention were due to vote on whether a permanent ban on radioactive wastes dumping at sea should be adopted, we even caught a Russian freighter dumping unpackaged liquid radwastes in the Sea of Japan, thereby securing the sudden support of the governments of Japan, South Korea and the US (Clinton administration). Only a few weeks before, all three governments were still forcefully lobbying for a resumption of dumping at sea because they wanted to get rid of their own radwastes at sea!

For two or three years, we had brought evidence of Russian dumping activities at the Meetings of Contracting Parties to the London Convention, meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and at bilateral meetings with many governments. Internet did not exist at the time, so there is no electronic record. But academics can consult at the HQs of the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO), for example, Document LDC 15/INF 18 "Necessary Correction to IAEA's Inventory of Radioactive wastes in the Marine Environment: Soviet/Russian Dumping Activities" submitted by Greenpeace International to the 15th Consultative Meeting of the London Convention in 1992. This and other Greenpeace submissions show that when -- in today's publications -- the IAEA (and the IMO, and the London Convention Secretariat) pretend that they kept track of dumping activities responsibly at the time, they are acting somewhat like Stalin removing the presence of Trotsky and others on the old photos...

This is all the past. Let's look at the future:

The opportunity provided by the acceptance of the permanent prohibition by the Russian Federation is best summarised in Resolution CGR3. RES 052 on the Status of Floating Atomic Stations in the World's Oceans, adopted at the 3rd World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held in Bangkok in November 2004.

In this resolution, the IUCN:

1) urges the Government of the Russian Federation to renounce all plans to construct floating atomic stations, and to make instead an increased use of opportunities for developing alternative safe and clean sources of energy for ensuring power supply of remote regions;

2) recalls the Government of the Russian Federation of its commitment to lift its reservation to Resolution LC.51(16) whereby Annex I to the London Convention, 1972 was amended to prohibit the disposal at sea of all radioactive wastes (that's what they've just done -- good);

3) urges all States to refrain from considering the use of floating atomic stations from any country, and to inform competent international organisations of their unwillingness to accept such floating atomic stations in the vicinity of their territorial seas, their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), as well as internal waters;

The basis for this is, dixit the IUCN resolution:

a) that any atomic power station inevitably represents a source of radioactive and thermal discharges and emissions in its surrounding environment;

b) the need to prevent the proliferation of fissile materials in the world for the sake of promoting global security, including the reduction of the threat from international terrorism; and

c) that any deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures at sea is regulated world-wide by the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (hereunder referred to as the London Convention, 1972), and that such disposal at sea of all radioactive wastes is prohibited in accordance with Annex I of this convention as amended by Resolution LC.51 (16) of November 1993.

Due to the unique dual IUCN governance system -- made up of a governments/government agencies chamber as well as a NGO chamber -- IUCN resolutions are very significant. For it to pass last year, IUCN Resolution 052 received majority support from both the NGO and the Government chambers.

Despite this, to date NGOs and Governments do not seem to be paying much attention to the development of floating nuclear reactors. According to the great Russian environmentalist Alexey Yablokov, the first floating atomic power station in the world under construction in Severodvinsk (Arkhangelskaya oblast of the Russian Federation) is due to be operational in 2005. And talks with several countries are under way on the terms of leasing of such stations. It is still time to stop the first floating nuclear reactor before it leaves the shipyards, but soon it will be too late.

Maybe someone should remind the NGOs, governments, the Parties to the London Convention (and all the members of the IUCN as a whole) of the need to strive for the implementation of their own resolutions.

Everything that floats is bound to sink, eventually. When this happens to a Russian "floating" reactor, it will be too late to be sorry.

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